The word ‘opera’ usually evokes images of bewigged people swaying across an elaborately adorned stage, producing some incredible volume whilst reciting songs in another language. Or, heaven forbid, all you see is a twiddly-moustache and that frustratingly memorable theme-song. My view was always that opera is an art form that requires a certain taste – a taste that I was sure I did not have. That view, however, has changed.
In 2009, the King’s Head Theatre’s resident opera group, OperaUpClose, launched their production of La Bohème at the Cock Tavern Theatre – this performance went on to win the 2011 Laurence Olivier Award, Best New Opera Production, and the 2011 Whatsonstage.com Award, Best Off-West End Production, following a transfer to the Soho Theatre. It is now at the start of a 3-month stint at the fantastic Charing Cross Theatre, a venue which I love, set in the Arches behind Embankment tube station.
The set designed by Luce Read is wonderfully full – posters cover the walls, my friends and I playing “spot the items from Ikea” before the show began. It showed a very much lived-in front room, the beginnings of a kitchen off to stage-right, complete with visible sink. The piano, upon which Elspeth Wilkes accompanied the whole performance, did dominate one side of the stage, though whether this was by design or not was unclear. From the start, this wasn’t quite what I was expecting – then again, having heard it was a translated production, I knew I was in for something a little bit different.
La Bohème is the tale of four young students, originally set in Paris, and their lives, loves, and loathes. It tells of the romance of Rudolfo (Gareth Morris), a struggling writer, when he meets the shy but lovely Mimi (Susan Jiwey); Marcello (Tom Bullard), a painter, falls once more for the seductive Musetta (Una Reynolds); whilst Schaunard (Marcin Kopeć) and Colline (Julian Charles) watch their friends go through the realities of life. The roles are all shared, but the cast who I saw were phenomenally talented, producing notes I’ve never heard and creating such depth and atmosphere without any mics that I could see. Directed by Robin Norton-Hale, the action takes place not only on stage, but makes use of the bar at the back of the auditorium, building an immersive experience unlike any other opera you are likely to see. This sense of involvement within the play, as well as the ability to understand the words, made the production relatable and relevant, as well as uproariously comical at times. It was with great sensitivity that they shared laughs on stage; an improvised pillow-fight between the men was so natural and easy you would’ve sworn you’d stepped into a student flat following a few beers.
It is this idea that opera doesn’t need to be a distant form of theatre, something strange and far too upper-class, that makes OperaUpClose such an intriguing company. They break down the performances to reveal the people (and their huge talent), so the audience is left with a sense of satisfaction, entertainment, and a little bit of culture.