Sjaron Minailo is spreading the opera virus among students

Text: Laura Roling

The task of Dutch Israeli opera and musical theatre director Sjaron Minailo during the Opera Forward Festival is to interest new generations of students from different universities in the opera profession. My main goal? To infect as many students as possible with the opera virus.

Art students have played an important role in the Opera Forward Festival (OFF) since the first edition in 2016. While initially the hope was to create a new generation of opera makers, this proved more difficult in practice. “We work with students who still have a way to go in terms of development. For most, this is the first time they’ve come into contact with opera. So, my main aim with these students is that they discover what opera could mean for their own artistic practice – what working with the interplay of music, text and image can yield.

Debunking biases

Minailo, who has been involved in OFF from the outset, often encounters students with biases about opera. “As the project gets underway, I always ask students what they know about opera and how they view it as an art form. The answers I’m given are pretty confronting: it’s as though people’s perception of opera hasn’t changed since the 1950s. The students have images of operagoers rolling up in fur coats, draped in jewellery, their visit driven mainly by the desire to see and be seen. But in the Netherlands, this is not at all the case. It was such a relief when I arrived here to discover that it’s not about who goes to see the performance, but the performance itself.”

These biases also affect what people think about the content. “The students often think opera is a kind of lart-pour-lart, lacking any engagement, while that just isn’t true. Opera’s relationship to the real world has been clear since the beginning. Take the birth of opera in Florence during the Renaissance, when people turned their back on church music. And what about opera in the 20th century – are there actually any titles that aren’t socially engaged? Even formalistic works such as Einstein on the Beach have something to say about the world we live in.”

Why is this? “On the one hand, it’s the problem of all art forms that have stood the test of time. Take Rembrandt’s paintings for example. We see the craftmanship, but we don’t see that a piece like The Nightwatch also has a certain social engagement. We’re no longer able to ‘read’ the language of such paintings properly. On the other hand, opera isn’t exactly at the forefront when it comes to artistic developments. It always takes a while for them to filter through to opera productions.”

‘It’s as though people’s perception of opera hasn’t changed since the 1950s.’

Video clips

Minailo therefore tries to teach the students how to speak the language of opera and musical theatre. “I do this by finding as many connections with contemporary popular culture as possible, and they’re there. Years ago, I wrote a dissertation entitled ‘I want my MTV-opera’ in which I analysed opera performances based on the dramaturgy of a video clip. This approach has always stayed with me, so video clips is often where I begin with the students. I might, for example, play them the song ‘All is Full of Love’ by the Icelandic singer Björk and ask them what images, colours and textures come to mind while listening to the music and the lyrics. I’d then show them Chris Cunningham’s video clip for the song, which depicts two lovestruck robots in quite a bleak setting. The point is for them to notice how much image and theatrical quality can determine the way music is experienced, and vice versa. So, they learn how music, text and image can be used strategically to create an experience. That principle, the approach, is also how opera has worked for centuries.”

Performing arts

Various projects are being undertaken for this year’s OFF. Similar to previous editions of the festival, the first involves a group of students who are working with opera as part of their performing arts education. “Five teams have been created comprising students studying composition, direction, dramaturgy, scenography and production. Each team is working on a short opera production of around 15 minutes.”

The task these students were given began with listening to a pop song or a song from another genre. “They were asked to think about the images and themes that came to mind. This process of association has resulted in a number of standalone artistic concepts. The original song that served as the starting point is no longer recognisable in their creations, but we did compel them, as it were, to let the musical experience drive the process. In addition, we asked them to think of the process as having three components, which gets them thinking about the development of their piece too.”

Now that the concepts for the performance have been developed, performing artists from different disciplines are being brought into the projects. “It’s certainly not just students from classical music programmes; there are also students studying subjects such as mine for example.”

‘Via video clips, the students learn how music, text and image can be used strategically to create an experience.’

Sandberg Institute

A second project involves students from the Sandberg Institute, the master’s course of the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam These students have a strong theoretical grounding; they’re used to working on the basis of artistic research. That’s why this project has a more theoretical starting point.”

The visual arts and design students are paired with students from the Pop Academy and the EDM (Electronic Dance Music) department. The theme that Sjaron and many of his guest speakers are exploring with them is ‘new morality’. “So we’re starting with moralities: plays that were performed in public spaces in the Middle Ages and reflected on human virtues and vices, like Elckerlijc. Delving into this enables the students to examine the modern-day relationship between art and morals, and art and ethics, and how this translates into their own artistic practice. Critical thinking is essential to this process.”

The result will inevitably differ from that of the teams approaching opera from the perspective of performing arts: “These students are coming from a different angle, much more from the performance art we know from within visual art. But the same holds for them: working with the combination of music, text and image is an important exercise.”

Arts policy and management

In a third project, Sjaron is bringing students of arts policy and management into contact with opera. “This is a pilot project being run on a small scale for the first time this year. In collaboration with a number of universities, we’re setting up a kind of ‘thought lab’. Under the supervision of as well as in sessions with different guest speakers, these students are exploring the theme of ‘tomorrow’s audience’. There are different areas they can explore within this theme, such as the relationship between socioeconomic position and access to opera, or the question of who tomorrow’s operagoers could be. I think it’s also important that these students engage with students from other groups and can use their work as case studies as well.”

The result of this project won’t be a performance festival visitors can watch, but that doesn’t mean the group’s efforts will be invisible. “The group will meet during the festival for a hackathon, where they’ll spend a long session brainstorming and deliberating. The results and ideas generated will be visible to the public during the festival; for example, online or in the theatre foyer.”

This latest pilot project is not where the ambitions of the man who wants to infect as many students as possible with the ‘opera virus’ end: “This year we’re involving radically different disciplines, from stage direction to arts policy, and from EDM (Electronic Dance Music) to mime. But in the next edition of OFF, I’d really love to involve students from the Film Academy. An introduction to opera could add a new dimension to their artistic practice, too.”