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Cross the line and leave a trail


'We evolved from apes into humans into hamsters. Now, who’s idea was that?'


As General and Artistic Director of the Dutch National Touring Opera I was invited to speak at the Europa Cantat 2016 conference *. I feel incredibly passionate about being an advocate for culture and the arts, and I thank the organisation for the invitation to be your keynote speaker.


In the increasingly faster changing world in which we live we have to fight harder than ever for values -such as kindness, beauty, patience, consideration, honesty, generosity- in which we believe. We also have to be ever vigilant about maintaining our structure of culture. In a world in which dominant personalities and bullies get their way, and a world in which the importance of the arts is often reduced to merely identifying what it costs. We have become a money-driven species. We evolved from apes into humans into hamsters. Now, who’s idea was that?


Yes, we all know that culture costs, and that financial profit is not easy to harvest. In fact: it is easier to avoid taxes than to make a profitable theatre production. Most politicians know what it costs, and yet they (and we) somehow find it incredibly difficult to define what it is worth. What is culture worth to us? When we know that it is the immaterial profit we share with one another!


We share baby-pictures and pictures of our
pets at the drop of a hat and for free. Why has it
become such an effort to share art and culture?


Let’s go on a little journey together. A journey of exploration into the dimensions of our love of singing, our feeling for community spirit, our commitment to the arts and their vital importance not only in our own lives, but in the lives of others. Especially the lives of future generations. We are used to the future appearing on our doorstep on a daily basis. Do we remember that we, together, are also co-creating the future?


I suppose the first time in my life I crossed a major line was when I was 21 years old. It is called the English Channel. After completing my degree in music and biblical studies at Sheffield University, and one year of a two-year postgraduate course in opera at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. I stepped on a plane to start a new life as a professional singer in the Dutch Radio Chorus in Hilversum. Back then Hilversum was the undisputed centre of all Dutch media.


For ten years I loved my work. BUT: I hated my work too!


I felt the enormous joy of earning a good living to sing in a chorus of international recognition, but also the enormous frustration of feeling isolated and at the same time surrounded by 70 other singers on a daily basis. We all know how complicated singers can be! I think everyone can imagine the burden of singing on an assembly line. I sometimes felt as if I were stuck in the same traffic jam as the one getting to and from Hilversum.


So I resigned!


Around a year after resigning from my secure job, I found myself conducting a total of seven amateur- and semi-professional choirs, teaching singing at two conservatoria and generally making all the mistakes that young professional musicians do: doing everything that looked like fun to me, and not asking myself whether it was too much, or where it was heading.

After about two years, in 2001, I became chorus master at the Nederlandse Reisopera (Dutch National Touring Opera), three years later I was head of artistic administration and six years after that I was general and artistic director of the Netherlands’ largest touring opera company. I suppose I crossed a few lines on the way, but I haven’t pondered on every achievement that much. In retrospect they felt like little steps.


But let’s define the word ‘largest’ for a moment– because exactly at the moment I commenced my tenure as director, the arts sector in the Netherlands was cut to such an extent that more than three thousand people lost their jobs. The sector was framed by the political uproar as being the hobby of the left wing elite. This left us feeling insulted, abandoned and abused. We were grabbed by the pussy before anyone dared to call it that!


The sector itself reacted with appalling indignation and found itself incapable of constructive response. Yes, the decimation of the arts in the Netherlands was nothing more than political revenge. And at the same time: all we could do was cry ‘rape’, and run for cover.


The Dutch National Touring Opera- pre-2013- was a company employing almost 100 people bringing five to six productions per season to theatres across The Netherlands. As 2013 started we were a company comprising of fourteen employees with a budget decimated by more than sixty percent. My job, my task and my calling was nothing less than to cross the line; for the sake -not only of the company- but also for our audiences. You see, it is my conviction that one definition of a democracy is that you have a choice. Not only that, but that in any democracy everyone should have the right of ‘access to high quality art’. The exact same access to sources of inspiration. If the only choice you have to see an opera production is to journey to the capital city, at great expense, then you have no choice. Prescribed culture is, per definition, no culture at all. It is conditioning.


“There is no greater gift than that of discovering the voice; of singing.


In singing we express our deepest feelings and human spirit. When we do it right, it is not because we feel we have so much to share with those around us. It is more an act of invitation. Inviting the listener to engage with us as we open our hearts through our voices.”


And so we struggled and talked, talked and struggled. And laughed and wept. I placed my dreams next to the hard financial reality and, together with my amazing team, together; we crossed the line of doubt, not by shouting with indignation about how good we are, but by embracing our vulnerability. Allowing ourselves to make mistakes in reinventing ourselves and sharing our innermost thoughts and passions. Not only in maximum transparency with each other and our audiences but also with stakeholders throughout the country.


That included and still includes sharing our thoughts and convictions with many of the politicians –we knew- who would rather have seen the last of us.


Our very first production of 2013, for which some had called me reckless for programming -Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde- won the award for Opera of the Year 2013 after a public vote on the Dutch opera website, Place de L’Opera.


Our audience figures since then have seen a rise of a stunning three hundred percent, and we continue to go from strength to strength. We crossed the line with a potent mix of bravery, artistic ambition, reality and pragmatism and above all determination.


Many expected us to stumble. And in many respects we did and we still will. But nobody has ever climbed a mountain without doing so. It must have been my biblical study that helped me to develop faith. Not just faith in salvation but faith in a common destiny.



Part of our opera journey was about under-dressing (and, yes, undressing) our product. Doing away with elaborate things which are so often associated with opera. Costly sets and costumes as large as my grandmother’s knickers. Dressing that was notoriously associated with opera. How on earth could we ever have forgotten the story-telling? In undressing our operas we strived to identify and communicate the real message of each production. To make it appeal to our audiences not just as entertainment, but also as a mirror to the soul, enabling contemplation and reflection.


