Bohemian rhapsody, Oxford style

March 14, 2003

Eight years ago, the fat lady sang for opera at Oxford University. Now a group of students is bringing it back. Adrian Mourby reports.

"John, I can see you," shouts a shaven-headed young man, pacing up and down on the refectory tables. "But I can't see your character. And Alexandra I'm really not getting that you're agoraphobic. OK, once again chorus, and remember I don't want chorus acting."

We are in the dining hall of an Oxford college, but the scene being rehearsed in the cleared space before me is Paris, act two of Puccini's Boh me, a notorious challenge for opera directors. The man who has taken up that challenge is an Australian graduate student, Eamonn Kelly, who is busy working the chorus hard.

"OK, T, can I roll?" Kelly demands of a Nigerian student in baggy fatigues who has chosen to clap out the rhythm of Puccini's score rather than simply conduct. "Let's get some dynamism into it!"

The scene is run again with T - full name Tagbo Ilozue - beating time and singing the role of an absent Musetta in high falsetto. Eamonn meanwhile is continually diving in and out of the melee to reposition singers. Reinder Van Dyk, a Dutch student cast as a cross-dressing street vendor, is encouraged to be even more outrageous, and Joanna Briton is shown how she can improve her flirting with the soloist playing Marcello.

"Being involved in this has reminded me that, if it's done in the right way, opera needn't be traditional or unintelligible," Briton tells me later. "It really can be highly relevant and interesting and good fun."

Briton is typical of many of the students who have joined up for the inaugural production by Oxford City Opera in that she wouldn't necessarily describe her background as opera-loving. Her parents were not opera fans:

"They regard it as elitist, expensive and difficult to relate to. And many of the productions of opera I encountered, largely at English National Opera, reinforced the idea of opera as something not particularly enjoyable."

All that has changed for Joanna since working with Kelly and Ilozue, the founders of Oxford City Opera. "They combine youthful enthusiasm with real professionalism," says Geoff Sutton, a townie who has been co-opted into the student chorus so that the population of Paris doesn't look uniformly 20 years old. "I'm really impressed. The depth of work they've done on each character in the chorus is remarkable."

Certainly Kelly, who was a film actor in his native Australia before coming to research archaeology at Oxford, seems to know where every member of the chorus should be on every beat of every bar and has devised individual stories for each of them. "Sheridan! It's looking too earnest," he tells one of the flirting girls. "You look like you're trying to sell him a car."

The dining hall crackles with merriment and energy on this dark winter evening and Ilozue, who is supposed to be at Oxford to study philosophy and psychology, is now dancing round the piano as he claps in time. He may well be the first Nigerian to have conducted Puccini, but the sound he elicits from this student chorus would make the maestro proud.

When Kelly and Ilozue arrived in Oxford, they were surprised to find no student opera society. "The university seemed to have a club for everything from parasailing and Scottish dancing to diplomacy and tiddlywinks but no opera society," Kelly says. "And that seemed a great shame, given the interest that many students were regularly showing, attending Welsh National Opera and Glyndebourne productions in large numbers."

"More than anything else we were struck by the potential talent lying dormant in Oxford," Ilozue says. "It became clear that the best way to revive opera at Oxford University would be to establish a society, responsible for developing opera appreciation and demystifying the genre, and a student company, responsible for producing several large-scale operas each academic year, something larger, more student-run and far more ambitious than the old opera club."

The previous society disintegrated in 1995. Oxford University Opera Club was founded in the 1920s by Sir Jack Westrup, an academic, and Arundel del Re, a Florentine expatriate. It had a policy of producing works in English and used its funds to hire professional singers and conductors. But as the years rolled by, OUOC amassed debts and lost its audience. "The society couldn't adapt," Kelly says. "Back in 1925, there was no Welsh National Opera or Glyndebourne Touring coming to Oxford, no such company as English National just down the road. Its arrival changed things, and when OUOC tried to find itself a distinctive role in Oxford it ended up producing more and more obscure works that not enough people wanted to see."

OUOC's last production was Stephen Paulus' Woodlanders - a deeply monotonous piece of American vernacular modernism. It was not the kind of show that a company with financial problems should have been staging. Some would argue not the kind of show that ought to be staged at all. "I don't want to be disrespectful," Kelly says, "but I think the old society kept its head down and it failed to communicate dramatically with its audience.

But then I often think that too much opera is beautiful singing with lacklustre acting."

Kelly and Ilozue are determined that their new society will not shut its eyes to economic reality. "Financial feasibility," they insist. "Many student ventures just have people come in for a few years with lots of energy, and then when they leave there's nothing left," Ilozue says. "We want to make sure the society will always be there so that Oxford students will always have the experience of opera."

That proselytising attitude was visible last November at the fresher's fair. "We went in with a bang," Kelly says. "We got in among the crowd, we were aggressive, we made people listen. We worked our stall like market traders. The result was that more people signed up with us than with any other society."

In fact, OCO membership is exceeded only by the Oxford Union and the famous dramatic society. "It's extremely diverse too," Kelly says, "not only in terms of ages, ethnicity and school backgrounds but also as regards level of interest in the world of opera. We've got students who are just enjoying the experience as part of their time at Oxford along with those who are very keen to pursue a professional career. The notion of opera as the sole property of an impermeable elite is outdated and certainly not what we have encountered in Oxford."

But membership is only part of the story of opera's resurrection in Oxford.

Kelly and Ilozue set about doing a deal with the Oxford Playhouse as early as 2001. "We told them we wanted to see popular large-scale operas staged in the city again," Kelly says. An audience was also needed, so they decided on La Bohème . "With performers the same age as Puccini's characters, our telling of the tragedy will be especially poignant. Students can strongly identify with the tomfoolery, money troubles and romantic escapades of the Bohemian friends."

The pair has updated the opera not to contemporary times but to the period of Puccini's own youth. "Just as the composer confronted the feigned bohemianism of his day by giving the opera a nostalgic yet ultimately gritty period setting, so we're going to challenge the current vogue for ethnic chic and designer stubble," Kelly says. The intention is to appeal to everyone's fantasy of Belle Epoque Paris in the carefree first two acts - as glorified in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge - before calling this excessive romantic aesthetic into question in the heartbreak of acts three and four.

And so to the opening night and, for Oxford, an opportunity to see if Kelly has realised his vision. A wave of raw emotion surges as Rudolpho (Luke Purser) lifts the lifeless body of Mimi (Merle Fairhurst), then collapses in silence as the curtain falls. The singing has been varied, and the set needs more money spent on it. Occasionally the orchestra and soloists drifted apart, but none of that matters. Kelly has achieved his intention of breaking the audience's hearts. Silence, then an eruption of cheers, and we are back in the world of undergraduates who have come to see their friends put on an opera. When the curtain rises for the company to take their bows, they seem so young, laughing, chatting, clapping each other in delight. No one quite knows how to take a bow, and the fact that this is so apparent speaks volumes for the quality of performance. Only when the show is over and the soloists have returned to being kids with essays to write do we suddenly remember how young they are. And what potential Oxford City Opera has.

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