Wagner on the fringe: How London’s smallest stages are hosting opera’s largest works
Usually performed in opera houses with astronomical budgets, Wagner’s epic works seem unlikely fare for fringe venues. Yehuda Shapiro discovers how, with a little inventiveness, ambitious independent companies are bringing the grandest repertoire to new audiences at festivals such as Grimeborn
Wagner in August usually means a pilgrimage to the Bavarian city of Bayreuth, where the composer himself dedicated a festival to his operas. This summer, however, London offers an alternative with runs of both Das Rheingold and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
Wagner is famous for thinking big: Das Rheingold, the opening work of the four-part Der Ring des Nibelungen, is a fantasy that spans earth, water and sky; Die Meistersinger, a philosophical comedy, has 16 named roles and well over four hours of music. Yet these ambitious new productions in the capital will not be staged by national companies on the biggest stages but by independent outfits in unusual locations. This attests to the enterprise and vigour of the fringe opera scene, a grittier urban contrast to the ‘country house opera’ that has boomed in the past couple of decades.
With Meistersinger, Fulham Opera is taking a leap of faith – moving from its usual home at St John’s Church near Fulham Broadway, to King’s College’s Greenwood Theatre in Southwark. This expands the audience capacity for each performance from 150 to 400. “Meistersinger wouldn’t fit into the church,” says Ben Woodward, the company’s multitasking artistic director. His day job is at the opera house in Flensburg in northern Germany, where his recent conducting duties have ranged from more Wagner – Der Fliegende Holländer – to Singin’ in the Rain.
‘Our shows give established singers valuable experience of doing a role’ – Ben Woodward, Fulham Opera
“The good ship Fulham Opera has specialised in large and slightly insane repertoire since we started in 2011 – with Das Rheingold, as it happens,” he says. “It was the kind of mad idea that made me want to start the whole enterprise off. Fringe companies hadn’t really thought about doing Wagner. Rheingold was a surprising success and it laid down the gauntlet for us.” The company went on to mount an entire Ring – two cycles in 2014 – and has carried on with large-scale repertoire, most recently Verdi’s five-act Don Carlo last November.
Woodward adds: “The calibre of singer we can get in for these pieces is a lot higher than you might expect. These shows give established singers valuable experience of doing a role. Hans Sachs [the central character in Meistersinger] is probably the biggest role that’s ever been conceived and we have [British bass-baritone] Keel Watson singing it for the first time. He can now tell the world that he has Sachs in his repertoire.” Directing at the Greenwood Theatre is Paul Higgins, whose CV includes productions at Glyndebourne, English National Opera and the Royal Opera House.
Meistersinger is Fulham Opera’s biggest financial undertaking yet. Box-office revenue will be complemented by an Arts Council England grant, which was confirmed just a few weeks ago, and by reserve funds and charitable donations. “Our donors are astonished by what they’ve seen us do,” says Woodward. “The immediacy, the storytelling, the quality of the voices up close and personal… the joy that radiates off the stage. I don’t think people fall asleep in our shows.”
There is also a community aspect to the company’s work. In addition to giving ‘pay what you can’ run-throughs for Fulham residents, it receives support from Hammersmith and Fulham Council for dedicated performances for schoolchildren and elderly people. ‘Volunteers’ rather than ‘amateurs’ is Woodward’s preferred term for his chorus members, since they are all experienced singers. When it comes to casting the principals, his priority is rightly to find artists whose voices are suited to their roles, but diversity is ensured in Meistersinger with a line-up that includes black, Asian and minority ethnic singers, as well as visually impaired and transgender performers.
Five Fringe Opera companies and festivals
Tête à Tête
Established in 1997 and focusing on new, small-scale operas, the festival runs from July 24 to August 10 at venues ranging from King’s Cross to Dulwich and Hampstead’s Vale of Health pond.
An immersive La Bohème in a Kilburn pub put OperaUpClose on the map in 2010. Its partner venues now include the Soho Theatre, Belgrade Theatre Coventry – the venue for its Madam Butterfly in 2020 – Kiln Theatre, Kings Place and Sweden’s Malmö Opera.
