Friday, 22 April 2011

Prague State Opera: Nobody Knows Anything

Apparently, not even the Minister of Culture.

As this is a topic important for foreign visitors to Prague and has already driven attention abroad, I decided to try and summarize the issue.

New German Theatre
To understand the problem, we must take a look at the history of opera in Prague. There are two companies with three houses. The Estates Theatre was founded in 1783 mainly for German drama and Italian opera. During the National Revival Czech patriots naturally wanted a Czech language theatre, and after two provisional buildings, the National Theatre was opened in 1881. Shortly afterwards, in 1888, the future State Opera was founded as the New German Theatre.

Therefore, all the way until the end of World War II, the roles of the respective theatres were clear. During socialism, both houses had one management, and operas in the National Theatre were sung in Czech. The real challenge came after the Velvet Revolution, when the State Opera became an independent subject.

It was supposed to be a showcase of opera, an opera house of European standards. There were some bold projects in the 1990's - many new productions, modern operas, famous guests. Unfortunately, opera is expensive and good opera double so. In the early 2000's the ministry decided to appoint a director who would make more necessary compromises.

It is not true that there's nothing good at the SOP
(Death in Venice, 2009; foto Michal Krumphanzl, ČTK)
It is questionable whether separation of the house from the National Theatre was a good move, as some titles are shown in both of them, there is no coordination, only proclaimed beneficial competition. However, a lack of both funding and vision led to a situation when the quality of performances varies greatly, productions are decades old and neglected and, worst of all, the reputation of a once famous house has suffered greatly.

Minister's Plan
The ability of the Ministry of Culture to communicate with public reaches negative readings. Dr. Besser is the second least popular minister, and that is saying a lot for a minister of culture in a cabinet tormented with corruption scandals and unpopular reforms. His latest initiative is the plan to merge the companies of the State Opera and the National Theatre. However, you'd be mistaken if you thought that such a big step was fully announced, together with all pros and cons, leaving space for a thorough and reasonable discussion.

If only these light bulbs represented
the minister's good ideas...
In December 2010 the director of the SOP Oliver Dohnányi resigned, saying he wouldn't "assist the liquidation" of the opera, and was replaced by Radim Dolanský. A month later the artistic director of the National Theatre opera Jiří Heřman announced his stepping down, suggesting "the expected merge of the opera of the National Theatre and the State Opera Prague". Opera-loving public was in a flutter, agitated speculations were everywhere. Shortly after that a study was released without much explanation, so everybody assumed it was an official statement of the Ministry. It gave the impression of 'behind-the-desk' research and came to the conclusion that the ensembles should be merged and all opera should be performed at the SOP house, after a reconstruction of the building. The only exception is Mozart, which should stay at the Estates Theatre, leaving the National Theatre without opera at all (with the exception of special occasions, such as Smetana's Libuše on the Czech Independence Day). The discussions were furious.

In March, when it became clear that the ensembles (orchestras, choruses, ballets, soloists) would be merged, Dolanský opposed that. He was promptly replaced by the director of the National Theatre Ondřej Černý. There have been three versions of the 2011/12 season program, each suggesting a different date of beginning of the reconstruction, for which the opera house must be closed. The minister shoots from the hip, what seemed to be concrete plans has dissolved in vagueness, everybody is annoyed, ensemble of the State opera is protesting, musicians are worried for their jobs.

What now?
What FrufruJ Thinks
Many things reveal under-preparedness and imprudence on the part of the Ministry. While I've seen some atrocious performances at the SOP, it is clear that with only 0,6% GDP going to culture, the situation can hardly change. I wouldn't be a priori against a merge, if only it meant more cooperation, more coordination, better quality and if I were sure that it is well-thought-out. I've heard bad singers who either need long holidays and work on their technique, or shouldn't be singing at all. I've seen decades-old productions which have dissolved into bored concerts among dull sets. They're far from many, but in an opera house in a major European city, there shouldn't be any! If there isn't enough money, if the people come to the conclusion that giving more money to have two representative opera houses is not in their interest, a considerate merge (or partial merge, who says it's the only solution?) might be a good thing. Stress the word "considerate". The way how it is happening is unacceptable.

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