We talked to Eleanor Burke, Founder and Artistic Director of Green Opera, about how they make their opera shows more sustainable, as well as their lockdown projects: Iolanthe and Isolated Incidents.
Tell us a bit about your company. What does your company stand for?
Green Opera is a non-profit with a vision for making music and drama in a way that is environmentally sustainable. It is run by Founder & Artistic Director, Eleanor Burke and Executive Director, Lizzie Thomas supported by a network of talented creatives who are dedicated to inspiring others both to engage with the arts and to take care of the world around them.
What sort of things do you produce? Why?
Green Opera programmes a variety of works from both the mainstream operatic repertoire in addition to lesser known or contemporary works. We hope to introduce the public who may be unfamiliar with opera as an art-form to the full spectrum of music and drama that it has to offer. Over the past year we premiered two new works, Eleanor Burke’s Fillu and Karolina Csáthy’s Gesualdo.
Fillu is best described as an epistolary opera. It tells the story of the romance between Robert Schumann and Clara Schumann’s youngest daughter, Eugenie, and the renowned soprano Marie Fillunger or ‘Fillu’. Both of these women led extraordinary lives in Germany and England in the late 19th-century but their history and their relationship has been sadly overlooked. When Eugenie wrote her memoir after Marie Fillunger’s death, her life-long love was barely mentioned. Their love for each other was necessarily kept a secret throughout their life-time. The piece therefore serves as the unwritten memoir, the story that they themselves could not ever tell. The piece premiered in Emmanuel College, Cambridge in November 2019 and has since been performed at The Minerva Festival 2020 and The Piano Gallery at The Royal Academy of Music Museum. It was due to be performed at The Cambridge Brahms Festival 2020 and at JAM on the Marsh 2020 but these live performances were sadly postponed due to Covid-19.
Gesualdo marked another telling of an untold story. In Karolina Csáthy’s interdisciplinary exploration of the Renaissance composer’s life, Carlo Gesualdo relived his tragic past in a moving monologue that interacted with his sumptuous vocal music performed by the consort Accordare. The piece premiered in Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge and will be returning to London in late 2020.
Before COVID-19, we were working towards a production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, which will be returning in March 2021. We have relocated to a 1960s office as we wanted to break away from telling a story of outdated class values and instead focus on a far more relatable world of office politics. An office also made us hold the characters more accountable as with Susanna as a secretary rather than a servant and the Countess as a modern woman free to divorce her husband - the choices these women make become more complicated. We settled on 1960 as this was something of a turning point in modern society: women were increasingly becoming sexually liberated but were still repressed by a largely patriarchal society.
What are you working on at the moment?
During lockdown, the Green Opera creative team have not been idle. We are delighted to announce two digital projects. The first is a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic operetta Iolanthe featuring a galaxy of young stars. The operetta is rehearsed and performed entirely in isolation and will be released in 10 episodes during the month of August. This has been a really exciting opportunity for us to work with young performers from across the world. We have singers across the UK and even Canada and New Zealand taking part! Audiences will also be able to take part by submitting videos of themselves singing the final chorus, which will be included in the final episode!
Our second lockdown project is Isolated Incidents, an original series of contemporary operatic scenes reflecting on an experience of isolation. This series of 3-5 minute scenes feature works composed by a diverse range of young composers and performed by some incredible young musicians. We are really excited to work with the next generation of contemporary opera composers and to give our online audiences an opportunity to access these new works.
Digital projects are really exciting for us as they are far more environmentally-sustainable than live performances as they do not require performers to travel to rehearsal or performance or for us to heat and light the performance/rehearsal venues.
How does sustainability come into your practice/content?
Producing sustainable theatre is not as complicated as it sounds. At the moment we are focussed on ensuring that all of our resources are sustainably source. We upcycle props, costumes or scenery and recycle anything we no longer have a use for. We also use a paperless ticketing system and where printing is unavoidable, we do so on recycled paper.
We are also interested in repurposing buildings: many of our productions take place in spaces that are not designed for theatrical use such as churches and libraries. We hope to extend our interest to abandoned and neglected spaces in the future in order to rejuvenate spaces that have been neglected. We know that there is always room for growth and improvement. With the help of our dedicated Environmental Officers, we are constantly look to find ways to improve the sustainability of our practice and share our knowledge with the rest of the arts community.
