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How pop-ups are making opera more accessible than ever

An aircraft hangar in Liverpool, a room at an Islington pub, a warehouse in Hackney, the space below a canal bridge in Birmingham, the vaults under Waterloo Station, Cubitt Square at King’s Cross, the beach at Aldeburgh – what do these places have in common? They all have recently been a location for an opera performance.

So what has sparked this venue revolution? Adam Spreadbury-Maher, artistic director at the King’s Head Theatre in London and founder of OperaUpClose [1], suggests it is a return to the genre’s origins. “If you look where opera started, actually larger opera houses are unusual,” he says. “It was done in drawing rooms. Only with the rise of impresarios and the commercialisation of opera did opera leave its usual space.”

Spreadbury-Maher and others agree that it’s time for the genre to break free of the opera house. “If opera is to have a future, it needs to get out more,” says Richard Willacy, executive director of Birmingham Opera Company.

At the King’s Head, where productions have included a manga-influenced Madam Butterfly [2]and Un Ballo In Maschera set in an Ikea store, four or five performers and a few musicians are the rule. The instrumental line-up for a forthcoming version of Tosca includes piano, cello, clarinet and percussion.

Sets are minimal but evocative. “For The Magic Flute, there’s a canopy and the audience needs to peer around it. It’s probably the best set we’ve ever had,” says Spreadbury-Maher. “It makes my skin crawl when people say we are ‘stripping down’ or ‘reducing’. We’re not. By distilling, we’re getting to the truth,” he says. “You can see a one-man version of Hamlet, so why not opera?”

Silent Opera’s Live/Revive/Lament at the Aldeburgh Festival 2014. Photo: Silent Opera

In its productions, Silent Opera has made a virtue of necessity while aiming to retain a full orchestral sound. Audience members wear headsets to hear a pre-recorded orchestra as they sit or stand close to the live singers. “We’ve flown with that concept since then,” explains artistic director Daisy Evans. “Now we use alternative sounds and electronic music. We are trying to innovate the entire experience, taking space as a starting point, making a piece that connects to space.”

Silent Opera took inspiration from the theatre company Punchdrunk in wanting to make audiences active participants. Its forthcoming production of Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen (restyled as Vixen) is at the Vaults in London. Evans says: “We use the two main spaces: an urban jungle, where the audience is on decking, sitting as an urban fox might sit, and then at the forester’s house, where everyone is sitting on his sofa and chairs.” This is a far cry from the plush velvet seats of a typical opera house.

The Silent Opera audience is often on the move. For the 2014 Aldeburgh Festival, Live/Revive/Lament featured an actor, singer and dancer all playing the same character but presented in three contrasting places. Audience members could stay put as the performers moved in and out of the spaces, or they could follow an individual performer from place to place. “People had to make their own decisions,” says Evans.

The Aldeburgh Festival has form when it comes to surprising locations. In 2013, it produced Peter Grimes on the beach at Aldeburgh, where Britten’s opera is set – a site-specificity that few others could match.

Being an audience member at Birmingham Opera’s recent Dido and Aeneas must been equally fun, though the location had little to do with Purcell’s original setting. Willacy recalls: “We published the location only the night before. We held it in a nightclub and when people arrived they were ticked off the guest-list by a bouncer.”

Perhaps because of the low-budget, low-pressure atmosphere of opera in unusual locations, audiences are often younger and more diverse then the stereotypical, wealthy, grey-haired denizens of the opera house.

“Half of those who see the operas I make say it’s the first opera they’ve seen, or that they only go to this kind of production,” says Spreadbury-Maher.

Silent Opera’s Evans observes: “All these venues have a huge cult following. People might want to take their partner for a beer and a bit of opera, or look for a boutique experience, or just a fun night out. It’s entertainment: we want people to have a good time. In this modern age of people crafting their own experience, it will be different for everyone who goes to it.”

Bill Bankes-Jones is the founder and artistic director of leading new opera presenter Tete a Tete. “One of the most interesting things we’ve undertaken is a collaboration with King’s Cross, the Cubitts Sessions, with opera on for several nights on a bandstand,” he says. “I’ve been kicking around the business for 30 years, and it changed my idea about opera and how people can be welcomed to it. People just stopped and were engaged. They didn’t have to buy a ticket, or find a seat, and it completely changed who was there. Among them, 15% were manual workers – they didn’t know they weren’t supposed to like it.”

Willacy says that the point of taking opera to new venues is nothing less than “rewriting the rules of engagement”. Founded by Graham Vick and Simon Halsey as the City of Birmingham Touring Opera, his company made “small-scale but high-quality productions” at theatres across the region. By 1999, it was time for a change of direction.

Birmingham Opera presented Mittwoch Aus Licht in a disused warehouse in 2012. Photo: Helen Maybanks

“The car parks at the theatres were full of Mercedes,” Willacy explains. “But new audiences are put off by existing ones. We take something large-scale – opera – into disused buildings that have no association with the temple of art. The key is to disrupt expectations for those who know – as well as those who don’t know. It creates a unique, unmediated, physical, electrical experience.”

For its large-size productions – including the world premiere of Stockhausen’s Mittwoch Aus Licht in 2012 in a disused warehouse – Birmingham Opera boasts a group of professional singers, instrumentalists and production teams supported by a large volunteer base from the community, who take on performing as well as behind-the-scenes roles. “When it comes to venues, we often have to wait for industrial premises to be available at a time when we need them,” says Willacy. “There’s much plate-spinning in pre-production.”

This points up the creative financial models for producing and selling opera in unusual venues. Silent Opera uses airline-style ticket pricing, with early buyers paying as little as £10 and latecomers as much as £40. Budgets are carefully monitored, and recent support from English National Opera and international co-productions in Beijing and Helsinki have also helped.

The result is worth the struggle – whether financial, logistical or musical – even if the critics haven’t always been on board. “When I first started making opera in small spaces in 2009, there was so much resistance,” says Spreadbury-Maher. “Some felt an urgent need to protect opera and not let anything happen to it. But Peter Brook was doing this in the 1960s with theatre – why has it has taken so long for opera to get out from under the proscenium?”

For Birmingham Opera, which works closely with its surrounding community, the unusual locations have another advantage. “The fact that it happens in a non-theatre place means it’s a great leveller,” says Willacy.

It seems likely that the growing number of opera performances in unusual places is having an impact. “Don’t get me wrong, I love the Royal Opera House,” says Spreadbury-Maher. “I just think that Covent Garden will be better and richer for opera being produced in unusual spaces. The entire ecosystem will be stronger.”

The Magic Flute runs at the King’s Head Theatre, London [5], until June 3; Silent Opera’s Vixen runs at the Vaults, London [6], from May 26 to June 10; Tete a Tete’s opera festival takes place in King’s Cross, London [7], in July and August; birminghamopera.org.uk [8]

This feature is part of The Stage special on opera. Read more stories here [9]