Statement on Quality by opera singer Nikola Matisic

On Quality and the art of Classical Music in Sweden

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve written this from a very personal point of view,
as a solitary Opera Singer in Sweden, deeply concerned not only about our
general lack of recognition of quality in the arts but in the general avoidance
in our society of the concept. I have studied and worked outside of Sweden for
more than ten years but have always put a keen interest into the goings on
within my special field in this country.

What I’m about to say might seem like I invoke the lamenting songs of
Jeremiah, but rest assured; my humanistic brain still has unflinching dreams of
great things to come for the art of Opera in our country and everywhere else.
Because of my sometimes personal connections to the places and situations I
mention, I will utilise some discretion, and hopefully the picture will be clear
enough anyway.

The question at hand is this; Why do we need quality? Who needs it?

Quality, as a concept, is not a final destination or a conclusive fact.
Instead it is quite simply and profoundly the constant and life-long ambition
from both the artist and the lover of the arts to constantly try and push the
boundaries of our humanity. Simply put; to constantly search for and refine that
deepest common denominator.

But this pushing requires the frustrating dialectic between the naïve
idealism of the ambitious youths and the pragmatic practicality of the very few
artists who actually made a viable career out the arts. The quality, in itself,
is in the process and the ambition of the individual. Any artist wanting to
excel must specialize in quality, and the lover of arts has the right to demand
this.

My acting teacher in Holland complained about Dutch theatre; “We are too
diplomatic! There is no conflict in the Dutch character, therefore we don’t make
good drama”. Something similar can be said about us Swedes. We don’t demand
things from each other. We hope for the best, in silence.

But this Swedish lack of confrontation and demand within the arts is not
something innately grown from the Scandinavian gene-pool. Like our newly
developed food-culture it’s an acquired thing. And we haven’t yet.

It’s therefore quite predictable when I meet new people at social occasions
that some of them eventually ask me to sing something, to show them my voice, my
sound, my… trick. After all, there are only slightly less than three hundred
professional opera singers in Sweden. Most people never see one in person. A bit
like safari!

Invariably I think of medical doctors unable to squirm out of their
performing impromptu examinations and diagnoses of blisters, lumps or pains at
parties or other social get-togethers. -But why not? , people ask when I very
politely decline.

Sometimes I give in and sometimes it even turns out that singing to strangers
is all for the better. But I didn’t start singing just to heal people or improve
the local economy. I started to sing just because it was possible. I started
only because I could.

It’s strange to be placed in an instrumental position, either in those
personal situations or when the official debate specifies public health issues
as inherently connected to enjoyment of the arts. But I understand and respect
the curiosity even though I regret the underlying dynamic.

The individuals that need and enforce this instrumental function of the arts
are the people who actually don’t care about the arts, but are forced to deal
with it, through their work, duty, ideology or social function. Politicians
selected for the cultural committee by their party leader even though they don’t
give a damn, or administration officials who just want a job, voters who are
looking for reciprocity to their own special interests or journalists looking
for a good new conflict to ignite.

There’s a story that comes to mind, about an old Chinese Emperor. Please
excuse me if you have heard this story before.

Famed for his love and deep appreciation of art, he sought out the
greatest of all calligraphers to commemorate his general greatness. With his
whole court trailing behind, the Emperor eagerly travelled to the humble abode
of this particular artist.

“Great artist”, the Emperor proclaimed. “In my honour, you shall create
your masterpiece”. The artist, still with his forehead to the ground in front of
the whole court and the emperor, answered; “It shall be done, greatest of all
Emperors. Return in one year and you shall have your masterpiece”.

Without a word, the Emperor casually turned around to his immense retinue
and they departed in a great yellow cloud of billowing dust.

The following year the same situation unfolded, but this time the parting
was less than harmonious. Should the Emperor return again without the artwork
being finished, the artist himself would become the legendary artwork.

Thus it was with grim apprehension that the Emperor approached the artist
on the third occasion. “Well, artist”? The Emperor crooned. The artist sputtered
into the dust: “Son of Dragons, Master of the Winds, most holy of Emperors, Your
masterpiece is done!”

A wave of anticipation breezed through the uncountable gathering. The
artist scrambled on to his feet, with unimaginable precision he set up his
tools, and placed a totally blank canvas in front of the smiling but confused
Emperor.

With the eyes of a viper, the artist gripped a fresh brush in his hand,
dipped it in ink and walked up to the blank canvas. He stilled his body and with
the slightest moves of his wrist he painted the most perfect swan imaginable in
the history of Calligraphy.

“There” he said, putting down his brush “my unimaginable, unobservable
Emperor. It is done”. The stunned silence ripped through the air. “What? What?
Who? What?” The Emperor started breathing again. “I waited all these years and
you.. you” He pointed at the canvas with a trembling finger.