Opera in the City
Now in its third season at London’s Bridewell Theatre, Opera in the City runs from late August to early September. It transforms Verdi’s Otello into a rugby star and hosts a Croatian company presenting the virtually unknown Caccia Lontana by Antonio Smareglia.
Leeds Opera Festival
Staged by the Northern Opera Group, this festival runs from August 23 to 27. The headline show is Charles Villiers Stanford’s Much Ado About Nothing, seen only very rarely since its premiere in 1901.
The Opera Story
Peckham in south London is the home of the Opera Story. It has presented three annual operas by young teams taking an inventive, grown-up look at traditional children’s stories: Snow White, Goldilocks and Robin Hood.
Das Rheingold, which recently opened the 2019 Grimeborn opera festival at the 195-seat Arcola Theatre in Dalston, east London, was spearheaded by Julia Burbach, a staff director at the Royal Opera. She says she is “trained for precision and speed” – an asset when the rehearsal period is just 10 days. Her fourth show at the Arcola, Rheingold follows her 2018 staging of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, which won an Off West End Award and was nominated for the International Opera Awards.
Arcola executive producer Leyla Nazli reveals that Burbach first pitched the idea of a Ring in 2015. “I was always excited about the idea and even wanted to do all four operas in rep, but there was a concern that the piece was too epic to work at the Arcola. Julia’s response was: ‘Of course we can do it, why not?’ She and music director Peter Selwyn convinced me and Mehmet Ergan, our artistic director, about Das Rheingold when they suggested Jonathan Dove’s excellent reduced orchestration [made for City of Birmingham Touring Opera in 1999]. We were convinced that we could stage it differently without losing the quality of the score. We have produced operas with 17 musicians before.” This includes Greek by Mark-Anthony Turnage last year.
Just a couple of months ago, Burbach staged the second segment of the Ring, Die Walküre, for the Opéra National de Bordeaux. There, she had a 1,400-seat modern auditorium, access to state-of-the-art LED ‘scenery’ and an orchestra of nearly 100. “Different locations, different venues and different budgets cry out for different things,” she says. “In terms of the characters’ psychology, my approach is similar – it’s always about: ‘What’s the human kernel in this and how do we carve it out?’ But the packaging and presentation will be very different.”
‘At the Arcola, people come who have never been to the opera – they could have been out clubbing down the road instead’ – Julia Burbach, director
Her cast consists of established singers, “some older, some younger, at different career stages and with different degrees of experience in Wagner”. Among them is US bass-baritone Seth Carico, an established member of the ensemble at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper. “Everybody understands it’s an important gig and they’re excited that the audience is really close,” continues Burbach. “Of course, the smaller scale affects the opera itself, but who’s to say it’s not important to still do it? For the audience, it’s another great evening in the theatre. At the Arcola, people come who have never been to the opera – they could have been out clubbing down the road instead.”
Wagner is a constant presence in opera houses, but – in the UK, at least – 18th-century composer Jean-Philippe Rameau remains underexposed. This French composer is a surprisingly rare visitor to British stages, where Handel tends to rule the Baroque operatic roost. Rameau’s version of the Phaedra story, Hippolyte et Aricie, is another of Grimeborn’s ‘anchor’ shows this year. It is presented by Ensemble OrQuesta, which stages opera from Monteverdi to Mozart in stylised, dance-infused productions and last year gave what was billed as the UK premiere of a work dating from 1654: Francesco Cavalli’s Xerse.
Marcio da Silva, the company’s Brazilian-born artistic director, emphasises that Hippolyte is another ‘big’ piece. “These 18th-century French operas were conceived for large spaces, with a ballet. We’ve reduced things for the Arcola, taking the orchestra down from 40 to just five players.
“We rethink and rearrange operas while still respecting the Baroque aesthetic, making the storyline clearer so that audiences can connect with it. They need to be close to the action, to see the facial expressions. I’m not looking to be literal or naturalistic, and I’m not concerned about the characters’ backstories: the priority is the mood of the moment. Our productions would be conceived differently for a bigger theatre, but you don’t need a huge budget to put on a beautiful opera.”
Fulham Opera’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg runs at London’s Greenwood Theatre on August 9, 11, 14 and 17
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