How to Make Opera Less Boring

Can a new generation of indie operas set in bars and railway stations save the art form from extinction?

by David Cox
Aug 2 2015, 5:15am

The super boring New York Metropolitan Opera House. Look how boring it is. So boring. Photo via Flickr user dandechiaro

Last year, Peter Gelb, general manager of the New York Metropolitan Opera, announced they were at risk of going bankrupt in the next three years.

"Grand opera is in itself kind of a dinosaur of an art form," Gelb, 62, explained in an interview with the BBC, describing his uphill struggle against what he called "a cultural and social rejection of opera."

According to Gelb, opera is dying a slow death at the hands of social media and YouTube, digital distractions which are diminishing our attention spans and stunting our cultural horizons. Box office earnings are steadily decreasing and even the Met's attempts to lure audiences with lavish visual extravaganzas—like the reported $169,000 poppy field used in their 2014 production of Prince Igor, have been in vain.

And maybe Gelb is right. With Netflix a click away, modern audiences are probably less willing to spend $156 to sit through a four-hour epic about a medieval Russian prince. But some new opera companies, headed up by young producers, are trying to breathe new life into the centuries-old art form.

"People have this idea that opera is silly or over the top and I want to show, in the best possible way, that opera can be normal," says Robin Norton-Hale, the 35-year-old artistic director of OperaUpClose, one of several companies attempting to give the 400-year-old genre a 21st century makeover.

These urban or fringe opera productions are smaller, far cheaper, performed in English, and often brand new.

"Conventional opera has a slight image problem, but the biggest issue is more a cost problem," says Laura Bowler, who created the company Size Zero Opera back in 2008 after producing a show about the realities of teenage anorexia. "Many people claim this is being rectified, but while there are a few schemes, there's certainly not enough to make it a feasible option for families." While it is possible to find some tickets at the Royal Opera House for as little as £20, Bowler points out that the seats will be right at the back.

But across London, away from the majestic, velvet-seated halls, a cluster of young directors are cultivating a new brand of opera with a growing following. Staged in venues as unlikely as Peckham's multi-storey car parks or various underground crypts, these urban or fringe opera productions are smaller, far cheaper, performed in English, and often brand-new. This autumn, Norton-Hale is debuting Ulla's Odyssey, an opera based on the story of Dutch teenager Laura Dekker who sailed around the world by the age of 16.

These new opera companies aren't afraid to revamp the classics. OperaUpClose are preparing for a new production of Carmen starting on August 5, and last month they gave a makeover to La Traviata, Verdi's angry exposé of the prevailing sexual double-standards of 19th century society, 150 years after he first composed his tragic tale of illicit love amid the glamour, hypocrisy, and social hierarchy of 1850s Paris.

La Traviata at the tiny Tricycle Theatre in North London, with a capacity of just 235, isn't quite the tour de force opera aficionados may be accustomed to. The cast has been slimmed down to just five with the vast orchestral score adapted for a trio. But instead of gazing down from afar, all seats are just a few meters from the stage. The atmosphere is cozy, giving the audience the sense of having stumbled into a rehearsal. And that's part of the charm.

"La Traviata can be staged with a cast of hundreds, but ultimately it's just about three people manipulating each other, being horrible to each other, and loving each other," says Norton-Hale, who spent months rewriting the script and score. "With a lot of 19th century operas, the deeply human stories at the center of the piece often get lost simply because of the massive forces involved. Composers like Puccini and Verdi actually write really psychologically-realistic characters and complex plots, but this gets forgotten amid the massive choruses and orchestras."

The ethos of OperaUpClose is that opera should be seen as theater which happens to be sung, rather than being perceived as a separate art form. Norton-Hale views music as an additional layer to manipulate the audience's emotions, rather than the central element of a production.

People have been changing Shakespeare for years, setting it on the moon or whatever, and no one gets worked up. Opera's just as resilient. —Robin Norton-Hale

"We're aiming for visual, psychological storytelling," Norton-Hale told VICE. "In the past people have said, 'Opera's all about the voice,' and I think that's partly what's let opera down. The music is as important as the drama, but it's not more important."

Norton-Hale's vision began six years ago with a production of La Boheme in the upstairs room of a North London pub. It may have appeared an unlikely setting for a Puccini performance, but for Norton-Hale it made perfect sense.

