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In defence of small-scale opera

Philip Lee and Prudence Sanders in La Traviata. Photo: Christoper Tribble
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Last week, the Daily Telegraph’s opera critic, Rupert Christiansen, posed the question, ‘What’s the point of pop-up opera?’.

The show he referred to in his article, a production of La Traviata I directed for OperaUpClose at the King’s Head Theatre, is not actually a pop-up show, but essentially it seems that what he means by pop-up in this context is a small-scale version of a ‘big’ opera.

As the artistic director of one of these smaller-scale companies, OperaUpClose, it is a given that I believe that there is a point to this kind of opera. But more importantly, I believe – along with many other people working in opera, from the large houses to the brand new fringe companies – that there is a point to all types of opera production.

It is now many decades since theatre burst out of the confines of 19th-century proscenium arch. Very worthwhile productions are still found in those theatres, along with other equally thrilling, challenging and interesting pieces in rooms above pubs, in disused warehouses, in the street, in parks – wherever people feel like performing. Theatre critics don’t tie themselves in knots trying to find a way to compare a production at the (rightly) well-funded RSC or National Theatre to one at Newcastle Live and to another in office block commandeered as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. Each performance is judged on its own merits.

Christiansen says that he cannot watch a performance like our Traviata, which was adapted for five singers plus a trio of piano, clarinet and cello and sung in English (a traditional production would have 12 solo singers plus a large chorus; an orchestra of about 50 players, and be sung in Italian) without comparing it to a Royal Opera House production. It is true that the singers who perform with us and other small companies would not sing the big, dramatic roles in operas like La Traviata or Tosca in large, traditional opera houses. Our singers are usually younger, and they have smaller voices, which are sometimes less polished than you would hear on a larger stage. For him, this means that he cannot “hand on heart” recommend the readers of the Telegraph try our version when they could pay a little more to sit in the very back row of the opera house in Covent Garden.

I was curious about whether theatre critics had faced the same quandary when the fringe theatre scene was in its infancy, and asked some for their opinion on this. Michael Coveney came back to me to say:

Any production, on whatever scale, is, to a greater or lesser extent, a comment on the original work. Isn’t that the point? ‘Interpretation’ takes many forms, and all are equally valid because they are equally different and there are no rules, unless you start getting picky about orchestrations, size of chorus, etc… Beethoven’s Ninth on a penny whistle? Why not? You’re just hearing something in a different way.

But he did also say that many theatre critics still often say a production has ‘a duty’ to a play, especially classics like Shakespeare – which are perhaps the closest equivalent theatre has to these big-name operas. Coveney himself thinks, “a director has absolutely no duty towards anyone except his audience.”

Michael Billington says:

I feel that if one sees Hamlet staged in the back room of a pub, one has to view it slightly differently to a full-blown RSC or NT production. I’d tend to compare it to other scaled down Shakespeare or classic productions. This, however, is where theatre critics have an advantage over opera critics, as there is a vast range of studio and fringe theatres that have their own aesthetic and style. That obviously isn’t true of opera.

It’s not true yet, but it might become so.

Taking opera out of the big opera houses, and stripping away some of the factors (especially scale and expense) that have prevented it being performed more regularly, for more diverse audiences and in more diverse spaces, is not a new idea. In the 1980s there were lots of fantastic companies doing just that. It is only now, however, that there seems to be a tangible ‘fringe opera’ scene (there’s even a website specifically devoted to the genre: www.fringeopera.com).

Far from being a poorer experience, I would argue that seeing a smaller-scale opera is simply a different one. With just a handful of singers and instrumentalists, the music and drama can sometimes work more closely in tandem, and at its best a new, exciting ensemble sound is created. What our singers sometimes (but by no means always) lack in power and polish, they make up for in the veracity of their acting and the way they take advantage of the intimate space to play with their voices and performances – so a soprano playing a woman dying of tuberculosis is terrifyingly convincing as she deliberately cuts off her phrases to fight for breath, and the audience can see the (fake) blood in her mouth.

