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FEATURE: Is Opera Dead? Deborah Grayson interviews Robin Norton-Hale from OperaUpClose in between rehearsals of La Boheme

Opera isn't dying out, but the audience is. In the first of a series of articles, Deborah Grayson explores the future prospects of the genre.

I have a friend whose pulling technique consists of making eye contact with her prey and then bearing down on them with such determination they basically have to run away at speed or submit. I was put in mind of this when watching Rudolfo putting the moves on Mimi metres away from me in Opera Up Close's pint-sized version of La Boheme at the Cock Tavern a couple of months ago – not a analogy I'm likely to have made in a less intimate production. The show is about to transfer to the Soho Theatre (3 Aug – 4 Sept), and I went to meet director Robin Norton-Hale and some of the cast as they rehearsed in preparation for the move.

Since its inception the show was bound to be genre bending. Not only is the 50 seat Cock Tavern theatre undoubtedly the smallest garrett Puccini's bohemians have ever loved and lost in, but the whole setup was far closer to a West End show than an opera. 'When Adam [Spreadbury-Maher, director of the Cock Tavern] said in October he wanted to do La Boheme at Christmas I assumed he meant Christmas 2010' says Robin. 'I wrote the translation for the libretto in ten days while we were casting, and after a month rehearsing two singers per part we started performing six shows a week.'

The opera was a fringe hit, and the run ended up being extended for six months, with a constantly revolving cast. 'By the end, I had up to five singers to choose from for a single part. Many of them have said to me they've never really got to know a role before – it's just not possible when you're only doing three or four performances.' Michael Davies, who has played Marcello on and off since the beginning, agrees about the advantages of never quite knowing who you're going to be going on stage with. 'It kept it fresh, which was important over such a long run.' Being in such a small space also meant that Robin could cast smaller voices, which meant having singers in roughly the right age bracket producing a more 'accessible' sound.

Is this the future of opera? Every few months someone writes an elegy for the genre, labelling it elitist, uncompetitive or just too uncool for the modern world. My experience of opera, as a director and a fan, has been different: there's a lot going on, if you know where to look, and a huge amount of interest from young practitioners, with very high standards of singing, acting and performance. Where opera is dying out is in the audience. Aside from the obligatory friends-of-the-cast, it is incredibly difficult to persuade the under 40s to take a punt on a genre that, as Robin comments, most people still think they have to dress up for.

I ask Robin if she thinks that OperaUpClose succeeded in broadening their audience. 'It shifted and developed through different stages of the run' she says, 'from a young clued-up fringe theatre audience, to an older theatre-going crowd, and then an opera audience.' But getting theatregoers into opera is hardly reaching out to the masses. What had far greater impact in terms of outreach was the decision to mix the paying audience with casual drinkers by setting a pared down version of Act II (which takes place in a cafe) downstairs in the Cock Tavern itself.

And what a pub for an opera. ‘The one time I've had a pint in there a guy came in so drunk he didn't even realise he'd been bottled and had blood streaming down his face. He told us he had just come back from Afghanistan, but when we mentioned this to the barmaid she laughed and said 'prison, more like.'Robin explains: 'when we did our first rehearsal downstairs at 10am the punters were hungover and a lot of them left. But the 8pm performances went much better because by that point the regulars were pissed.' The spontaneous interactions sound priceless. 'Sometimes people would try to join in, heckling or telling Marcello to leave Musetta alone, and someone once gave Musetta a tenner at the end of her aria.' Best of all is the story of a regular who saw Act II so many times he bought a ticket to see the rest of it. 'He came up to me and told me it had changed his life.' Mixing a polite high-brow audience with general drinkers had artistic rewards as well. 'A lot of the time it was chaotic, but sometimes everyone in the pub would spontaneously shut up' says Michael. 'It's a nice feeling to know you've really captured their attention.'

Does Robin think this is the future of opera? 'There's room for everything – of course we shouldn't stop doing the full orchestral versions, but we also shouldn't be held back from performing operas in different sort of spaces just because they're not big enough for a hundred musicians.' Michael gives a different answer. 'This can't be the future of opera full stop because nobody can make a living from it, but it might be the future of opportunities for young singers. It's much better than college or singing in a large opera chorus. You've got to learn to sing a part from beginning to end.'

The show is great, definitely the best rendition of I've seen of Puccini – a composer I generally find overcooked and humourless – and a second run at the Soho Theatre is to be welcomed. But what made this unique was the setting in a pub where the regular clientele consists of drunks and BNP voters (this ain't prejudice, I canvassed there during the election) and that these regulars didn't change their drinking hole on account of the twenty minutes of opera they had to sit through six nights a week. In fact, many of them came to know and like it, as you can see in the Reuters video (below) from last January. OperaUpClose, now resident at both the Cock Tavern and the Kings Head in Islington, has plans to stage Phillip Glass, Schostakovich, Janacek over the coming year, with Puccini's Madame Butterfly at Christmas. We'll have to see if an aesthetic discourse springs up amongst the punters: 'Phillip Glass, he all sounds the same' 'yeah but it's relaxing' 'fuck that, give me La Boheme any day'. Take advantage of the move and go and see it in Soho if you can, but Act II with the luvvies in the Soho Theatre bar will just be another show. If opera is going to survive the century, my money's on the Kilburn High Road.

OperaUpClose in association with Soho Theatre presents
la bohème
27 July - 4 September 2010

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