Classical music for the people

The Norwegian National Opera & Ballet has large deficits and is entirely dependent on state aid. To show that they deserve the money, they work purposefully to bring classical music down to Earth.

Opera House in Oslo

Opera House in Oslo. Photo:©

The Norwegian National Opera & Ballet set an attendance record in 2015, but still fell sharply into the red. The organization is dependent on large government subsidies to survive. According to the trade magazine, Dagens Næringsliv, the Opera applied for a grant of 626 million kroner from the Ministry of Culture in 2017, up from the application for 601 million in 2016.

The Opera is not alone. Several cultural organizations receive every year large sums from the state. What gives such organizations the right to life, and how do they argue even for their existence? Håkon Larsen, postdoctoral of sociology at the University of Oslo, takes a look at these issues in a new book.

- In many countries, large music houses are working determinedly to bring classical music down to Earth, said Larsen.

- Traditionally, opera is not really high culture in Norway. The Norwegian opera was created as a national opera for all the people; a concept based in Folketeateret, which originally was a theater for the working class. But through movies and popular culture, we have been told that opera is a bit snobby, and therefore, in Norway we are fighting against the image that opera and classical music is snobby.

Children, adolescents and opera

Håkon Larsen
Håkon Larsen. Photo: UiO

First, Larsen examined public broadcasting services in Scandinavia for his doctorate. He wanted to know why we need them, at a time of globalization and digitization. In this work, he sees several parallels to music organizations. In his book, he takes a look at both public broadcasting services such as the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK), and music organizations such as the Norwegian Opera and Ballet.

He interviewed managers of large cultural organizations and studied a number of documents and newspaper discussions. In his book "Performing Legitimacy," he writes specifically about The Norwegian Opera & Ballet, Oslo Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. All of these organizations are working with what Larsen calls a demystification of classical music, which is done in several ways.

Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra held several public concerts. Another initiative was to adopt the Tøyen school orchestra and mentor students. The schoolchildren were invited to sit on the podium with the musicians when practicing in the concert hall.

The Norwegian National Opera & Ballet travels across the country and performs in the local cultural centers and opera houses. More than 20,000 children and young people take part each year in the activities: everything from daily guided tours to meet-the-artist to workshops and performances. Another initiative the Opera took was to install screens in the chair seats in the hall, so the audience can easily read the libretto translated into Norwegian or English. In 1995, the Metropolitan Opera in New York was the first opera house to introduce this.

- Organizations are fighting against the strong cultural narrative that opera is elite culture. At the same time, they must secure an audience for the future, since there are many elderly attendees in these houses today. Those who work with this are passionate, and they want as many people as possible to take part, says Larsen.

Clapping in the wrong place

Former opera director Tom Remlov described in one of opera's brochures an incident that illustrates this mindset. He had two women from a Russian theater in one of the Opera orchestra chamber concerts when the unthinkable happened: the audience clapped after the first movement.

Remlov wrote, "I leaned over to the nearest woman and apologized on behalf of the nation, and stressed that our traditions do not go as far back as they do in Russia. Then she cheerfully shook her head and said, ‘So it is with us too. You should enjoy it. That means you have obtained a new audience!’ ”

Of course, wrote Remlov.It is precisely this audience he wants - "who does not necessarily know what they are going to, but are excited by what they get."

- The leaders of the Norwegian Opera and Ballet and the Oslo Philharmonic want to convince the people that is not a big deal to see a classical music concert. One does not need to dress up or learn all codes. To come and appreciate the music is paramount. Once one goes to the concert, perhaps the many of the regulars may be irritated if you do not behave according to the codes, such as clapping at the wrong time. Then one will be trained by the audience, says Larsen.

Independence is important for public broadcasting

Larsen writes not only about music houses in the book, but also about public broadcasting services in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. They have different challenges than the classical music organizations, but even these groups must constantly work to legitimize themselves. They do this by arguing of the need for independent media operators who are not driven by commercial forces or by the state.

- A key to the success and for the legitimacy of NRK is that the state provides the funding, but does not intervene in content Production and demand editorial freedom. The value of this has been highlighted by the editor in-chief many times. One should be confident that NRK does not create programs to satisfy certain players. NRK's ​​mission is to bring information, knowledge and entertainment to the public, says Larsen.

Although NRK is criticized by both commercial operators and politicians, they have a strong position in Norwegian society. According to surveys, NRK is among the highest-ranking organizations in public trust.

- People want an independent news organization, but the economic model is a tough nut to crack. The viewing fee is a bit old-fashioned way to collect money, says Håkon Larsen.

By Silje Pileberg
Published Dec. 12, 2016 11:49 AM - Last modified Aug. 1, 2019 3:48 PM