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An essay on the contemporary opera SHANGHAI

Inclusive Approaches Create Innovative Art

An essay on the contemporary opera SHANGHAI

Disabilities? No. In the opera SHANGHAI, there is only a wide range of different abilities, challenges and opportunities. SHANGHAI is an experimental contemporary opera, written by Line Tjørnhøj and Erik Fägerborn. The opera is produced by ShareMusic & Performing Arts and the Göteborg Opera, one of the leading opera houses in Scandinavia.

The collaboration began in 2014 and the foundation is a shared commitment to create new music theatre and opera using inclusive approaches. The ensemble consists of individuals with and without disabilities – if there is such a thing as disability.

Additionally, the artists in the ensemble have varied musical background, from opera singers to musical artists and those without formal training. These differences are the strength of this innovative production and the artists interviewed for this article all describe the work as a personal and artistic progress.

SHANGHAI is not a simple piece of opera; it is indeed complicated and difficult. The classically trained opera singers in SHANGHAI explain that the piece is quite out of the box from what they are used to perform: there is no orchestra (only a pianist and a percussionist), no conductor, and the musical background of the artists vary completely. However – it works.

See the trailer of SHANGHAI on VIMEO.

What is most rewarding is that everyone involved is being challenged and feels that he or she is experiencing a both artistic and personal development during the process. Those who are employed at the opera learn how to slow down and communicate with their new colleagues on new terms. They have to step out of their comfort zone, focus on the process and take each step as it comes instead of knowing each note perfectly on the first day of rehearsal.

Also, they feel that they have more creative influence in the production than usual. Those who have a norm-breaking function get to experience that they can achieve so much more than they – and perhaps society – thought that they could. Their self-confidence is increasing with the process.

As Linda Åkesson, one of the performers, pointed out, it is very important to be represented on stage. If you see someone like yourself on stage, you might think, “If he or she can do it, then maybe I can do it too!”. Linda hopes that she can be that role model for someone.

She experiences that there is this mentality that people with disabilities should work behind closed doors, preferably with costumer service by telephone. In that way, no one will see the disability. ”But I don’t like to work like that. I’m not comfortable, I feel trapped. I want to meet people, I want to be seen, I want to be heard. I want to feel free and show everyone who I am – to one hundred per cent. In Shanghai, I’m allowed to do that. This is a dream that I’ve had since I was a child, but I haven’t dared to dream it that much since I’ve felt I shouldn’t take place, shouldn’t be seen”, she adds.

Everyone is in SHANGHAI on the same terms. As performers in a new piece of art nobody knows how the result will end up. They all have the same pressure and expectations on them as the professionals they are. And, what is more, everyone learns from each other.

The percussionist, Jonas Larsson, pointed out that those in the ensemble who are classically trained contributes with certain skills while there are others in the ensemble who can contribute in a way that none of the trained singers are able to.


Christina Ohlsson
, who plays the colourful talk show host Jenny, put it like this: “It’s like when you cook tomato soup – you throw in all kinds of stuff and in the end it all turns out really good!” Each ingredient has its own strength. In the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, it says that, ”States Parties shall take appropriate measures to enable persons with disabilities to have the opportunity to develop and utilize their creative, artistic and intellectual potential, not only for their own benefit, but also for the enrichment of society. (Article 30, paragraph 2)”.

What becomes evident with a production like SHANGHAI is that there is a lot to gain with inclusive approaches: for the artists involved as well as the audience and the producers, and, for the evolution of art. When differences and contrasts meet – when you step out of your comfort zone – innovation is possible. Everyone wants to be innovative nowadays and often, new technique becomes the solution.

It does not have to be that complicated. Dare to make space for new bodies, voices and stories. The arts need these new stories, hidden stories that are waiting to be told, voices longing to be heard, from people who feel unseen. Furthermore, when the stage reflects the diversity of our society, more people will feel represented and more involved in what is being produced. Hence, more people will want to watch the performances.

The art becomes more accessible. And art is necessary to the society as part of the culture that human beings create. As Per Larsson, the pianist from SHANGHAI, said, ”I feel that it’s incredibly important that we widen the culture, widen everything! We have to include people into our lives. It feels like we’re separating people, putting them in different categories, because it makes things easier. But I think that’s the wrong path to take. We have to open up. The heart has to speak.”

Author: Katarina Isaksson


Read and see more about SHANGHAI. Here is a selection of links:

Read more about SHANGHAI in english on The Goteborg Opera’s website.
Watch an interview with Stephen Langridge, Artistic Director, Opera/ Drama at the Göteborg Opera about the production of SHANGHAI.
Have a look at our SHANGHAI blog (SWE/ENG).
Read the article about SHANGHAI composer Line Tjørnhøj by Edition·S music¬sound¬art.
Article published about ShareMusic and the latest production SHANGHAI on Disability Arts International.


An essay on the contemporary opera SHANGHAI