Reflections on the RESEO conference, Brussels, 26-28 September
“Who would like to make a paper boat?” asks Italian director Laura Fatini. By this point in the RESEO conference, my fellow delegates and I have sung in harmony and participated in a dance workshop together, so a spot of origami feels natural. Seated in a circle, the fifty or so delegates each pick up a sheet containing a Giufà (pronounced Joo-FAA) story – about which more later – and begin to fold. I begin confidently, following Laura’s example, but I get distracted by a conversation happening elsewhere in the circle, and miss the next instruction. I turn to my neighbour, who is equally confused, and slowly, the circle begins to fragment into teams and sub-sections of boat-builders, each sharing tips, strategies, or bonding in frustration at their sheet’s refusal to transform.
The RESEO network describes itself as “a unique European network for arts education and creative learning with a specific focus on opera, music and dance.” The list of 2019 conference delegates featured a community of composers, researchers, facilitators, activists, therapists, choreographers, administrators, producers and writers from across Europe and beyond. This was my first time at the network’s annual conference, and I was attending as a freelance writer, librettist and opera maker supported by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where I am a Junior Artist Fellow for 2019-20. For three days, we gathered in a large, exposed-brick studio that is usually reserved for the opera and ballet orchestra of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels. From 26-28 September 2019, this space was host to a broad range of presentations, workshops and discussions on the subject of community arts.
The programme of the conference varied hugely from session to session, and what follows is by no means an exhaustive account of all conference proceedings. Following a dance workshop with Åsa N. Åström (an excellent way of waking up after a 4am start to catch the Eurostar!), Guildhall PhD Candidate Imogen Flower presented her research on The Sex Worker’s Opera, extolling the virtues of grassroots-devised projects that enable people of all backgrounds “to feel like artists”. An important aspect of this, she maintained, was the removal of the distinction between ‘professional artists’ and ‘participants’ when talking about, and creating, the opera. A Q&A with self-styled ‘Educ’Acteur’ (actor and educator) Jean-Marc Mahy turned into a theatrical event, as we experienced a live performance of excerpts from his one-man autobiographical play, Un Homme debout, which recounted some of the 18 years he spent in prison. He and his interviewer outlined the importance of culture in prison in three ways: as a way of bringing beauty into a place where there is none, as a means of humanising its inhabitants, and as a way of filling a cultural void which is otherwise vulnerable to the lure of extremism.
Valérie Urbain of Opéra Royale de Wallonie, Liège, spoke of the role of the arts, and of collaborators, as existing in serving others; a theme echoed in Darren Abrahams’ assertion that ‘our role [as practitioners] is to hold the space’, and to use our tools of facilitation to enable participants to feel safe. Themes of empowerment and social inclusion were prominent, with many projects reaching refugees and local communities, often advocating the softening, or outright removal of distinctions between the two, through the sharing of skills and expertise. It became clear that for many RESEO delegates, the target-focused, outcome-specific stipulations of most funding applications lose sight of the most valuable aspect of any given community project: the process of making it. As Tina Ellen Lee of Opera Circus put it, ‘the outcome is the process’. This sentiment was echoed by Barbara Gessler, Director General of the Department for Education, Youth, Sport, and Culture, who also acknowledged the role that culture, and the process of participating in it, can play in shaping a European identity that is rooted in cultural and linguistic diversity. With 31 October looming, it will come as no great surprise that Gessler, the representative of the new EU agenda for culture, Creative Europe, was unable to say what the UK’s eligibility for those funds may be in the face of a no-deal Brexit. On that, and on so much else, UK artists and musicians will have to await further updates…
All of this has led me to re-examine my understanding of the role of opera, and, more broadly, the arts in society. My background is in dramaturgy and libretto-writing for main stage and chamber opera, and as Dramaturg at Welsh National Opera from 2013-16, my role was to introduce and contextualise historic and contemporary operas to audiences, through pre-performance talks and programmes. As Dramaturg, I served the ‘outcome’ of the productions, by striving to help audiences find their way into the work they went to see. What I saw at RESEO advocated a shifting of balance. In a community art context, the Opera – in the Italian sense of the ‘work’, be it music, drama, dance, or ballet – becomes the means by which awareness is raised, and connections are forged between people who otherwise might not feel able to speak to one another. The Opera serves the participants, just as the facilitators do. It is the catalyst, vehicle, and vessel (whichever analogy you prefer!) through which important and complex societal questions are addressed. Which leads me back to Laura’s paper boat…
The Giufà Project, supported by Glyndebourne and a host of international partners, is inspired by the folk character, Giufà, who derives from the real-life 13th-century wise man and philosopher, Nasr Eddin Hodja. Giufa’s innocence and ready wit have ensured his passage into worldwide folklore and legend all over the world: in British folklore, we may recognize him as Jack, in Russia, as Ivan the Fool, and the list goes on, seemingly across all cultures. Laura tells us “He is a foreigner everywhere”, making him an ideal subject for exploration by those for whom English is their second or third language, and who identify with his status as an outsider. He has a literal approach to language, such in the story, “Giufà, pull the door!” – in which the hero literally yanks a door off its hinges – yet despite his lowly, or outsider status, he is a survivor, both subversive and adaptable, and able to prove his mettle against Kings, Sultans and giants. It seems to me that in our changing world, we could all do with a little of the spirit of Giufà. (Listen to this beautiful Giufà-inspired song.)
I’m still in conversation with my neighbour in the circle, when Laura comes over to me and takes my misshapen paper triangle in her hands. It turns out that despite my doubts, I have correctly followed all but the final instruction, and she hands it back to me, a fully formed, neat little vessel. Slowly the space inside the circle fills with a small flotilla of paper boats, each one the result of a new conversation. At Laura’s invitation, someone loops two chords on the piano, inspired by Giufà, and slowly, but surely, people start to sing. We are making an opera together.
(c) Sophie Rashbrook