The artist, being used to teaching his art to many young pupils, took the
Emperor gently by the arm. “My most revered Emperor. I do not usually show this
to any of my customers, but I know you are a lover of the arts and therefore I
know you will understand. Please follow me.” Together they walked into a huge
barn behind the Artists house.

Inside the barn, stacked high, thousands and yet more thousands of
canvases hung, from floor to ceiling. Everywhere! On each and every one of them,
a perfect swan. The Emperor stood still, taking it all in, then looked at the
artist. And with a whisper he said; “You are indeed the greatest of all
artists”.

In the beginning of this year, the present Swedish government published the
results of their Commission of Enquiry on Culture. Amongst other things, they
decided to remove the word QUALITY from the original text written in the
Seventies.

Certainly, if I prefer a Ford Pinto to a Porsche GT we might say many things
about me, but not that I base my choice on a sense of quality.

On some matters, Quality seems to be easily defined. But in art, quality is
the core value. It’s the whole point of the matter. How can that issue be
excluded from the discussion?

You don’t need to follow politics or current affairs long before you realize
something about the general culture in our country; it is not a good PR-strategy
for politicians or strong business leaders to be officially passionate about art
just because it makes their lives more meaningful. In Sweden, the people who
care most about the arts are the ones who don’t have the power or the wallet to
sponsor it.

In fact, the rich people don’t seem to care about art at all, except for
curious investment or, sometimes a little bragadaccio. Imagine the message a Van
Gogh in the lobby sends to your clients.

In politics, on the other hand, art has somehow managed to wrest itself free
from qualitative accountability, and yet still retain funding. On the surface it
looks inspiring; the Gothenburg Opera is expanding, we have the recently
publicized plans to revamp the Stockholm Concert Hall and of course, the
constant talk of how all the other Scandinavian cities manage to build pompous
new opera houses except for Stockholm, but the discussion always veers away from
any talk about if they actually are qualitative enough to expand.

I mean, we are, after all, putting billions on the table..

But the tip toeing around the subject is not new, and for a reason. The
discussion of quality in art has always been vaporous and the effects not always
positive. Sometimes it has seemed like quality was the last thing on anyone’s
mind.

In the Seventies, art played an instrumental role in strengthening the
political ideals of that time. During the nineties, art and culture was
effectively branded an economic force, strengthening tourism and healing the
sick.

This also implied that all areas of government had to follow the same
regulations, including the arts.

Which meant, for instance, that purpose-built several hundred years old
theatres had to start paying market rent to the city as if they could move
somewhere else (and who would be able to use the Opera house when emptied?) if
they couldn’t afford it and the retirement age of all artists including ballet
dancers and operatic singers was bumped up to the artistically ripe age of
65.

That particular problem has been dealt with, more or less, albeit only after
a great deal of protests. And it is indicative of the qualitative anomalies that
this kind of system might produce. In fact I would claim that the illusiveness
of quality in art is related to such seemingly diverse issues as the present
lack of ideology in politics or the difficulties facing free scientific
research. They are all ingredients of the same stew.

Still, I suggest that the gravest danger to the art of classical music is
when the younger generation stops criticizing. They are no longer used to listen
to this kind of music. Listening is an art form in itself, and to them, it’s now
become a foreign language. We have failed utterly to give them a language of
listening.

This has to do with image, and we in the business of classical music are all
guilty of this. We have failed to communicate the immense power of our art form
and the possibilities it has.

Imagine that marketing departments in Opera still struggle feebly with the
odd image that opera is for the posh, even though a ticket to a Bruce
Springsteen concert or a football game is many times more expensive than any
opera ticket and that most office workers earn more or less the same as any
regular opera singer.

A sitting ticket for a Champions League game is several hundred euro. And
that’s not the expensive seats. On top of that you need hotel and the travelling
expenses. But football is for the people, so the prize is suddenly immaterial.
It’s an own goal that the business of Opera is still struggling with this.

Imagine an ancient art form, developed over centuries, practiced in solitude
by old masters and young apprentices, striving for perfection. The mastery of
their bodies in the moment of highest demand. Many such art forms are respected
and revered by young people all over the world, namely the martial art forms. If
any branding department are in search for a matching analogy, this is it. The
most advanced and complex form of art that ever sprung out of European history.

And not only marketing departments have let themselves go; Since there are no
people today at the concert houses anywhere in Sweden specialized on the art of
singing, the whole casting process is now effectively run by agents.

Some agents are fair, certainly, but the fundamental issue is that the
concert houses cannot tell the quality of a singer, do not know themselves what
type of artists they want and only have the agents to go to for advice. And
since there are only two agencies for singers in Sweden, you can imagine how
this affects the dynamic.

Recently I was in a production at a Swedish opera house where one of the
soloists fell ill and a substitute was flown in from overseas. After the show
our producer came up to me and asked if he should be satisfied with the
substitute. The producer, the actual individual centrally responsible for the
production, had no way of telling the quality of the artist. Unfortunately, I
was not surprised by this.

