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Sustainable Opera for the Future by Max Parfitt of Wild Arts

Sustainable Opera for the Future by Max Parfitt of Wild Arts
Sustainable Opera for the Future by Max Parfitt of Wild Arts
Donizetti: The Elixir of Love - James Atkinson - Wild Arts 2023 (Photo: Lucy J Toms)
Donizetti: The Elixir of Love – James Atkinson – Wild Arts 2023 (Photo: Lucy J Toms)

We humans, alone on earth, are powerful enough to create worlds, and then to destroy them. But we have one more thing – an ability, perhaps unique among the living creatures on the planet – to imagine a future and work towards achieving it.

– David Attenborough

The arts industry is aware of the environmental threat that we are under. Any good art has to be. Art should reflect present times and issues, even while celebrating the genius of the past. Environmental and social activism (successful or otherwise) is what will define this generation in years to come.

Productions have frequently been tilted towards environmental themes – see anything from Opera North’s Masque of Might [see Robert’s review], to Barry Kosky’s staging of Das Rheingold at Covent Garden – there is something inherently operatic about the grand forces (light and dark, good and evil, man and nature) that such ideas invoke. Wild Arts’ Summer Opera this year, directed by James Hurley, is Mozart’s The Magic Flute – a tale of enlightenment conquering the forces of nature, order (and civilisation) asserting itself over chaos. Though our production is set in a more fantastical world than our own, there is nonetheless a lingering question for any modern-day audience: as Sarastro triumphs and the forces of nature are crushed, are our heroes on the right side? Can the powerful final chorus be quite so celebratory when we know the consequences of the society it lauds? Done well, these lines of environmental commentary can bring an extra depth to their productions without crowbarring messaging irrelevant to the original material.

What does an opera world look like which is entirely sustainable?   What are the parameters we should be striving towards?   What do we all need to consider?   How should we be shaping the future.   

In founding Wild Arts in 2022, our mission from the beginning was to create sustainable, world-class music for everyone. We wanted to provide an example of what is possible and spearhead positive environmental change. As a touring company, we take opera productions across the country to corners where there is no or little provision, for example Norwich, which used to receive Glyndebourne touring but which sadly has faltered due to cuts from DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport). Most of our audiences come from less than 10 miles away.    

Our productions are modest in their staging as we are moving location each day but with only essential production values comes nimbleness and flexibility. We let the music shine – that’s the miracle of Grand opera, these theatrical works are magnificent without the need for the pomp. But our long-term mission is to build a truly green opera house and performance space, set in a bio-diverse landscape and constructed entirely from sustainable materials. In touring the country, we have peered into many a grand location – like us these historic houses from another age are having to adapt and find a purpose in our rapidly changing world.    

But what can we all be doing and what else should we be considering to help our industry further? 

While performers and creatives are heavily vocal in their support, however, it is easy to forget the sustainable practices of the houses that devise them. When the Royal Opera House announced Ann Yee and Natalie Abrahami’s trash-filled, climate-change-inspired production of Dvorak’s Rusalka in 2022 [see Robert’s review], they were still sponsored by oil giant BP (the sponsorship was withdrawn shortly after).

On the whole, the theatre scene in the UK is on the ball. When you are next heading to a production, flick around on a company or venue’s website and you will almost always find a tab with a sustainability policy or environmental mission statement, a date for net-zero carbon emissions anywhere from 2030 to 2050, and often a partnership with the Theatre Green Book (a world-leading sustainability initiative). 

Glyndebourne led the way with their 2012 wind turbine, generating the equivalent of 102% of the electricity used by the company since; the Royal Opera House have pledged to reach net zero by 2035 and have built some of the most sustainable new-builds in the UK; Opera North last summer completed their second tour with entirely recycled materials. Much of this shift has been driven directly by audiences. 

The Act Green survey in 2022 (compiled by nearly 60 organisations from 12,000 responses) found that 77% of audience members expected theatres to address the climate emergency. In short, for any arts organisation looking to the future, these operational adjustments simply must be made. Göteborg Opera is a pioneer of this, winning the Sustainability Award at the 2022 International Opera Awards. They have long championed ecological sustainability and is a leader among opera houses, using power from renewable sources, solar panels and more. 

