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Opera Today and for the Future | Aidan Lang

Aidan Lang explores how opera as an effective storytelling medium offers insight into humanity that potentially can transform an audience.

Full talk transcript

Deborah Wang: Would you please welcome the general director at the Seattle Opera, Aidan Lang. Thank you for joining us.

Aidan Lang: Great to be here.

Wang: Before we start talking about opera, I just want to establish a little bit about you. You are an Englishman.

Lang: I am.

Wang: Come by way of New Zealand, where you were with the New Zealand Opera. What else do you want us to know about you?

Lang: Well, actually, for 35 years I've been a stage director as well. So I came into the artistic planning route parallel to running a career as a practitioner. Some people get to it straight from an administrative point of view, but I've been on stage. I’ve done everything — I’ve lit, we've done all back projection, everything. So this is, as you say, this my home, but I’m used to sitting out in the middle directing shows as well.

The purpose of our presentations is not only to give an emotionally or socially transformative experience, but to do it collectively.

Wang: So, you’re a jack of all trades. You have succeeded Speight Jenkins, who really was something of an institution in this town. He directed the opera for more than 30 years. How daunting a prospect is that for you?

Lang: Well, fantastic to come here following such a well-known figure — well-known not only in Seattle, but internationally as well. I suppose I view that I've worked in many countries around the world, whereas Speight devoted his time here to Seattle. But what we did, we had a very long transition period of six months during which time Speight and I both got to know each other, and we really have a wonderful regard for each other. So we view it as a relay race. Yeah sure we come at opera from probably a different starting point, but we both believe passionately about the end result, which is an intense theatrical musical experience.

Wang: So the theme of this session of the day is through a new lens, and so that's a great way to start with you, because you're now coming in to re-envision this institution that’s been around for a while. What's the Aidan Lang era going to look like?

Lang: Well, during the course of my career I realized how what we do is all about the audience. Now that's easy to say — you know we all say, "Yeah the audience is why we do it," but I understood that the purpose of any art performance is fundamentally to offer insight into humanity, which potentially can transform people through that process. And what I realize is that if you go right back to the origins of opera, it was modeled on Greek theater. And what the Greeks understood — you know in those huge theaters where the entire city would turn up to watch those plays — what they understood was that if you want to make social change or maybe to enforce the status quo of your society, the best way to do it is through an emotional response through storytelling.

Now what happened in opera over the years is that it became entertainment, and it became marginalized from its core purpose. But I think today all of us in the arts sector understand that our core purpose is here in the community we serve in Seattle. And the purpose of our presentations is not only to give an emotionally or socially transformative experience, but to do it collectively. You know you're all sitting out there, and actually what's happening is as long as you agree with what is on-screen or being told to you, but being in this large group we're all in it together, as we've heard about the soup bicycle people, we understand there's an issue there. And the act of it being told to you and your emotional response is absolutely the same as when we put on an opera, which may be in the guise of a Mozartian setting, but fundamentally it’s telling us truths which we collectively understand. So what drives me really is to position Seattle Opera as an organization that is available to everybody and is serious about its purpose, which is the effect it has on its audience and the way they think about the way they respond emotionally and intellectually as well.

Wang: So what does that look like in a concrete way? How would that change how the opera looks or how the opera sounds?

Lang: Well, what I think is really fascinating today is the T part of TED — we serve the E bit and we put design on to get the D bit, but the T bit is really fascinating, especially in this city. Around the world I think it is fair to say the most advanced use of technology takes place in opera rather than theater. And that's partly because we fill this 60-foot stage, so we have to budget accordingly and it gives us the leeway to think outside the box, whereas if I'm putting on a play in a relatively small space I'm just not budgeting myself in order to have the possibility to think technologically. So over the years, there have been a number of fascinating productions and hugely successful productions which have found an interaction between the humanness and using technology on the stage in an inventive fashion. And it seems to me we’re here in Seattle where we've got people in the city who are keen to collaborate with us.

Wang: Gives us one example of technology on the stage.

Lang: Actually, in New Zealand, which of course has a huge thriving film industry, we took advantage of a very slender comedy we put on but we wanted to do it in a deliberately different manner. So we ended up with a production whereby on-stage was an entirely green-screen environment, and above the stage was a screen just like this, and we digitally embedded live the action as if they were in a TV studio acting out, meaning we embedded them live into a digitally created environment. Which gave huge rise for enhanced comedy, but more interestingly, people understood this interaction between the liveness and the technological gimmickry for want of a better word. But the key point was that the singer was live, so we still had that visceral interaction between the audience and the expression. At the same time we were able to give it a completely new twist. And that was five years ago, so we've moved on a long way since then.

Wang: So how much appetite for experimentation does an opera audiences have? It is a traditional form, so how far can you take it before you start upsetting people?

That’s the key — you always have to remain true to the heart of the piece, but if you are making yourself clear, people are very happy to go along.

Lang: Yeah, that's always the question. I am fine if any project is done with integrity and clarity, then people who swear that they are traditionalists come up to me and say, “You know, normally I'm a traditionalist but I had rather enjoyed that.” And that’s the key — you always have to remain true to the heart of the piece, but if you are making yourself clear, people are very happy to go along. If the ego gets in the way of the creative team, then people see through that pretty quickly and that's where they get annoyed and alienated. But I think people would come along for an adventure. And they may think they want to see the same old thing because that's the safe option, but if you pique their curiosity instantly you know that they will go along. It’s like seeing a film — although most films have the same plot, if something has a twist and is different that engages them, it’s the same thing.

Wang: I'm sure there are many opera lovers in the audience, but I'm sure there are also people who think that opera might be stodgy, old-fashioned, maybe doesn't talk to modern sensibilities. What would you say to those folks?

Lang: One might say that if you reduce any opera down to its bare essentials, it’s a series of characters, a series of actions, and a consequence. Recently we've just closed on the stage a contemporary production of Don Giovanni. And it was interesting how all the so-called traditionalists would come up to me and talk about the piece, saying that it is about a rather serial seducer — is it rape, is it seduction — and they talk in a very 2014 way. And I'm convinced they wouldn't have responded that way had we presented it in the 1780s costume. In other words, we forced them into realizing the heart of the piece through the way we presented it. Which is I think our job as an arts organization — to always be aware to make people think. So people were saying, “I didn't like it modern,” but yet were responding in a modern way. So I consider that a success.

Wang: So we've been talking about all the things that are going to change, but tell us about something that's not going to change. You're known the world over for your production of The Ring. That’s going to stay the same, right?

Lang: Yeah, absolutely. We’re in the first throes of thinking about how we do a new Ring, which will be completely different from the last one, absolutely.

Wang: Aidan Lang, thank you so much for speaking with us. We're excited to see where you take the opera in the future. It's been great talking to you.

Lang: It’s been great to be here, thank you.


Speaker Bio

Aidan Lang has been Seattle Opera’s General Director since September, 2014. Selected by the Seattle Opera Board of Trustees after a two-year international search process, Lang moved to Seattle in March, 2014 to effect a smooth transition of leadership from Seattle Opera’s previous General Director, Speight Jenkins.

Before moving to Seattle, Lang was General Director of the New Zealand Opera from 2006 to 2013, and strove to ensure that every production was theatrically stimulating and musically ambitious. Read more