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150 YEARS LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
BY Joan Matabosch Grifoll
Art Director of the Gran Teatre del Liceu

The new infrastructure that is to be inaugurated very soon will serve to further consolidate an artistic project based on the premise that opera is a dynamic art rather than a luxury with no connection with its environment. Now, Joan Matabosch, the Liceo's art director, draws up and explains the general lines of action the theatre is meant to follow in the near future.

The continuity of the Liceu’s activities during these difficult years of itineracy – from the Palau de la M˙sica Catalana, to the Auditorium, to the Teatre Vict˛ria, to the Teatre Nacional de Catalunya, to the Mercat de les Flors – have produced certain healthy results that should not be underrated: they have made it possible to distinguish between the building and the institution, they have brought the Liceu closer to a society that has shown just how profoundly it sees it as a part of itself, and it has opened its seasons to a new audience that had never set foot in the old theatre either because they were too young or because of the elitist air that made the building on the Rambla into a redoubt of the cognoscenti or the privileged few.

The Liceu is now in a very favourable position to become a space truly open to everyone. This potential has already begun to materialise with the unprecedented success of the sale of season tickets for the 1999-2000 season and particularly with the popularity of the new more economical, "popular" season tickets now available that will allow a wider and younger public access to the opera house. The Liceu’s artistic agenda and its firm commitment to a dynamic approach to the art of opera will undoubtedly strike a responsive chord with the expectations of the new spectators to which the opera house is now opening its doors. The Liceu’s approach is centred on defending opera as art. An art that is not merely limited to the stories and images – the literary and plastic aspects – but reaches into what the stories and images attempt to convey and therefore does not treat them as an end in themselves but rather as a way of conveying meaning. An art that does not merely speak about things but rather "through" things. This compels the art and conditions the spectator’s perceptive attitude.

Paul ValÚry said that art is an action on the part of the beholder, an "event" that is realised or carried out by the creative power of the aesthetic recipient, in other words, that it is not a matter or "contemplating" but of "doing". It is not a narcotic, because, as Tchaikovsky wrote to Nadezhda von Meck in 1877, music is "not a delusion of happiness, but a revelation".

In opposition to this "doing" and this "revelation" is the baggage of prototypes and previous experience that determines the "range of expectations". Even among experts, there is a common tendency to preserve cultural riches as possessions, as if the enjoyment of art could be reduced to the simple act of recognition.

According to Paul Klee, art does not reproduce what we see but rather teaches us to see. Caspar David Friedrich had already stated in 1830 that "the purpose of a landscape painting is not the precise representation of air, rocks or trees [...] but to reflect the feeling that is expressed in that landscape and to penetrate it, gather it up and transmit it". The reproduction or imitation of pre-existing forms tends to cut the work of art off from any unforeseen demand and obscures and dilutes its sense. This is why the theatre director Walter Felsenstein insisted that when presenting any work, it had to be treated as absolutely unfamiliar and started from scratch. In order to achieve this, sometimes the object must be seen without being recognised. The object must be "estranged" – in Sklovsky’s words – and distorted, and the process of perception must be obstructed, since in this way the information generated by the object becomes an experience. Meaning is one thing, and the artistic information embodied in a work of art is something else altogether.

All art must, in the long run, resist reiteration if it is to continue being expressive. This phenomenon is not exclusive to the world of art. The repetition of a sign tends, in effect, to make it inexpressive. If something is to be expressed forcefully, it must be put across in a new way. This is true of art, it is true of opera, and it is true of life itself. At times, even messages as commonplace as the ubiquitous notice in trains quoted by Umberto Eco, "Do not lean out the window", when repeated and offered to us for interpretation over and over has no effect whatsoever on someone who wishes to lean out the window. In order for the message to become effective once again, it must be formulated in a new way whose unexpectedness and "strangeness" make it forceful.

This is also how we act when, for example, we wish to express our joy at meeting a very dear friend: we use unusual gestures to modify the conventional greeting between acquaintances. In effect, what we are doing in ordinary life – and what semiologists have theorised upon – also occurs in art and therefore in opera: novelty is an indispensable precondition – not an end in itself – for any art that is capable of moving and impressing. However, the effusive greeting of a dear friend is only expressive if we are already familiar with the conventional code of greetings. Without that code, the effusiveness of the gesture would be incomprehensible and, furthermore, impossible to express.

This is exactly what happens in the world of art: aesthetic creativity is intelligible and identifiable precisely because there is a tradition, parameters, and frames of reference. Without these elements, novelty would incomprehensible. In the words of Eugeni d’Ors "Genuine originality is only to be found within the bounds of tradition. Anything that is outside tradition is plagiarism."

It is therefore a privilege to have at our disposal, like the Liceu, over 150 years of history, tradition and referents. The ultimate purpose cannot be originality, but neither can it be reiteration, however richly adorned and splendid. The goal is not to imitate, but to reveal. This, in short, is why the Programme-Agreement between the Gran Teatre del Liceu and government calls for a dynamic approach to the art of opera. Any other conception would relegate opera to the status of a luxury out of touch with its environment, atop its ivory tower, content to revel in past glories and nostalgia for its former idols, making it perfectly pointless.

With the conviction that, on the threshold of the 21st century, opera can be the "mirror for the spectator" of which Oscar Wilde spoke and invoke our common experience as human beings, we look forward with enthusiasm to inaugurating on October 7 the facilities that will allow us to consolidate the Liceu’s artistic agenda, enhance the theatre’s international prestige, improve the artistic standards of its permanent staff, bring opera and dance to ever wider audiences, co-ordinate the theatre’s activities with the city’s other cultural sectors, and, lastly, ensure that the Liceu becomes, more than ever, a space open to everyone.

Balancing aesthetic tendencies with the will to open the way to new audiences

According to the provisions of the "programme-contract" - the document that lays down both the artistic objectives and managerial guidelines for the running of the "Liceu" Opera House in the 2000-2004 period -, the programme of artistic performances ought to satisfy the cultural requirements of the country as well as the peculiarities of local operatic tradition, and it should not be the result of a unilateral and univocal decision favouring a given aesthetic tendency. Therefore, the new artistic stance of the "Liceu" theatre should consolidate the required balance between stylistically innovative proposals - including those brought forward by local authors - and the classical repertoire, including pieces by composers of the different operatic schools.

In like manner, the document states a firm intention of ensuring the performance of twentieth-century works which might help to educate the audience and make it more receptive to the musical novelties of our times. Furthermore, where actual staging is concerned, it is considered necessary to stimulate the presentation of productions closely tuned to the asthetic tendencies of the times, given that it is an indispensable contributory factor to the recognition of the "Liceu" theatre as a reputable point of reference within the international opera circuit. Channels of collaboration with other national and international theatres will be established so as to foster joint productions.

With the aim of enlarging and diversifying the audience, the "Liceu" opera house has planned to increase the number of performances in the case of those operas which generate a particularly great demand. The management will ensure that the tickets to some of these shows, eventually performed by an alternative cast, will be sold at a reduced price with a view to make it easier for less wealthy spectators to win access to the theatre. At the same time, the "Liceu" will develop a Pedagogical Scheme intended to introduce opera into the school world as well as to foster people's acquaintance with the subject, channel their interest and improve the general knowledge of the genre among the different segments of the population.