Posts Tagged ‘ La Boheme ’

Pub opera: Pint, Peanuts and Puccini

This feature first appeared on The Public Reviews website here

“Opera has died and we need to perform CPR on it.” So declared Adam Spreadbury-Maher, the artistic director of London’s newest (and smallest) opera house last week. The King’s Head pub theatre in Islington – London’s oldest fringe venue – has just announced that it will be switching permanently to musical productions, starting with Rossini’s Barber of Seville on 6 October.

The King’s Head theatre opened in 1970 and countless esteemed thesps have treaded its boards: Kenneth Branagh, Alan Rickman, Rupert Graves, Joanna Lumley. So why, after all this time, has the venue decided to change tack?

Of course, The King’s Head isn’t the first fringe venue to switch actors for altos – nor is Spreadbury-Maher a beginner in the field. As the artistic director of The Cock Tavern Theatre, he recently directed OperaUpClose’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème which has passed the 100 performance benchmark and is now playing at the Soho Theatre. Yet nothing about opera as a form seems to lend itself to the small-scale: gestures are exaggerated, emotions are deliberately overstated and opera singers are trained to project their voices to fill cavernous opera houses. Why, then, has the pub opera phenomenon taken off?

One obvious reason is the ticket prices. Jonathan Miller – whose Cosí fan tutte is currently playing to packed audiences at Covent Garden – is one of the new patrons for The Little Opera House at The King’s Head (along with Mark Ravenhill and Joanna Lumley). Speaking to the Observer recently he said “We are living in a completely unfair society. Many people are very underprivileged in this country, while there are these huge ornamental opera productions being staged. There is something immoral about it.”

Notoriously, opera-goers are white, wealthy, middle-class and middle-aged. And with prices at Covent Garden soaring into the hundreds, it’s hardly surprising that younger people are put off. Tickets for Spreadbury-Maher’s Barber of Seville, on the other hand, are £15 (£13 for concessions): startlingly affordable, as opera goes.

But these productions are not just popular with audiences: pub opera can provide a much needed training ground for young opera singers. While up-and-coming actors have been able to cut their teeth on the fringe scene for years in London, there are limited opportunities for singers – many of whom have studied on opera courses at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama or the Royal Academy of Music.

The King’s Head is not entirely altruistic, of course – pub opera is good business at the moment. Highly trained, enthusiastic, young musicians are willing to perform great music for miniscule fees. And a swathe of new austerity-age audiences are not willing to pay the prices demanded by the big venues.

Upstairs at the Gatehouse is an already established pub opera house and Oliver-John Ruthven will be the musical director for Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the venue from 4 November. For Ruthven, pub opera gives the audience the chance to view opera in a “microscopic way” while the informal setting “allows for a far greater potential for the audience’s world to mix with that of the performers.” Jonathan Miller agrees: the setting is all important. “In doing operas on a very intimate scale, in front of an audience of a hundred at the most, you renovate them.” Miller wants to strip opera of the window-dressing: the gilded venues, the symphony orchestra, the “ridiculous” tradition of dressing up to watch a production.

It’s worth remembering, however, that operas were composed for the gilded venues and symphony orchestras. And while La Bohème’s subject matter chimes with the “everyday” surroundings – above a pub, with a slightly dodgy piano – other works might not fit in so seamlessly. Oliver-John Ruthven warns that this new trend won’t suit all such works: “Not all operas are suited to pub venues because their scale is simply too much to compress into such small spaces.” It remains to be seen how well Mozart’s fantastical The Magic Flute will work in a small venue, or whether the prim and polished characters of Rossini’s Barber of Seville will look impossibly out of place in a room behind the bar.

For now, there can be little doubt that pub opera is in the ascendant. Whether the trend will continue beyond the current “age of austerity” will depend on whether these productions can be more than simply opera in a small space. Pub productions must provide a different experience of opera. It can’t just be a case of Puccini with a pint.

The Barber of Seville previews at The King’s Head, Islington from 5 October; 0844 477 1000. The Magic Flute opens at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate on 4 November; 020 8340 3488.

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What’s On Highlights

The Maddening Rain, by Nicholas Pierpan, Old Red Lion Theatre

“You think you can live by your own rules – until you work in the City”

Pierpan’s play, like many before it, finds the cut-throat life in the City fertile ground for drama.

31 August – 18 September

The Remains of the Day, music, book and lyrics by Alex Loveless, Union Theatre

A new musical, based on the well-known novel by Kazuo Ishiguro

“Darlington Hall lies dormant, its prior distinction a passing memory.
In the twilight of his life, Stevens, long-standing and devoted butler to the late Lord Darlington struggles to meet the needs of its new owner.

Convinced he requires more staff in order to remedy his professional woes, Stevens sets out to meet his one-time housekeeper and bring her back to Darlington Hall.”

1 September – 25 September

Tiny Kushner, The Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn

Five One-Act Plays

The Tricycle theatre welcomes the American Berkeley Repertory Theatre to their stage with five short plays by Tony Kushner (of Angels in America fame).

Expect Kushner’s trademark sharp writing and pen-is-mightier-than-the-sword social comment.

The Five plays are:

Flip Flop Fly!

Terminating or Sonnet LXXV or “Lass Meine Schmerzen Nicht Verloren Sein”or Ambivalence

East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis: a little teleplay in tiny monologues

Dr. Arnold A. Hutschnecker in Paradise

Only We Who Guard The Mystery Shall Be Unhappy

Click here for details

1 September – 25 September

REVIEW TO COME SHORTLY!

The Thunderbolt, by Arthur Wing Pinero, The Orange Tree, Richmond-Upon-Thames

Greed, guilt and envy fight it out in this 1908 play set in provincial England. The eldest Mortimore dies. Estranged siblings and an illegitimate daughter gather to divide the spoils.

1 September – 2 October
British Youth Opera: La Boheme / Euridice, Peacock Theatre

A chance to see the singers of the future and to enjoy two classic operas without the palaver of the big professional productions.

Puccini’s La Boheme is a text-book tale of love, death and the artistic temperament – Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge used Puccini’s plot as his film’s blueprint.

BYO’s production of Euridice mixes Jacopo Peri’s 16th century music with new work by Stephen Oliver in a semi-stage production.

La Boheme: 4, 7 & 10 September  Euridice: 8 & 11 September

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