OperaUpClose & The North Wall collaborate on ArtsLab

For three weeks this summer, OperaUpClose and The North Wall Arts Centre collaborated on ArtsLab. The project was led by musical director Mark Austin, composer Laura Bowler, director Robin Norton-Hale, designer Kate Lane, choreographer Joe Wild, and mezzo soprano Flora McIntosh. ArtsLab provides vocational experience for artists including actors, singers, dancers, instrumentalists, designers and technicians.

Photography by Kinga Lubowiecka

Assistant Conductor and violin: Claudia Fuller
Assistant Conductor and cello: Robin Wallington
Repetiteur and piano: Cadis Lee Ying Jie
Clarinet: David Mears
Mezzo: Leila Zanette
Baritone: James Quilligan
Bass: Simon Grange
Dancers: Claire Hackston, Tilda O’Grady, David Rodriguez, Olivia Thynne
Designers:   Ellie Jones &Cecilia Trono
Technician:  Mim Evison

OperaUpClose answer Graham Vick's call

At OperaUpClose we were delighted to hear Graham Vick's recent challenge to opera companies to reach new audiences with the productions on the stage, rather than relying on outreach departments to do so. He made this challenge in his keynote speech in May at the 2016 Royal Philharmonic Society Awards, a full transcript of which can be read here.

Our experience producing new versions of classic ‘big beast’ operas in venues, which haven’t been able to programme opera in the past, backs up what Graham says – audiences do not need to be ‘educated’ in opera in order to be moved by it. However, to give a new audience the chance to enjoy opera, venues need to be able to risk programming it, and opera companies need to be able to offer tickets at genuinely affordable prices.

We would also highlight the importance of giving a platform to new operas, including new works for young people. We were delighted that the winner of our biannual opera writing competition, Flourish, last year was an opera for young people called Ulla's Odyssey. It's currently touring and reaching new audiences of children and their parents, but our concern is that without public funding for new productions, opera companies will cater to one (small, wealthy and homogenous) audience with their work on stage, and only reach another more diverse audience through outreach projects. 

However effective and inspiring the work of outreach departments, unless opera companies can make their ‘main stage’ work accessible to everyone we will be hard-pushed to justify our public subsidy.

Signed by the OperaUpClose board of trustees

In our digital age libraries’ importance as physical spaces, where people encounter tangible artefacts, is growing.

Jamie Andrews
Head of Cultural Engagement at the British Library 

The British Library is not only an archive of creative practice over centuries and millennia—handwritten manuscripts of writers and composers written on everything from parchment to laptops; live performances and concerts from wax cylinders to mp3 files—but also a space to inspire, create, and showcase new works of art.

Two new pieces exhibited this summer suggest ways that the Library as a space for new work might be particularly understood. In May, we installed a new work by artist Cornelia Parker, ‘Magna Carta (An Embroidery)’,  and on the summer solstice we unveiled Californian artist David Normal’s ‘Crossroads of Curiosity’ on the piazza in front of the Library building.

‘Magna Carta (An Embroidery)’ is a monumental collaborative piece, a response to the 800th anniversary this year of the sealing of Magna Carta. Not only looking back to the original manuscripts from 1215, Parker’s work equally engages with the reality of physical documents in a digital age. The 13 metre long embroidery replicates the complete Wikipedia entry on Magna Carta, and was stitched by many hands: prisoners (working with Fine Cell Work), lawyers, and judges—who have especial cause to reflect on the legacy of Magna Carta—and well-known individuals for whom some of the clauses and fragments of Magna Carta carry particular resonance (‘Liberty’ stitched by Edward Snowden, ‘Justice, ‘Denial’ and ‘Delay’ by Baroness Doreen Lawrence, or ‘Common People’ by Jarvis Cocker). ‘Crossroads of Curiosity’, meanwhile, is a suite of light-box murals created from original Victorian book illustrations that were digitised from the BL’s collections and uploaded for free reuse onto Flickr, first exhibited in 2014 at the Burning Man festival in Nevada.

Both works of course bring the past and present into surprising dialogue, in a way that our collections of more than 150 million objects can do so well.The paradox of fixing in time a constantly evolving commentary such as Wikipedia makes us reflect on the sometimes unquestioning reverence accorded iconic documents of the past in ‘Magna Carta (An Embroidery)’. Meanwhile, the collage technique of the murals of ‘Crossroads…’poses questions about the nature of historic book illustrations when removed from their original 19th century (con)text. The piece looks back to the strange juxtapositions of earlier physical cabinet of curiosities, and reflects on their legacy in a digital remix culture in which images can be uprooted from their source, reproduced, and shared on an almost infinite scale. Staging a piece originally exhibited at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert at the British Library in London underlines this complex consideration of context and rootedness of works of art.

Perhaps the greatest significance of these works is in the way that they speak distinctively to the contemporary relationship between analogue and digital media, and the indivisibility of material and immaterial cultures. If libraries’ core purposes are sometimes seen to be threatened by the digital age (a subject addressed by our Chief Executive at the Hay Festival, with the tentative conclusion that ‘Libraries could outlast the internet’), these pieces refute the idea of physical and digital as opposing binaries, and instead demonstrate so brilliantly the messiness and slipperiness between the two.

In the case of David Normal, hundreds of thousands of 19th century illustrations from physical books were digitised and uploaded to Flickr, discovered by the artist, who then turned them back into a physical art piece. For ‘Magna Carta (An Embroidery)’, Cornelia Parker took an intangible artefact—a Wikipedia entry—and then made it, literally, material. The multiple hands that stitched the piece were responding to the collaborative nature of a wiki article, and the final piece was a playful mise en abyme in which her physical manifestation of a digital artefact subsequently generated a new online article about itself back on Wikipedia.

At the same time as library collections are being digitised—or are increasingly digital to start with—, their importance as a physical spaces where people encounter tangible artefacts is only growing. What these two pieces demonstrate is that far from being a digital age, ours is a gloriously uncertain (and thus far more interesting) hybrid moment. Rather than competing with each other, the physical and digital elide into one another, mutating from one to the other…and back again. Libraries as hybrid concepts are leading the way in acknowledging this unresolved tension that impacts on so much of contemporary culture, and can be the perfect showcase for artists, such as Cornelia Parker and David Normal, who bring these questions to life so brilliantly.