Posts Tagged ‘ The King’s Head ’

Madam Butterfly (Bangkok Butterfly) – review

King’s Head Theatre, Islington
Dir: Adam Spreadbury-Maher

Puccini’s Madam Butterfly is the latest to get OperaUpClose’s pub treatment and it by and large survives it.

In Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s production the action is transported to modern Bangkok, from Puccini’s original Japan, and the geisha Madam Butterfly becomes a Thai ladyboy. Butterfly is introduced to an American officer, Pinkerton, who is fascinated by the young ladyboy (she is supposed to be 15): ‘She is a stunner, exotic and wondrous…Heart of a boy but the soul of a woman.’ During a party someone sarcastically suggests marriage and there is a jokey ceremony. Butterfly- naïve and desperate to escape – takes Pinkerton’s vows of love at face value and waits loyally for him when he goes back to America. For Pinkerton, however, the affair is just a bit of fun.

Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s production undoubtedly has its moments: Margaret Cooper has the right mix of coquettishness and innocence for Butterfly. As she tidies the flat ready for Pinkerton’s return she is excited and poignantly childlike. Alison Dunne, as the maid Suzuki, has a beautifully rich mezzo-soprano voice: it is a pity her character doesn’t have more to sing. Mario Sofroniou is fairly detestable as Pinkerton – as he should be – and while his voice fills the small space it doesn’t overwhelm the audience. The trio between Suzuki, Pinkerton and Sharpless (brought vividly to life by Oliver Gibbs) towards the end of the opera is simply staged and is one of the highlights of the evening, as are the tender scenes between Butterfly and her maid, Suzuki.

The cast are almost without exception conservatoire graduates so inevitably the standard of singing is high – although in the role of Butterfly, Cooper’s vibrato is too wide for my taste. Musical director Elspeth Wilkes had just two other players to work with – a violinist/violist and a clarinettist – and with such limited resources Puccini’s heroic music does lose some of its force.

But I remain unconvinced about the justification for changing the setting so dramatically – not least because making Butterfly a ladyboy causes an obvious biological problem when it comes to the baby she’s supposed to have had. I’m still not sure exactly how they explained the sudden appearance of the child. While ladyboys and geishas have certain parallels, the concept felt ill-thought-out: for example, in Puccini’s original, Butterfly and all her family believe she is marrying Pinkerton for good and it is only Pinkerton who regards it as a sham. In Spreadbury-Maher’s production, the whole marriage idea is a joke: the “ceremony” is conducted by one of the other Amercian officers at the party. Everyone realises it is a sort of playground marriage – except Butterfly.

This version of the tale is not less poignant but it becomes a different tragedy: a tragedy not of betrayal but of delusion. Butterfly is so desperate to get away from her life standing ‘on bars in Patpong road’ that she puts her faith in a ghost of a marriage. What is more, Puccini’s music – written to evoke the highly stylised and constricted life of the Japanese geishas – doesn’t fit with the tacky clothes and miserable life of these lady boys. Nevertheless, the story is moving and the music beautiful, but as a fellow audience member said during the interval ‘the music would be poignant if they’d set it in a chicken factory.’

This review originally appeared on The Public Reviews

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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.