I admit to some surprise that a new work can make it to the stage at Covent Garden and be received with near universally dismal reviews. I’ve never been involved in creating an opera but I have been involved in any number of large complex projects and I’ve also studied the processes by which projects with a creative component can best be accomplished (I’ve done this for both R&D and advertising). Creating an opera is a project and one would think it would make sense to adopt the same sort of project management principles one would use for bringing a fighter jet to production or developing a piece of software. It’s not like there isn’t a wealth of (really boring) literature on project management. The PMBOK or PRINCE-2 manuals make great bed time reading for insomniacs. Obviously, good project management isn’t enough and I know only too well the pressures that are applied to keep projects going that should have been killed off, especially in the public sector, and I’m prepared to believe that they apply to opera; unwilingness to admit the project was ill conceived, not wanting to be the bad guy, not wanting to take bad news upstairs etc. I’ve seen project teams and their leadership flayed alive by senior management for suggesting a project was doomed (and seen the project continued at many times the estimated cost for a fraction of the benefit). That doesn’t mean one ought not to try.
So, based on my experience here’s some things I would do to up the odds of creating a successful product:
1. As far as possible define expectations up front. I know writing an opera is “creative” but presumably the commissioning management has some idea of what they want.
2. Have a robust gating process. Define the gates the product has to pass and have someone very senior responsible for go/no go at every gate. In opera this has to be the GD or, if a copro, all the GDs involved. Gating can always be fudged but this approach minimises the risk and, anyway, no-one else in the organization will second guess the GD’s call on such an issue. If the “boss” isn’t involved the gating will be fudged. I learnt this in advertising! (1)
3. Workshop the thing to death at every stage with external involvement. In my days with a Tier 1 consulting firm we had something called “colour teams” (different colours for different work products). Project or proposal teams were encouraged to convene colour reviews of their work products. A colour team would consist of people from outside the engagement team that the team thought could best provide input (i.e. experts selected by the practitioners involved not corporate QC/Risk Management wonks). The colour team would review, say, a proposal, ask questions of the team then make suggestions and bugger off. The ownership of the product and the decision to adopt the advice or not rested entirely with the project team. It worked. One of the things I’ve learned about the opera world from social media is that people tend to be seriously over generous to things they are personally involved in. I think it’s natural but it’s not what’s needed to produce great product. Thanks to the cast of Enchanted Island for that insight. In short, one needs a process that mitigates in group consensus without constraining creative freedom. Colour teams do that rather well.
New works are always going to be a risk but I believe the risk can and should be managed. It’s not just that an expensive failure is money down the drain. Every flop increases the number of people who think “they don’t like new operas” and thereby increases the risk that the next project will also bomb.
fn1: See my almost entirely wrong but much cited article – Gilks, John F., A.T. Kearney, Management Consultants in Toronto, ‘Total Quality: Wave of the Future,” Canadian Business Review, Spring 1990, pp. 17-20