A long journey needs resting points
It is a surprise, in my sixties, to find myself working on opera, as part of the Traction project. This prestigious art form is very far from the community art projects in which I’ve spent my life. It is truly another world. There is common ground, of course, especially as the three Traction projects are community operas, co-creations between professional and non-professional artists. And a lot of the artistic process are the same: building a set presents similar challenges, whether it’s being done by a highly-experienced stage crew or by volunteers learning as they work. It has to look good and serve its purpose: it’s just that the budgets are rather different.
Still I’ve no experience of working at the scale of La Gata Perduda, the community opera being created in Barcelona by the Gran Teatre del Liceu with the people of Raval, its immediate neighbourhood. There will be 200 non-professional singers on stage, perhaps more. The total number of local people involved in co-creating the show might reach 600. Making that happen involves marshalling resources on an industrial scale, even if the activities themselves are resolutely artisanal. And the risk increases in proportion. Even as part of a big choir, singing in one of Europe’s largest opera houses is a challenge that none of the non-professional artists has faced before, which is also why it’s so worth doing.
The timescale has been particular challenge, made more difficult by the pandemic, lockdowns and travel restrictions. Planning on the opera began in 2018, for a première in November 2021—longer than either of my first two jobs. And then, because of the pandemic, the opening had to be put back by 11 months, to 5 and 7 October 2022. That was a headache for the artists and the researchers in Traction, but I also worried about sustaining people’s enthusiasm and commitment. People’s lives can change a lot in three or four years, especially when they’re young (and there are many young people in the project). Community projects involve a lot of trust—so hard to win, so quickly lost. Like inflating a balloon, trust takes time and has a tendency to seep out, even if you can avoid an explosion. It’s also a mistake to rehearse for too long, so that everything becomes stale and flat. I thought too about that transformation of walking onto the main stage after rehearsing in school halls and gyms.
A showcase of work in progress
The solution to all these problems was to imagine a stepping stone, something to work towards, that was both achievable and exciting, on the long road towards the opening night. So last year, I suggested that we present a kind of ‘work in progress’, an idea common enough in community art, but probably less familiar in professional opera. The Liceu team quickly got behind the plan, and set a date for spring 2022, which at the time still seemed far away.
As work on the opera itself progressed, the showcase took shape alongside it, especially when the director of La Gata Perduda, Ricard Soler, stepped in. He imagined it as a participatory cabaret—El Cabaret de la Gata— that would be a chance to explain something of the process, outline the story and share some of the music the choirs had been working on. It would also allow the researchers to run further live tests with Traction’s Co-creation Stage technology, which facilitates simultaneous performances from remote locations, and to gather data from participants and audience.
There was lots of discussion and planning, but only a day of rehearsal: last Thursday, we spent 12 hours installing, rigging and trying things out, including a couple of hours with some of the choirs.
And then, at 1pm on Saturday 19 March 2022, El Cabaret de la Gatawas live, with about 250 people in the Foyer Room at the Liceu and others watching a live stream online.
It was glorious. Not everything worked—that, after all, is the point of the tests—but everything that mattered worked. The music was beautiful, the jokes were funny, the sense and purpose of the project was clear; above all, the atmosphere in the room was joyous as the choir members and others who’ve become involved in the project celebrated what they have achieved so far.
Ove the coming weeks, it will become clear whether the event has given people the confidence that success can bring, and is so important in empowering people to take on new challenges. My guess, judging by that atmosphere, is that it has.
Art is in the spaces between
And, because this is human, the biggest failure became the most moving moment. We had arranged live connections to the two other Traction projects—with SAMP at the youth prison in Leira, Portugal, and with Ken Whelan, a participant in the INO project in Dublin. Ken played a passage from La Gata Perduda on the accordion, a beautiful musical greeting across the distance. But though we could see the young inmates and musicians performing in Leiria, we could not hear them. The sound link was lost.
Sitting in the foyer room, I could almost feel the audience around me lean forward, willing the connection to be made, feeling for the young men in Portugal as they gave so much that we could not receive. It lasted only a minute or two but it felt much longer—and then the applause in the Foyer Room was thunderous as we tried to show how much we had appreciated their presence even if, or perhaps because, we couldn’t hear them.
In a strange way—and I know I might be making this up—it seemed to me that there was a stronger connection than if we had heard those guys in Portugal because we felt for them: we cared about them.
Art is mysterious and uncontrollable. It holds back when you make demands on it and gives when you least expect. And the notes, pictures, objects and actions that seem to define it are not, in the end, what matters. They are important only insofar as they make a connection between people. Saturday’s glitch showed me again that the absence of those artistic mechanisms does not necessarily prevent the connection. Perhaps the music we imagined hearing from Portugal was the loveliest of all.