Göteborg Opera: A Model For Cultural Health

Words by Jordan McHenry 

Göteborg is a city of roughly 570,000 people nestled on the west coast of Sweden, tucked far away from the American consciousness, both in physical and cognitive distance. About the size of Albuquerque, New Mexico, I’m not sure even a knowledgeable American could identify it on a map, let alone be able to lecture on its cultural significance. In my imagination, it is a Nordic dreamland full of well-designed furniture and polar bears. But one very special, national treasure sets it apart, even more, from most American cities of similar size:

The Göteborg Opera.

The Göteborg Opera is one of the premiere art houses in the world. A distinguished ornament on the tree of humanities’ collective artistic accomplishments, it is also “the professional home to tens of soloists, 38 dancers, an orchestra of 86 musicians and a 46-singer strong opera chorus.” Amongst progressive and broadly impacting contemporary dance companies, Göteborg Opera is a leading figure.

(Which is not to say I’m knocking Albuquerque. I mean, Albuquerque is the Hot Air Balloon Capital of the world! But I digress for comparison’s sake…) 

This past weekend I was whisked away to a Viking socialist reverie when I attended both programs of the Göteborg Opera at Sadlers Wells Theater in London. The two shows demonstrated how grandiosity, with regards to creativity and skill,  is conceived, developed and executed. (Apparently such grandiosity is the result of health care + arts funding? Who knew?)

The first night’s performance, Icon, and the second, Noetic, were both choreographed by The Royal Ballet of Flanders’ Artistic Director, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. In addition to the powerfully nuanced and skilled dancers, Icon brought 3.5 tons of clay to the stage. Molded, maneuvered and thrown by the dancers, the clay became a character itself. It deployed political and personal themes, as in the moments when it was pelted across the stage as a weapon or morphed into a phallic representation or used to depict a newborn baby. A spectacle of this scale can only be achieved by an organization with a fascinating collective imagination and deep pockets. As soon as this thought crossed my mind, the company of dancers ironically burst into a rendition of Sia’s “No Cheap Thrills.” I couldn’t have agreed more. 

Noetic, a piece that Göteborg Opera has been touring for over 4 years, is equally epic in scope. Comprised of Cherkaoui’s signatures — including long tracks of intellectual dialogue, metaphysical content, and articulate arm gestures — the piece has a spectacular trajectory. The climax was one of sculptural brilliance and ultimately united the dancer and audience in a slow moment of reflection. Again, the show seemed to be the pan-ultimate manifestation of wealth: intellectual, artistic, kinesthetic and yes, monetary. Did I mention the live music?

I could speak to many meaningful and exciting elements of the two programs, but the freedom to think big and create on magnificent scales seemed most significant because it clearly comes from bedrock support and a deep devotion to cultural health and well-being. It’s worth acknowledging that small scale, independent artists are equally, if not more so, important to the fabric of local arts communities. But if only American popular culture cared about contemporary art as much as we care about half-time shows and the Kardashians, maybe every city in our country could boast rich traditions in equal measure to this small Scandinavian city that serve artistic developments and purposes beyond simple capitalistic consumption.

Did you know they have real reindeer in Sweden too? A wonderland indeed.

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