At our national educational facilities, all musical academies educate concert
singers on expensive courses that span several years. The only draw back is that
there is no career for a concert singer in this country and hasn’t been for
decades. There is no classical singer in Sweden that makes a living on pure
concert work. Churches stopped paying valid fees a long time ago and also
frequently hire amateurs for a pittance even for more complicated pieces.

The reason is simple; the audiences in the churches seem not to care about
the quality of the soloists anymore, and the churches do not feel like they need
to and many are not able to pay for quality.

And on top of that, both of the main Swedish operatic educational facilities,
with one of the most expensive curricula in our country, with only fighter
pilot-training costing more, today sport top leadership who are hired purely as
managerial staff, principals without any knowledge on artistic or musical
matters. They are not hired to guide the students in their careers or their
artistic choices. They are there to manage the organization and the staff.

I understand the reasoning, I really do. That’s not the point. A new world
needs new thoughts, and these leaders are good people that understand this
paradigm well. The point is that there is nobody else in the staff that have the
capacity to guide and prepare the students in their future career.

Not at the academies, not at the operatic schools, not in the churches, not
at the concert houses, not at the opera houses, nowhere! What I’m saying is that
this new system has quickly isolated the artists from the practice of the art
form itself.

The effect is slowly being noticed; at a recent audition to one of the
professional opera choruses, there were two vacancies. Thirty people auditioned
many recent graduates from our academies around the country. The standard of the
singers were such, unfortunately, that only one place could be filled.

And to compound this fact; Today in the business of Opera, nobody at the
opera houses or the concert halls or the churches, for that matter, are given
the duty or possesses the knowledge of working with, planning, developing and
strengthening the artist in the long term, in his or her career.

It is today solely the task of the artists himself to make sure he trains the
right roles, in the right way, with the right attitude and the right technical
rigour. And to tell you the truth, you just can’t do that on your own.

The world of opera is innately international, and the development outside of
Sweden has been much tougher, faster, harsher and less forgiving. As all young
artists today are forced to become freelancers, there will be many times when
the artist is alone when facing immense challenges. In the older tradition,
artistic directors and opera houses allowed younger singers to work for years
inside the house, to build their knowledge and technical and artistic strength.

Outside of Sweden, apprenticeship contracts are starting to emerge, giving
younger singers the opportunity to receive training while working in smaller
roles on the big stages. I have personally written and said to the leaders of
our national houses for years urging them to start this system. I am still
hoping!

Taking a step back, all this perhaps reveals an ominous view over the art of
opera, but what of the future?

In my view, everyone would survive even though an opera house was to be shut
down forever. The art would perhaps be reduced to nothing, but people would go
about their lives just like normal. In fact, exactly like normal. We need to
understand this, as caretakers of an art. It is not a force of nature. It is a
very human and contemporary art form.

The National Agency for Higher education that are tasked by the government to
evaluate all educational bodies, allow the schools themselves to set the
standards by which they are to be graded, and then, together with an external
consultant, evaluate if they meet their own standards. At no point is the school
evaluated against the need of the art form or the art world or business of that
art form itself, by the active body of artists or the active audience that
depend on such educational facilities for replenishment and renewal.

In essence; the evaluation system encapsulates the educational bodies, making
it separate from the very art it serves.

And there is a strong structure or system deficiency hindering the debate on
quality. The artistic and educational bodies are all hemmed in by their
political decree.

But it is my belief that the effort to reboot the discussion on quality is
the strongest way to infuse life into the art again, because it is not the
artists that keep the art alive, it is the people who find fulfilment and
meaning in the enjoyment of the arts who do this.

As an artist I do not profit from the lack of demands. I need my audience and
my critics to have a wide vocabulary and a skilled ear. I do not profit from the
empty void of discussion on the ideals and goals on art. In media, criticism is
essentially dead. The lack of insight and factual knowledge, or even ambition,
from the point of journalism has left a huge and painful void, making it mostly
irrelevant to the practitioner in terms of artistic value.

We need critique, we need demands and we need our audience to grip the handle
of quality by the hilt and hurl it heavily against our glass tank. Otherwise we
will suffocate on our own CO2. It is through that serious communication that the
art will thrive and live. The artist and the lover of the arts. But one cannot
live without the other.

And I suspect that society as a whole needs it, too. Quality in political
ideology, in administration, in reasoning, in finances, in compassion, in ethics
and in science, is of equal value to our society as quality in the arts.

Within this text, this Jeremiad, this Lament, I have outlined specific areas
or trouble-spots. Just by doing this I hope that solutions are equally
recognized. Changing a structure is painful and will cause conflict, but the
goal must be the quality of the art form and the quality of the relation between
the artist and the lover of the arts. Always.

I hope that, even if at first we might blunder and make mistakes, and perhaps
throw a hurtful word or two, through this process we will find a deeper meaning
and observe greater possibilities, both as artists and lovers of the arts. Thank
you for your time.

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