There is a difference, however, between “adjustments” and a truly sustainability-led company – between offsetting or minimising environmental impact, and generating an artistic model that avoids that negative impact from the outset. The greatest environmental impact in opera stems from theatre buildings and their management, the temporary materials involved in production, and the requirement for an audience to travel distances to hear high-quality performance. 

With Wild Arts, we create opera that avoids these elements: bringing world-class performers and performances to local communities (without the impact of a “home” venue or long-distance audience travel), and starting each production by asking what materials we truly need. All our productions are fully staged, and our operas are costumed (with recycled and reusable materials), but our sets range from none-at-all, to that of The Magic Flute: a blue mat, eight stools, and a handful of LED Strips.

This can often initially feel like a constraint, and yet the results have been universally freeing – encouraging a paring back that refocuses on the essentials of music and story, and allowing a personalisation for each venue. In any production, we have no one stage size, no one layout, no one rulebook – everything shifts to the space and the audience.

Whilst resources are limited, ambitions are high, especially with our next project of Handel’s semi-staged Messiah [see Robert’s review of the 2023 production], created in collaboration with director Tom Morris. Following a sold-out tour in 2023, the production will return this Christmas to venues such as Sinfonia Smith Square and Rochester Cathedral.  

We are not perfect and we now need to consider what our future model could be. Travel remains our only substantive environmental impact, but we ensure that half of our travel is on trains, and half of the remainder is in electric vehicles, and by touring we are proving that world-class opera can exist beyond the cities and established houses.  With our dream to build an innovative, permanent space, we will want to be at the forefront of environmental design to adhere to the 10 guiding principles as outlined in the One Planet Living – something we all need to embrace no matter what industry we are in:

  • Health and happiness: Encouraging active, social, meaningful lives to promote good health & wellbeing
  • Equity and local economy: Creating safe, equitable places to live and work which support local prosperity & fair trade
  • Culture and community: Nurturing local identity and heritage, empowering communities
  • Land and nature: Protecting and restoring land for the benefit of people and wildlife
  • Sustainable water: Using water efficiently, protecting local water resources and reducing flooding and drought
  • Local and sustainable food: Promoting sustainable, humane farming, healthy diets high in local, seasonal organic food 
  • Travel and transport: Reducing the need to travel, encouraging walking, cycling and low carbon transport
  • Materials and products: Using materials from sustainable sources & promoting products that reduce consumption
  • Zero waste: Reducing consumption, reusing and recycling to achieve zero waste and zero pollution
  • Zero carbon energy: Making buildings & manufacturing energy-efficient and supplying all energy with renewables

The quote at the top of this article followed our logo to be the second thing added to our new website back in 2022, and it sets out a mission statement that feels perfect for theatre (“creating worlds and destroying them”). Sustainability requires us, collectively, to think ahead – to dream, and to put in the time it takes to make that dream a reality:

Imagine a future and work towards achieving it.

Wild Arts seeks to prove that sustainable opera is possible, but it is audiences who will lead the way. Please get in touch with any suggestions. What else should we be doing? How should we be doing it? Let us know.

Wild Arts is currently touring Mozart’s Magic Flute reaching Thaxted Festival on Sunday 30 June

  • Thaxted Festival – 30 June
  • Owlpen Manor, Gloucestershire – 4 July
  • Malvern Theatre, Worcestershire – 5 July
  • Bletchington Park, Oxfordshire – 6 July
  • Deal Festival, Kent – 11 July
  • Childerley Hall, Cambridgeshire – 14 July
  • Heronsgate, Buckinghamshire – 21 July
  • Forde Abbey, Dorset – 25 July
  • Hever Castle, Kent – 3 August
  • Frinton-on-Sea Cricket Club – 6 August
  • Birmingham Rep Theatre – 5 September
  • Charterhouse, London – 14 September
  • Orangerie of the Sans Souci Palace, Potsdam, Germany – 19, 20, 21 September

Full details of the tour from the Wild Arts website

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