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  • Opera and Relational Aesthetics
  • Heather Wiebe (bio)

In 2016, the English National Opera lost much of its public funding, and I was struck by how Arts Council England framed this decision. The ENO had done the most interesting productions I'd seen in London—Calixto Bieito's Fidelio, a gripping Wozzeck set in a contemporary British housing estate (dir. Carrie Cracknell), Simon McBurney's darkly digital Magic Flute—but attendance seemed poor for most of these, and reviews weren't much better. These sorts of productions were clearly seen as being at the heart of ENO's financial problems, but also of their failure to fulfill whatever social mandate came along with their public funding. The Arts Council, announcing its cuts, didn't make this explicit, but called instead for the ENO to make opera "relevant to 21st-century audiences," to transform itself into a "modern, sustainable opera company," and to imagine something beyond "the old year-round, grand opera house model playing to dwindling audiences."1 Clearly the grand opera house model wasn't really the problem, though, at least as long as audiences weren't dwindling, because the article went on to compare the ENO unfavorably to the Royal Opera House, which attracted larger audiences both in the house and through broadcasts, with star singers and (I think it's fair to say) productions aimed more straightforwardly at pleasure than some of the ENO's more controversial offerings. If the ENO wasn't like the Royal Opera, the article seemed to suggest, it should be more like experimental companies such as Birmingham Opera. Birmingham is structurally different, though, in that it has no opera house, no chorus, no orchestra, and very few permanent staff: in other words, low fixed costs. And it puts all this to its advantage by staging immersive, site-specific productions, often of rarely seen works—perhaps most famously Stockhausen's Mittwoch. It claims, in short, to "rewrite the rules of engagement between audiences and performer."2

The Arts Council's main concern was clearly financial, and it's perhaps unnecessary to read any more into it. But I also sense another logic lurking here, which finds no space for regieoper, yes, but more fundamentally for any opera performance that involves traditional forms of spectatorship, but is not primarily about pleasure. From this perspective, there are only two options: either opera is about star singers and appealing spectacle, or it's about performance as social practice.3

I wanted to think a bit more about the assumption that an approach like Birmingham Opera's is somehow more progressive or ethically "better" than other [End Page 139] less participatory ones—an assumption that seems to me broadly shared, in ways on which the Arts Council strategically drew in legitimating its decision to cut ENO's funding. So I turned to some of the recent scholarship on participatory and immersive theater and related art practices, and specifically to a certain skepticism about these practices that seems to be gathering force. A primary target for many scholars is Nicolas Bourriaud's notion of relational aesthetics—the idea of art as a form of "intersubjective exchange" and a way of at least temporarily remaking social relations.4 But their critiques extend to a similar social turn in theater, and could easily be applied to immersive and participatory forms of opera as well. I'd like to briefly sketch some of the forms these critiques take.

One strategy, in addition to reminding us that all theater involves social engagement,5 is to reclaim the political potential of spectatorship, often with a gesture to Jacques Ranciére, and indeed to reclaim the idea of a "public," as opposed to the "multitude" on which this social turn is to some extent premised.6 A related move is to reclaim the right to withdrawal and silence rather than active participation.7

A second major strategy is to highlight the idea of labor and productivity that these new forms of participation seem to involve. If an older discourse of artistic autonomy was largely about our relationship to the commodity, in other words, this turn to the social is about our relationship to labor, and...


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