How opera is aiming for net zero

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View of Glyndebourne Opera House exterior and grounds with opera goers gathered outside

Many opera companies are working towards full sustainability, and Glyndebourne is among those aiming to be a force for good, according to a new documentary.


A night at the opera is not typically equated with restraint, instead conjuring images of chandelier-filled theatres and arias performed in exquisite costumes against transportative stage sets. Yet, recent years have seen opera companies across the globe make a determined effort to operate more sustainably, implementing numerous strategies in a bid to reduce their carbon emissions and overall impact on the planet.

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This is, in part, the result of climate activists, who have increasingly targeted the arts and entertainment industries over the past few years with the aim of drawing greater attention to their cause. At the end of 2022, for instance, responding to mounting protests, the Royal Opera House cut ties with its long-time sponsor, the oil giant BP. Yet, it is also a response to the shifting expectations of audience members: according to a UK study conducted in 2022, 77% of audience members now expect theatres to address the climate emergency in their work – and opera houses are no exception.

The pandemic, while posing innumerable difficulties for the live entertainment industry, also offered an important pause for reflection. It was during this time that a number of UK theatre-makers joined forces with sustainability experts to conceive the Theatre Green Book, a publication setting a common standard for sustainable theatre production, and providing guidance on how best to achieve it. Divided into three volumes – sustainable productions, sustainable buildings and sustainable operations – spanning the many facets of what it means to run a theatre, the acclaimed guide has already been widely implemented.

Art, opera, nature [has always been] a core trinity for Glyndebourne – Phil Boot

A key collaborator in the creation of the Theatre Green Book was the historic East Sussex opera house Glyndebourne, renowned for its summer festival which draws thousands of opera lovers to the stately home’s verdant grounds each year. Glyndebourne has been forging a path towards greater sustainability in opera for some time. “Art, opera, nature [has always been] a core trinity for Glyndebourne,” explains its archivist Phil Boot in a new BBC documentary Take Me to The Opera: The Power of Glyndebourne.

In 2012, executive chairman Gus Christie oversaw the installation of a 67m (220ft)-tall wind turbine on a hill adjacent to the opera house, which between then and 2022 has generated the equivalent of 102% of the electricity used by the company in the same period. The turbine serves as an important statement of intent for Glyndebourne. Alison Tickell, the founder and chief executive of Julie’s Bicycle, a non-profit organisation dedicated to mobilising the UK arts and culture sectors in a fight against climate change, says in the documentary: “I know that many opera companies… don’t have the luxury of space. But [the turbine] still remains a beacon for us all [demonstrating] that climate action really matters.”

The grounds at Glyndebourne have been carefully tended for decades, and are central to the audience's experience (Credit: Getty Images)

The grounds at Glyndebourne have been carefully tended for decades, and are central to the audience’s experience (Credit: Getty Images)

Glyndebourne has innovated in sustainable practice in the years since. In 2021, it joined the global Race to Zero, pledging to halve its direct carbon emissions by 2030, and to reach net zero by 2050. “We are zero waste to landfill now, so any waste we have goes down to [an] incinerator, which provides power for local homes,” Christie says of some of the measures he and his team have taken to achieve this. “We compost all our garden waste, we recycle as much of our stage-set material, costumes, props [as we can]. We have about 32 electric vehicle charging points [for visitors] which are all charged from the wind turbine.” They are drawing from their resources in other ways, too: by the end of this year, they predict, all water served at Glyndebourne will come from the property’s own natural spring, while plants grown in their gardens are being used to produce dyes for the company’s costumes. “Rivers around the world are polluted by dyes a lot,” says dye room supervisor Jenny Mercer in the documentary. “This way everything goes back into the ground.”

Climate action

Glyndebourne isn’t the only opera company taking steps towards sustainability. It is now usual among major opera houses, from the English National Opera to Opéra National de Paris, to boast a dedicated webpage outlining their sustainability mission statements, including pledges to adhere to the UN sustainable development goals, facts and figures relating to their reduced energy consumption and carbon emissions, and details of their own planet-friendly solutions.

The rooftop of the Opéra Bastille, for example, is host to an urban farm, cultivated using agroecology, which also contributes to the thermal insulation of the building. This produces around a hundred weekly baskets of fruit and vegetables that are then sold to staff and local residents.

The Sydney Opera House has installed an artificial reef alongside the iconic building’s sea wall, encouraging marine biodiversity

The Sydney Opera House – a longstanding champion of environmental consciousness that achieved carbon neutrality in 2018 – has installed an artificial reef alongside the iconic building’s sea wall, encouraging marine biodiversity and supporting Sydney Harbour’s native species. Most recently, the opera house was awarded a six-star performance rating by the Green Building Council of Australia, the highest possible ranking. This is no mean feat given that perhaps the biggest challenge facing opera is achieving energy efficiency within its decades-, if not centuries-old, buildings. Indeed, in 2021, a survey by the UK’s Theatres Trust found that it would cost more than £1bn ($1.2bn) to make the UK’s theatre buildings sustainable.

Sydney Opera House has long been a champion of environmental consciousness (Credit: Getty Images)

Sydney Opera House has long been a champion of environmental consciousness (Credit: Getty Images)

In the meantime, many companies have been looking to achieve sustainability through new buildings, while doing what they can to reduce waste in their pre-existing spaces. The Royal Opera House’s production workshop just outside London, built in 2015, is in the top 10% of sustainable non-domestic buildings in the UK. While Milan’s storied opera house La Scala’s new office is a zero-energy building, producing more energy than it consumes thanks to rooftop solar panels and an open-cycle geothermal system. La Scala has also cut its carbon emissions by more than  630 tonnes since 2010, according to a recent New York Times article, having upgraded to LED and smart lighting.

Elsewhere, the Opéra de Lyon, Göteborg Opera and Tunis Opera are currently partnered on a new project investigating how best to implement the circular economy of production materials, while Leeds’ Opera North is soon to launch its first “green season”, using shared set design across its three productions, recycled or second-hand costumes, and including a new “eco-entertainment” work titled Masque of Might.

As the Theatres Trust’s study shows, there is still a long way to go, and a lot of money required, to make the changes necessary to safeguard the future of opera amid the ever-worsening climate crisis, but there appears to be no shortage of determination and imagination among opera houses in their quest to do so.

Take Me to the Opera: The Power of Glyndebourne is on BBC News Channel and on BBC Reel

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