For me personally, crossing the line in my leadership has evolved from crossing the line myself and hoping and expecting others to follow, into crossing the line together with my colleagues and our audiences. After all, the journey of discovery into the meaning of our work is one we must surely take together.


If I didn’t believe in leading by example before, I surely did from that period onwards.


Back to singing:

There is no greater musical gift than the gift of discovering the voice; of singing. In singing we express our deepest feelings and human spirit. When we do it right, it is not because we feel we have so much to share with those around us. It is more an act of invitation. Inviting the listener to engage with us as we open our hearts through our voices.


But maybe even greater than the gift of singing is the gift of singing-together. How glorious it is to march through a vocal score with our minds and bodies alert to ourselves and those around us. To be overwhelmed and to overwhelm. To bless and be blessed.


The Reisopera wholeheartedly crosses the line by bringing professionals and amateurs together.


On the 10th of December we will host and I will conduct the Sing-Along Messiah at the Royal Carré Theatre in Amsterdam. In the company of a professional chorus, Consensus Vocalis and the professional orchestra, the Orkest van het Oosten. More than a thousand people will arrive (in time) at 11.00 a.m., rehearse the chorus parts for 90 minutes, and thereafter embark on a musical journey.


10th of December: At the end of the day, people who didn’t think they could sing realise they can. People who enjoy beyond words the experience of making music together- literally good vibrations - will surely feel enriched. And I will have had one damned good blast.  10th of December!! There are still a few tickets!


“It is tempting to get stuck in the nineteenth century, but a bad idea. If we think that opera has a future, we must let go of its hey-days.”


There is no place left in our current society for professional cultural institutions to ignore engagement with our audiences. It is everyone’s responsibility to cross that line.


Just think for one moment about the last time you were truly inspired by something. Was it a person, a piece of music, a work of art? Maybe by a thought of your own? How vital inspiration it is to the work we do and love.


But inspiration without a plan is not enough. When there is no plan inspiration is merely a moment of emotional self-indulgence. So I want you to think about this? What’s your plan? What’s your significance? Do you do what you do simply because you enjoy doing it? Or is there more?


There are plenty of examples of cultural activities that engage the citizens of cities and towns across the world. From the amazing interactive productions of Birmingham City Opera to the Hearts in Harmony projects of Europa Cantat. Open hearted and all-inclusive.


But my question and message to you today is as follows: how do you cross your line? Do you even have a line to cross and what do you do when you get to the other side? I know you all will allow me to give you some advice:


Have a dream

Ambition begins with dreams.  “All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible” T.I. Lawrence


Have a dream together

Dream during the day, with your eyes open and with those around you. Reach for the stars and keep your feet on the ground. Talk and listen. Listen and talk.


Be brave

Share your dreams with others. Don’t be tempted to shroud your dreams in secrecy in fear of what another may think. Create projects which cross the line. Go find your line. And every time you’ve crossed it, go find a new one. Create projects which take others over the line. Create projects which change the way people think about themselves and the world around them. Remember, your love of music is not only a gift. It is also a responsibility.


Dare to fail

Fear and pride are without doubt the two greatest enemies of healthy ambition and a reflective soul. Be prepared to fail and embrace your doubt. Doubt is not your enemy, but your friend. There can be no faith in yourself when you don’t embrace doubt.


Examine your conscience

Examine your conscience on a daily basis. Are my motives good? Am I really doing this for the benefit of others? Am I crossing the line with the right intentions? Do I not become an employee of an assembly-line? Do I Re-boot my hard drive regularly?


Stand up and be counted

One of my favourite and overused quotes is owned, I believe, by Ted Sorensen, and was spoken by J.F. Kennedy just weeks before his death.


‘A nation which disdains the role of the artist has nothing to look back to with pride and nothing to look forward to with hope’ My news today is that there is not one politician in the world (well, maybe only a certain Canadian PM) who would still dare to utter these words.


In our current world where knowledge, integrity, honesty and curiosity appear to be things of the past, we have a mission. Our mission is to express the intrinsic value of art, it’s fundamental importance in our lives and the lives of future generations. It’s historical relevance and it’s capacity to shape lives, communities and indeed…nations. 

So, stand up and be counted.


Drones and virtual reality

Each year I attend two conferences. The Opera Europe conference and the Opera America conference: 3 or 4 days together with colleagues from across nations and physical borders.

We contemplate our art form, congratulate ourselves on our brilliance and usually go our separate ways with the feeling that we do good work but still have much to achieve.  


How else are we expected to have a future? The world of opera is especially bad at crossing the line. Opera is naturally conservative. For many opera companies the integration of projections in their productions is a huge adventure. It is tempting to get stuck in the nineteenth century, but a bad idea. If we think that opera has a future, we must let go of its hey-days.My ambition for the Reisopera finds its very foundations in the conviction that I don’t have all the answers to upcoming challenges.


On 30th of November we will start a 2- day festival exploring the integration of drones and virtual reality in music theatre. One production with drones and one an interactive production with virtual reality. Workshops for young people and a ‘hackathon’ for students of the University of Twente. It is an adventure that could fall flat on its face, but which embraces the fact that our lives as creative people are not a sat-nav. We do not have to know our destination before we leave home.


To conclude: you can’t cross the line before you find one to cross. So invent your lines, with courage, determination and conviction. Be vocal about your intentions and share them with the world. Know when to stand up to be counted. Embrace your love of music and, whatever you do, don’t keep it for yourself:


"Do not go where the path may lead,
go instead where there is no path.
Instead: go where there is no path,
and leave a trail."

R.W Emerson