European Melodies: a Look at Managing Classical Music

Culture & Science
19 August 2011, 15:24

This season, the National Opera has only presented two updated new productions, Iolanta and Rustic Chivalry. Unlike their Western and even Russian counterparts, Ukrainian orchestras hardly make any recordings, and some of our musicians migrate to the West, where they can become very successful. They say we lack infrastructure and funding here for classical music. But doesn’t musical life in Ukraine lack something else?


Western European musical life has a lot of advantages compared to ours. Taras Yashchenko, a composer and pianist who has lived and worked in Munich for over 15 years, has first-hand experience: “Germany has a very well-developed infrastructure. Munich alone has two opera houses and Berlin has three. In terms of conservatories, Ukraine has only five, compared to 40 in Germany. Correspondingly, the number of graduates differs. And since there are so many of them, they need jobs, so it is no wonder they have so many bands. Even the Munich university has several, consisting not only of students, but also of orchestral music amateurs.Furthermore, lots of people frequent concerts and theaters as they themselves do a bit of playing or singing, so they are anxious to listen to professionals. The public in general is much more sophisticated. And at a library you can easily come across recent American or Japanese scores, which you will not find in Kyiv for anything”.

Viktoria Lukianets, a soloist at the Vienna Opera, has also been working abroad for years. She says that along with infrastructure, the status music enjoys in society is also important. “What attracts me is that in Austria, just like elsewhere in Europe, the art of opera, symphony, and classical music comes first. And although there are various genres, many will choose the classics, and performances are now frequented by ordinary folks, and a lot of young people, too (since they are quite modern now). I wish opera and classical music in Ukraine would also move to the fore. Sadly, the popular genre still prevails. Here I feel I’m wanted as a musician.”

The cosmopolitanism and mobility of both top-notch virtuosos and ordinary musicians shows the wealth and diversity of music in Europe. In this context, the migration of Ukrainian professionals abroad, as a kind of labor migration, should not come as surprising.

“I teach 25 students from 13 countries. These are people who can show up at an audition with an agent or a theater, and handle the competition. Remember, when Pavarotti was just a beginner, Italy was not yet a top European nation music-wise, and the seasons were quite short there; he made his name and career thanks to Germany, and then America. Similarly, Montserrat Caballe first had to leave Spain to be able to make a triumphant comeback, and Placido Domingo had to go all the way to Israel and then Hamburg,” Lukianets notes.

Small details are important for successful European music management. Marketing and advertising are handled by professionals. Just one example: while Ukrainian singers use odd photos of their performances to present themselves at Western events, even ordinary soloists in the West will have portfolios comparable to those of pop stars.

Another instance is opera tourism, which is a rather common practice. For a price of 400-900 euros, a spectator is offered a tour including hotel accommodation, dinner at a restaurant, and a ticket to one of the legendary houses, from the benchmark Staatsoper in Vienna to the super-innovative Royal Theater in Copenhagen to affordable Prague. With their low prices and unique theater buildings, Kyiv, Lviv, or Odesa might also compete on this market with Central Europe.


However, the Ukrainian public which is used to repertory theaters is totally unaware of two major principles of European opera management, which are essential to its success.

Firstly, instead of a permanent repertory, hardly ever changing from season to season, the Western theater-goer will be typically treated to a series of performances. In other words, each year a house prepares two or three (or several dozens, depending on its possibilities) completely new productions. Next season most of them are off, and new ones are produced. For each project a team of producers and performers is brought together and they concentrate on just their particular tasks.

After 5, 10, 20, or even more successive runs, the production is taken off, and they start working on new operas. This allows an opera to accumulate considerable financial and human resources for each particular performance. The team is fully absorbed in one project based on a distinct concept. The repertory is continually updated.

Secondly, a house will have very few singers on the staff list, except for those who typically perform secondary parts. Lead singers are also invited for each particular show, which allows producers to handpick the professional that best fit their needs. This is known as the contract system, when the house signs a contract with the singer for a certain number of performances. The hub of this concept is the intendant (a manager or director of the house or of the symphony orchestra), who is in charge of it and makes decisions about inviting specific conductors, directors, and performers.