By producing our work sustainably and supplementing our performances with discussions and Q&As about environmental issues we hope to educate our audiences and the wider public about environmental causes and to be an example to other arts organisations by showing them that theatre can be sustainable. We also regularly share environmental resources online, most notably via our #SustainableSunday campaign!
In 2021, we plan to start delivering workshops at schools to introduce children to opera and also encourage to take care of the world around them. We are also eager to work with vocational training establishments and young artist programmes to deliver workshops in being an environmentally-friendly performer and sustainable production design. We want to ensure that the next generation of artists are equipped with the tools they need to pursue their vocation sustainably.
We have also started a ‘Seats for Seeds’ scheme - in which we plant a tree in the Eden Reforestation Project for every ticket we sell to our performances. Eden is one of the most cost-effective reforestation projects (c. 2p/tree). It operates in Nepal, Madagascar, Indonesia, Mozambique, and Haiti where deforestation has caused extensive damage to natural ecosystems and exacerbated extreme poverty among forest-dependent human communities. Eden collaborates directly with these local communities, employing them to plant the trees and providing them with the education and tools necessary to plant and cultivate trees.
What have the highlights been of running a sustainable company? What have you learnt?
Running a sustainable theatre company has been a very steep learning curve but it has been wonderful to realise that we are not alone. It can be a daunting thing to turn your back on the traditional way of doing things but it’s been amazing to feel part of a growing community of artists who want to change the future of theatre for the better.
What have the difficulties of running a sustainable company? What have you learnt?
Sometimes reconciling our artistic and environmental aims can be challenging. Creative visions have to be able to be realised sustainably and sometimes we have to let go of an idea because it cannot be sustainably produced. However, normally these limitations actually lead to more creative ideas even if the process takes a bit more time.
Sometimes we get asked whether we would ever consider performing at a prestigious venue that did not have sustainable practice. We don’t feel that this should be a choice, rather, we aim to set an example and to encourage venues to work with us to build a more eco-friendly future. In our experience, we have always found that the venues and individuals we have worked with are willing not only to allow us to work sustainably but often they will take the initiative and come back to us with suggestions and brilliant ideas on how we can improve.
Who should carry the responsibility for making the theatre/entertainment industry more sustainable?
The responsibility lies with everyone. If we wait for those whom we perceive to have the most power and influence over the industry to change, change will never happen. Declaring yourself to be a sustainable performer or company shouldn’t feel daunting. We understand that not everyone can immediately be carbon neutral but that is no reason not to try. There is always a change you make, no matter how small. The responsibility is on everyone to try even if they aren’t able to immediately succeed. After all, art itself is all about a constant process, an evolution and a journey towards developing further insight. Working sustainably is no different: it is about taking that first step and continuing to listen and to grow.
Tips and tricks: What can emerging artists/companies do to be more eco-friendly?
Obviously we can give you a few simple tricks like buying second hand scores (Travis and Emery is our current favourite!) using recycled costumes/props and recycling what you use for your production if you do not intend to use it again. However, the list of things you can do and the things that we ourselves do is vast and varies from production to production. So, it really boils down to one key piece of advice: ask questions.
Ask questions to the community you are working in: The support and advice is out there on how to be more eco-friendly. We still ask for help and advice as the research is changing all the time and there is always more you can do. Your journey to becoming a sustainable artist will lead you to some amazing and inspiring people from a diverse range of backgrounds and fields. By staying curious you will grow as an artist and as a member of the sustainable community.
Ask questions to the places you are working with: you have the right to ask whether whether the venues or festivals you are working have an environmental policy and to interrogate it thoroughly. If you ask, you may find (as we have) that they are willing to give you even more support to realise your vision than you expected. Don’t be afraid to challenge them if you feel that they could be doing more. By accepting the present, we will never change the future.
Inspiration: Is there anyone else whose work in the arts and/or sustainability is inspiring you?
We have met so many inspiring people and organisations and I’m sure we will meet many more. To pick three:
Julie’s Bicycle: a London based charity that supports the creative community to act on climate change and environmental sustainability.
Orchestra for the Earth: An orchestra of extraordinary musicians championing the environmental movement.
The Handelbards: Cycling Shakespearean actors who carry all of their set, props and costumes on the back of their bikes, performing extremely energetic, charmingly chaotic and environmentally sustainable Shakespeare plays across the UK.