Opera is associated with formality and expensive venues. But a new breed of producer wants to change all that
Bohemian rhapsody: OperaUpClose’s award-winning La bohème
Something is afoot in the world of opera. The Glyndebourne season opened on 21st May with a full-strength production of Wagner’s six-hour Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. On the same night there was an updated, informal, two-hour east London version of Puccini’s La bohème in the back room of a scuzzy pub in Islington, performed by just eight singers and a pianist.
The contrast in theatre as a social event could not have been more marked. At Glyndebourne, dozens of dinner-suited captains of industry lugged picnic hampers across the lawns en route to a dessert of holy German high art. In Islington, the mix of locals, students and budget-conscious theatregoers in the King’s Head could have been extras in the show, which is about impoverished artists anyway.
This melding of performers and punters was perfectly expressed in the production, by the small company OperaUpClose. The second act of La bohème, when Musetta trades insults with her on-off boyfriend Marcello and an older admirer, takes place in a café. In this instance, the audience were in the bar of the King’s Head for what had been deemed an interval. Suddenly, the barmaid started singing, then a couple of the customers; the rest of the performers were dotted through the old Victorian room. Passers-by looked in with amusement and surprise. The act unravelled thrillingly before we retreated once more to the shabby interior for the rest of the opera.
OperaUpClose’s La bohème won the 2011 Laurence Olivier award for the Best New Opera Production—a feat all the more astonishing given it opened in the Cock Tavern on Kilburn High Road, a pub so abjectly forlorn and tatty it makes the King’s Head look like the Savoy. The last time I crossed the Cock Tavern’s portals, in the early 1970s, an unknown resident band called Kilburn and the High Roads (shortly to become Ian Dury and the Blockheads) were pounding out Billericay ballads.
OperaUpClose was formed at the Cock Tavern in 2009 by producer Adam Spreadbury-Maher, a classically trained Australian tenor with a loathing for “dressed-up opera,” and Robin Norton-Hale, a theatre director and a former press agent with English Touring Opera. (They then had to leave the premises after discovering it wasn’t fully licensed for performance).
At the King’s Head, they are now running the only fringe theatre opera house with a seven-day week changing repertoire. Many of OperaUpClose’s singers bolster choruses and take small parts in middle-range country house opera: Garsington near Oxford, the Grange in Hampshire, or Holland Park Opera. But the King’s Head avoids the air of exclusivity around even these venues. “The problem is not that you can’t wear jeans to the opera,” says Norton-Hale, “but that people think they can’t. Fifty per cent of the people who see La bohème say that this is the first time they have seen an opera of any kind.” For her, fringe opera is a logical extension to an arts scene with thriving fringe theatre.
La bohème is at the King’s Head until the end of July, alongside a version of Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea by playwright Mark Ravenhill, scored for a jazz trio. OperaUpClose is also bringing Don Giovanni to the Soho Theatre in August. Re-imagined by Norton-Hale as the tale of a debauched city trader slinking through Soho’s back alleys, it will feature a composer producing live electronic sound from a laptop in a duet with a grand piano.
Most well-known small opera companies in Britain—such as Bill Bankes-Jones’s brilliant Tête à Tête, Opera Circus, and Music Theatre Wales—concentrate on new work. The admirable English Touring Opera received a massive funding hike in the recent Arts Council reassessment. But OperaUpClose, which receives no public funding, is doing something else: scrutinising the repertoire and attracting a new audience. This makes for exciting, edgy, though deeply flawed and imperfect work.
But who needs perfection, or indeed money, in the theatre to make it invaluable or worthwhile? Terry Gilliam’s acclaimed production of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust at the ENO is brilliant in its way but also decadent; it cost a fortune and wallows in its own soft sense of daring.
OperaUpClose’s plans—which include Janácek’s Jenufa, a new work by Michael Nyman, and the September world premiere of a piece marking the tenth anniversary of 9/11—suggests that this remarkable La bohème is just the beginning.