Of course, there will be drawbacks, too. Even the best productions don’t last long – but on the other hand, the hackneyed directors’ devices and scenery will not put the audience off. The so-called director dictatorship can also come among the conventional downsides. Directors tend to impose their vision on the conductor, singers, and the audience. There was an incident when the Romanian opera star Angela Gheorghiu would not wear a costume which she disliked, and the director dismissed her from the production saying, “With or without you, but tonight this wig is going on stage.”

Such practices will have their exceptions. The most successful productions are never dumped, they run for years on end. Also, one can come across something like repertory theaters in the West, but they are very uncommon.


A serial or project approach to management, along with the contract system, could well be applied in Ukraine, at least as an alternative which could compete with the conventional repertory approach. This would only do good in all aspects including aesthetic, since such approaches give impetus to the theater, and create incentives for the innovation for which our audience longs. Unlike European operas, their Ukrainian counterparts often offer nothing but slightly retouched Soviet-era productions, a mediocre performance, and a troupe whose composition remains obscure till the very last moment. The competition with opera houses with up-to-date management would make repertory theaters catch up, too.

“Switching to a contract system would help solve a load of problems,” says Roman Kofman, one of Ukraine’s best known present-day conductors. “But it requires the will, courage, and resoluteness in men who would not fear to look around, and especially look up. What we need is a radical break up of the traditions of operation our music companies are stuck in. Retouching and reform will yield no results, since the very underlying principles of operation (say, of opera houses) are to be changed.”

Revolution cannot be imposed from above, so Kofman is skeptical about the possibility of finding a centralized solution to this problem via government decisions. “The state has nothing to do with it,” he says, “You are most welcome to take the first step and try something new. But the individuals somewhere halfway between Ukraine’s top establishment and bands are extremely reluctant to change anything, as that would involve a lot of threats for them.”

Kofman is one of those men who are very welcome in the West, so he has experienced the advantages of the European system. “I have worked a lot on a permanent basis with European orchestras, plus I have spent five years working for the Bonn opera and the Beethoven Orchestra Bonn.

“I have got only good impressions, because it has always been hard work offering both mental and physical challenge and demanding good personal organizational skills. This imposes discipline on conductors themselves – at least because in Europe they don’t enjoy as many rights and powers as here. Working with a band or theater in the West, you have to rely on your own creative potentiality and authority, which you have to confirm every day and every minute.”


Despite the stereotypical image of “song-loving Ukrainians” and their “golden voices,” Ukraine does not have long-standing traditions in professional music. In a sense, it couldn’t have been otherwise, although, according to Kofman, we were even able to surpass Europe in certain areas: “Overtaking the West is to be a long-term goal for Ukraine. It’s going to take us long – if we are ever able at all to master the skills of European-style music management. The gap has been there for centuries. But, music education in our country is better organized, and I’m prepared to prove it. But after that all sorts of problems arise.”

At a glance, it is impossible to change the current situation in Ukraine for objective reasons. The reform of state theater management structure is an overwhelming challenge because of the resistance of all the die-hards. The European approach to management is not perfect either, and it also requires critical approach. A singular attempt at implementing it, made by Serhii Proskurnia at the Odesa Opera a few years ago, resulted in a scandal and finally failed as it met fierce resistance. Opinions about this conflict may differ, but one thing is obvious: attempts to Westernize Ukrainian opera have so far failed.

Consequently, it is more appropriate to hope for the arrival of new traditions on the rise of privately-owned or even commercial opera houses in Ukraine, rather than on updating of “official art.”  Meanwhile, it is clear that this is a distant prospect, since the scale of such projects is directly proportional to the desire of the big business to invest in art, on the one hand, and the readiness of Ukrainians with average incomes to pay a fair price for it on the other.

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