"La Boheme is essentially a coming-of-age story about these four students hanging out," she explained. "It's a tragedy because one of the women they have relationships with dies, but most of the opera is about people without much money, just messing around. At a grand opera house, with the huge orchestra and chorus, you lose that realism. We thought we could certainly bring the grittiness in this really grotty pub with people throwing up in the toilets [people], trying to sell frozen chickens they'd stolen from the Iceland across the road. What was really satisfying was that people came and said, 'That's just like my brother and his mates,' which is what we set out to achieve."

La Boheme in a London pub. Photo courtesy of OperaUpClose

The show won a prestigious Olivier award and launched a growing trend of holding operas in venues as far-removed from the traditional as possible, even if they sometimes pose logistical nightmares. "You'll find these amazing venues but you just can't make them work. There's a really atmospheric crypt we wanted to use but it was completely the wrong shape so wherever the audience were placed, they could only see about 1/5 of the stage area," says William Marsey, director of opera and chamber music company Listenpony, who reluctantly turned down the opportunity of putting on a show in the 150-year-old Rotherhithe Shaft, because it was impossible to fit a harp down the metal ladders required to access the shaft.

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"A lot of people are freaked out by the weird traditions of opera," Marsey says. "The rigid structures of the music, not knowing exactly what you're supposed to do, when to clap, all those little things, and I think these new venues help."

In addition to performing in unusual locations, Listenpony are aiming to attract younger audiences through the kind of subject choices more commonly encountered in a Louis Theroux documentary. Marsey recently put on a show by Kate Whitley called Unknown Position, about a woman in love with her dining room chair.

"There was a lot in the news about people falling in love with strange things at the time," he explains. "I remember hearing about a woman who got married to the Berlin Wall."

But while part of the appeal of fringe opera is the intimacy of being just a few feet from the stage, performing in those circumstances has added challenges, especially given the lack of acting training opera singers typically receive.

"In a small theater, people can really see your face and body language," says Maud Millar, who played the role of the lover in Unknown Position. "In a big opera house, you have to do a lot more physical acting to come across as engaging, but in fringe venues, people can read you to a far greater extent and you have to think about that at the same time as producing a decent sound while you're crying or curled around a chair. You can never let your face turn into your own face, you've got to stay in character, even during the orchestral interludes."

Photo courtesy of Listenpony

Millar has found that these alternative shows pique the interest of people who otherwise consider opera archaic. "Until university, I didn't really think that opera existed anymore outside of Italy. But shows like [Unknown Position]—which pose questions like, 'What is love?' and 'What should be deemed socially acceptable?'—get people thinking, OK, that's interesting. And then they forget their previous perceptions of opera."

And for the performers themselves, these daring new ideas have breathed life into an industry where opportunities have been dwindling rather drastically. 100 years ago, most would-be opera singers learned their craft as an apprentice with a traveling opera company, before signing a contract for the rest of their working days. But such security has all but vanished into the ether, forcing young directors and singers to try and take control of their own destiny.

"It's very difficult for young singers to get a foothold somewhere because there are no apprenticeships and everyone's freelance," Millar says. "You're constantly trying to sell yourself to different directors and it can feel like you're at the whim of the tide."

But while many fringe opera companies have found resounding success, finding the funds to back their productions is becoming increasingly hard. "Ticket sales make up less than 10% of the cost of putting on a newly-commissioned chamber opera," Bowler told VICE. The majority of an opera's funds come from external funding bodies, with even the big opera houses relying on foundations and donations.

"New opera doesn't sell so well," Norton-Hale says. "And while we're committed to keeping our tickets as affordable as possible, we have to strike a balance between keeping things cheap and also covering the costs."

Some directors have attracted funding from unusual sources by getting creative with their operas' subject matter. The Wellcome Trust recently funded a fringe opera called The Anatomy of Melancholy, exploring the millennia-old human need to express emotion through song, while Bowler herself tapped into a new market with her show Women Box, an opera which she says brought together a rarely seen audience of "boxers, gym fanatics, new music enthusiasts, and contemporary opera lovers."

"At the end of the day, it's about making good opera but also being willing to take artistic liberties and do new things," Norton-Hale concluded. "Some people see opera as a museum piece which can't be touched and people get very irreverent about it. But people have been chopping and changing Shakespeare for years, setting it on the moon or whatever, and no one gets worked up. Opera's just as resilient."

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