Theatres are full of critics who proclaim the soon-inevitable death of opera. Some bemoan the predictable plots of classical works. Others criticise fossilised institutions, or the social pomp and clichés that accompany a visit to the opera theatre. Lithuania’s Operomanija hopes to cast off all these stereotypes. By experimenting with how opera is performed, they hope to transform an art form which has gone largely unchanged for more than 400 years.
Operomanija itself began 13 years ago, with Vilnius’ New Opera Action (NOA) festivals: get-togethers organised by the group of then-students at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre. Some members were friends or colleagues interested in opera, as well as multidisciplinary artistic collaborations. But most importantly, these NOA festivals were an opposition against the immovable structure of “grand opera”, inaccessible to young artists and performers.
“It was a time of euphoria,” says producer Ana Ablamonova, who went on to become the soul of Operomanija. Under her care, the team’s performances warp operatic ideas, becoming unpredictable forms, creating interdisciplinary-Frankensteins that both provoke the scepticism of conservative audiences and the enthusiasm of people starving for innovation.
“Imagine 50 or more people burning with one idea. I have never felt such a strong creative energy in my life. It was a kind of madness. I joined up after seeing the invitation for the performers at the Academy’s noticeboard. I had just graduated from choral conducting studies in St. Petersburg and thought that I could help out as a chorus master.”
Jonas Sakalauskas, a singer and composer who would go on to become the general manager of the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre, also drove Operomanija desire for innovation from its very beginnings. He was convinced to that the troupe should take inspiration from short films and their concentrated, fast-tempo plots. The result was a series of “nano-operas” — the shortest of which was just 2 minutes and 40 seconds long. One of the company’s goals was “contemporary opera for contemporary individuals”.
Dresscode: Opera, by Rita Mačiliūnaitė and Justas Tertelis, takes an ironic look at opera’s social rituals and the genre’s aesthetic and ethical traditions. In the very heart of the work is the dress code that society assigns to men.
Work has since moved from annual festivals to an Operomanija production house, while the troupe itself has scooped international prizes and toured the world. In the meantime, their repertoire has also grown. Operomanija has created operas which take place in the dark, dance operas, opera-installations that cross into the world of sound art, audio performances — closely related to radio theatre — and sound walks, which allow audiences to explore the history of different locations, while engaging in sound experiments. Overall, roughly 50 new operas have appeared under Operomanija’s guidance.
“Perhaps the most important element that defines our creative principles is that we aren’t linked to any particular space: we don’t have a traditional opera house or ensemble of performers,” says Ablamonova. “Most of the time, traditional opera is related to a particular space, with a stage, an orchestra pit, an amphitheatre. Not having these radically changes our approach to the genre. We do not have the institutional structure inherent to traditions of classical opera. Every piece starts from the tabula rasa, an empty field – we can go anywhere we want. That changes everything fundamentally.”
But Operomanija truly burst into the international mainstream following the release of Have A Good Day!, an opera that explores the everyday lives of supermarket cashiers. Toted as “an ode to capitalism”, the show was written by Venice Biennial Golden Lion laureates Lina Lapelytė, Vaiva Grainytė, and Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė. The trio’s second opera, Sun And Sea, went on to shock the contemporary art world. With its tongue-in-cheek, realist libretto and minimalist music, the show tackled the topic of climate change with a performance in Venice, a city very literally at risk of disappearing beneath the waves.
“Have A Good Day! broke the international ice in 2013. It’s hard to pick out the recipe behind the success of this opera — it’s a set of things,” says Ablamonova. “Firstly, it is the theme. Depending on where we go, different people are captivated by the problems of different characters. But, in general, everybody is fascinated by the versatility, the simple conceptuality of this opera and its close relation to reality.”
Since winning the Music Theatre NOW in 2012, Have A Good Day! has gone onto be performed from Shanghai to New York, with performances still continuing. The New Yorker critic Alex Ross and The New York Times were among those celebrating its US premiere in 2014.
But Operomanija are not only challenging the idea of which themes and characters can take to the operatic stage — there is also the question of form. Lithuanian composer Arturas Bumšteinas was inspired Operomanija’s expansion towards his own field of sound art. One of the most interesting of his recent works is the baroque theatre noise machine performance Bad Weather (later transformed into the Navigations from Bad Weather series). It is a performative sound art event which brings together Bumšteinas’ long-term interest in baroque theatre machinery, as well as the European climate of 17th century, so it is not surprising that the sound artist uses meteorological maps instead of classical scores. Incredible noise machines mimicking thunder, wind and, rain were reconstructed with the theatre carpenter Ernestas Volodzka. Together, they form a blistering synthesis of thorough research, wide imagination, and improvisation.
This idea of merging art forms also inspired Alpha: the first “comic strip-opera”. Created by an artist named Dr Gora Parasit, the show tells the story of Isabel, the sister of the famous Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, on a dynamic, yet compact stage, where performances weave an intricate dance between outlandish props and a changing background complete with speech bubbles — a very modern take on the operatic tradition of surtitles to translate foreign arias. For Dr Gora Parasit, combining the two media was an obvious choice. “Both opera and comics are full of insane heroism, revenge, betrayal, love and multiculturalism,” she said in one interview with Lithuanian media website 15min.
“There is one musicologist who says that we should patent the genre of “comic strip opera”. She believes that it is something completely new in the world of theatre and that it is only a matter of time when everybody begins to do the same”, says Ablamonova.
Yet, despite their successes, the relationship between Operomanija and traditional opera houses remains problematic. Ablamonova says that she has often faced scepticism from the champions of traditional opera towards Operomanija’s works, which are still often seen as alien. Some critics view the company’s work as destructive to opera’s long-time traditions.
“Perhaps [our critics feel that] we are going to destroy opera by naming our performances the same,” she says. “But we just do our job and keep working. It is always good when audiences have a variety of shows to choose from. I see many people who don’t normally go to opera houses appearing at our events.”
Slowly, however, the opera scene is changing across Europe. In Lithuania, initiatives such as the Vilnius City Opera, led by theatre director Dalia Ibelhauptaitė, has also changed how opera is seen today. Operomanija and its experimental approach, meanwhile, remain unique not just in Lithuania, but also across the entire region.
For now, the troupe is waiting for the Covid-19 pandemic to pass. Tours and premieres are on hold, so more attention is falling on publishing and planning for the future. Soon, Alpha will be released on vinyl. New stage works are waiting for concert and theatre halls to reopen. “Whatever we do, I hope to look for new contexts, new names, unknown territories, new possibilities that would turn new pages in the history of opera,” says Ablamonova.