Opera updated for the 21st century

The Savonlinna Opera Festival Opera By You is further proof that opera is reemerging as inclusive, interesting and innovative.

Last year's The Twitter Opera turned tweets from the public into a libretto.
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Opera used to be derided as safe, traditional and boring - an 18th century art form struggling for relevance in the 21st century. But in recent years it has experienced an incredible renaissance emerging as inclusive, interesting and innovative. Jerry Springer: The Opera wasn't just headline-grabbing satire. It encouraged, through its success, new work such as Jocelyn Pook's Ingerland, which included football chants. Ian McEwan announced recently that Atonement will also be given the operatic treatment, and the Royal Opera House presented The Twitter Opera last year, where tweets from the public were turned into a libretto. And now, the Savonlinna Opera Festival in Finland has announced it will create an opera wholly from online submissions.

The online trailer for Opera By You is intriguing. Taking the idea of The Twitter Opera to a whole new level, Savonlinna doesn't just want ideas for the story from the public in 140 characters or less. The entire opera is a blank canvas, as it self-deprecatingly announces on the site: "We have 80 vocalists in our choir, but no script. We have a cast and a castle but no wardrobe and no set design. We have a symphony orchestra, but no composition. Come create an opera."

For now, Opera By You is asking for plot suggestions, and in future months, once the story is decided upon, it will branch out into set design, music and so on before the world premiere at the 2012 festival. The most interesting development so far is the opportunity to comment on contributions: as soon as someone posts their thrilling storyline on the site, other users can give a "thumbs up" and make observations or suggestions.

As well they might: a horror opera in which a monster terrorises a small Danish town is actually one of the more straightforward contributions amid the reams of tortuous allegories to the banking crisis. Still, there's no accounting for taste. The most popular idea so far takes the literal meaning of a space opera (the term for space-based films such as Star Wars and Star Trek) and proposes an opera set in space. Never mind that the author hasn't posted any details of plot other than it would include space ships and exotic planets.

It's easy to poke fun, of course, but the basic idea is hugely laudable. As the Savonlinna Opera Festival general director Jan Hultin points out: "Writing the libretto and music for an opera has traditionally been the work of only a few, as has the visual designing. We now want a large group of people to take part in this unique creative process from the very beginning." Hultin's main hope - beyond staging a successful opera in 2012, naturally - is that young people will be tempted into the world of opera. He has a distinct chance of succeeding in that aim. Opera is bending to the technology of the day via tweets or social networking exercises such as Opera By You, and cultural icons are, increasingly, finding their own ways to the form. Rufus Wainwright began his musical career as a darling of the open-minded indie fan. But after starting one of his records with a nod to Ravel's Bolero, perhaps it wasn't so much of a surprise that he would end up premiering the new opera Prima Donna at the Manchester International Festival last year. But Wainwright wasn't singing in it, as you might expect; he actually composed the two-act, two hour opera. In the final analysis, Wainwright had overstretched himself, but attracting thirtysomethings to the opera proved a different point.

English National Opera's new season, announced last month, also pointed towards a reconfiguring of our relationship with opera by once again inviting talent from outside the form to stamp their own mark on the classics. The prospect of Berlioz's Damnation of Faust directed by one of the most inventive filmmakers of modern times, Terry Gilliam, is mouthwatering stuff. Before that, Mike Figgis, the director of Leaving Las Vegas, will take the reins for Lucrezia Borgia.

Would many of those rushing to buy tickets for these shows have done so if the directors had been from the opera world? Possibly not, and while there is a faint whiff of gimmickry, at least it is challenging the perception that opera is merely for toffs in suits. Of course, Opera By You is clever in another respect: it's likely to attract to Savonlinna anyone who participated in the project, however small their input. But happily, that doesn't appear to be Hutlin's intention. The idea, clearly, is to make opera as relevant and as urgent as it was for centuries previously.

I just hope they like my idea of an opera set in a newspaper office...