I took a plunger with me the first time I went to the opera in the early 1980s. My brother lived in Peckham, south London – his sink was blocked. I lived and worked near Shepherd’s Bush in west London. Covent Garden was a good halfway house. Our plan was to experience an alien music form (and hand over the plunger). Our chosen opera was in English – we figured that we’d never understand warbly voices and a foreign language. I’m pretty sure the work was called “Samson!” Nowadays I would immediately be wary of a gratuitous exclamation mark: then I was young and innocent in the ways of punctuation hyperbole!
In our childhood, my Dear Old Ma had a few Gilbert & Sullivan LPs – Iolanthe and HMS Pinafore spring to mind – I was aware that these romping tunes and catchy songs were not ‘real opera’. Real opera was difficult and hard to listen to. “Samson!” confirmed this. We folded ourselves into the stifling gods of the Coliseum. Below, tiny figures aboard huge turrets – half in black, the other white – skittered about colliding and separating, emoting and trilling. The good/evil metaphor was obvious even to us but we came away bemused and sure that this was not an art form to pursue. My brother, however, did unblock his sink.
Years later I was lucky enough to be reintroduced to opera through the Husband’s work. Many of us have only heard of a handful of operas: Carmen, The Magic Flute, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La Traviata to name a few. There’s a reason: the operas we’ve heard of are the best ones. If only I’d realised that 20 years earlier! Other winning aspects of opera that passed me by for many years were the spectacular sets, opulent costumes and huge casts. Opera, I now know, is glitz and bling – the Dubai of theatre, if you will.
“Opera is glitz and bling – the Dubai of theatre, if you will”
Matthew Rooke (Artistic Director of The Maltings, Berwick) has a beguiling vision to take well-known operas and produce vibrant new productions to fit smaller venues in smaller towns. He tested the water last year with a new orchestration of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury (performed by the ebullient Newcastle-based Rocket Opera at the Guildhall, Berwick). It was fab –and despite what the cognoscenti may say, I think G&S is real opera. The trial led to a mini opera season this year. Would punters miss the pizazz and panache of large scale productions?
Not at all. Each of Berwick Festival Opera’s offerings was extraordinary in its own right. This was opera up close and personal – conductors, singers, musicians and audience bound together in the experience. Who’d have imagined orchestrating Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas with four Saxes (the super Sax Ecosse) and an electric bass guitar? Rooke would. Or conjuring the seaside (G&S’s, Pirates of Penzance/Rocket Opera) with Doddington’s ice cream, some deck chair fun, and a sea-shanty riff or two? Watching Opera dei Lumi’s music director Peter Keenan rally some fine young regional musical talent in their electrifying inaugural performance of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte gave me goose bumps of delight – yes, the young male singers flagged slightly towards the end, but their female counterparts managed to buoy them up and sustain the energy and characterisation essential in a show without costumes, lights or sets and with the conductor tucked behind them. Hats off to them. Conductor Peter Selwyn dextrously steered the sublime Hebrides Ensemble and NYOS Camerata through the surges and splurges of Wagner’s Die Walkϋre with singers Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (first seen in Berwick last year in Rooke’s Flyting), Ronald Samm and Stuart Pendred making the most of the acoustically brilliant Guildhall. Pared down operas? Yes. Tailored to fit? Perfectly.
Here in Berwick festival season is now in full swing – we’ve just smacked our lips over the final lobsters and locally sourced organic sausages of the family friendly Food Festival (13th & 14th Sept), and it’s eyes-down-look-in for the internationally acclaimed Film Festival (17th-21st Sept) with its blissful mix of free installations around our historic town, well-priced and accessible workshops, and cutting edge films. Plus there’s the all-new Literary Festival (17th-18th October). So, here’s to the delights still to come and, if you’re an opera sceptic, I urge you to take the plunge next year with the Berwick Festival Opera – but perhaps not the plunger.
(A version of this article was first printed in The Berwick Advertiser on 4th September 2014)