[pullquote]I am not suggesting an English-language production of La Traviata with five singers and an instrumental trio could or should ever replace the fully-orchestrated, fully-chorused, original language version at Covent Garden[/pullquote]

I am not suggesting an English-language production of La Traviata with five singers and an instrumental trio could or should ever replace the fully-orchestrated, fully-chorused, original language version at Covent Garden. But I do not see why we can’t have both, and lots of other versions as well.

Chatting to our audience backs this up. While we attract lots of first-time opera-goers, we also have plenty of regulars who are knowledgeable about opera. These are people who go to productions at Covent Garden and appreciate their many qualities, yet who also love coming to see opera in a small, hot room behind a pub. They frequently comment that they find small-scale productions uniquely moving, and – more surprisingly for opera purists – praise the musical standards and say that the new orchestrations for tiny forces enable them to hear new elements in the score.

It would be very surprising if someone who liked opera stated they didn’t like any of the work by a large company like the Royal Opera (or English National Opera, or WNO, etc). The work varies enormously in style depending on the director, conductor, designers and the rest of the creative team. Similarly, on our much smaller scale, different creative teams’ create very different productions, and different productions appeal to different people. That is as it should be – if you try to be all things to all people, there’s a strong possibility you’ll be a bit bland.

The kind of work smaller-scale opera companies are producing at the moment is also diverse. An audience member will have a different experience coming to see an OperaUpClose show at the King’s Head (pub) Theatre to seeing the same show on tour in an 800-seat regional theatre, and another experience at a Pop-Up Opera performance (they actually are a pop-up company, and perform the same production in a number of different locations), or at an Opera in Space show (they do site-specific operas) – and that’s to name just a few of the small-scale, professional, and I believe genuinely high-quality companies producing opera at the moment.

If Rupert Christiansen had simply written a bad review of my production of La Traviata, I would not have responded. His job as a critic is to say what he thinks of a production and why, and part of my job as a director is to take that criticism, good or bad. Critics see a huge amount of work, and of course they are experts – but I think most would be quick to point out that even within their expertise there is a level of subjectivity (this is why the same production can get 5-star and 1-star reviews).

The reason why I felt it was important to respond in this case is that the validity of an increasingly large body of new opera productions is being questioned. Certain periods of opera and subject matters (high drama, tragedy) are being deemed ‘off limit’ for certain companies.

On one level, it is brave for a national opera critic to hold up his hands and admit he cannot see a way to honestly and fairly review what amounts to a very large proportion of operatic work being made at the moment – and it opens a debate. On another, I think it is baffling to argue that fewer opera productions, of more limited repertoire, providing less work for performers, would be a good way forward.

We tour to venues which do not have orchestra pits, so which cannot host the work of the larger touring opera companies, even if they could afford it. Some of the venues are quite large (around 1,000 seats) and serve a large area which would get no live opera at all – I do not buy the argument that it would be better to see the Met or ROH cinema broadcasts instead – if we did not go there. It would be a difficult task to convince an audience at one of these venues (again, often very knowledgeable and very vocal in their appreciation) that they can only see certain productions because we and other companies of a similar scale will now only produce operetta and neglected 18th-century operas (Christiansen’s suggestion).

People have talked darkly of the demise of opera – ageing audiences, the dearth of new operas being written, the cost of tickets, and so on – for years.

I believe that opera in this country is healthy and exciting, despite funding cuts taking effect across the arts. Part of the reason for that is the recent increase in smaller companies making work where they can, in the way they can – and in the way they want to. Opera can be visceral, devastating, life-enhancing. It can also be infuriating, frustrating – even boring. But we need to give it the chance to be all of those things – and sometimes all of those things at once, in the same production, depending who you talk to.

There should be room for everyone in an opera audience, if we break down the barriers of price and fear of the unknown which persist. If the critics can accept what audiences have embraced – that there is room for everyone in the world of opera makers as well – then opera will have a bright, and diverse, future.

Robin Norton-Hale is artistic director of OperaUpClose.

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