The Pick - Arias on the edge

January 6, 2011

London has a new mini opera house at the King's Head Theatre in Islington, where OperaUpClose's Bangkok-set "ladyboy" production of Puccini's Madame Butterfly and a youthful take on Rossini's Cinderella continue into this month. Such attempts to make opera edgy and exciting are being matched by the established opera houses, with well-known film directors invited to mount their first productions and new commissions dissecting contemporary life.

The English National Opera will see Mike Figgis, best known for his Academy Award-winning 1995 film Leaving Las Vegas, directing Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia (from 31 January) and Monty Python alumnus Terry Gilliam tackling Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust (from 6 May).

More surprising are two new operas based on recent events. The Royal Opera promises "sex, extreme language and drug abuse" in Mark-Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole (from 17 February), based on the short life of Anna Nicole Smith and her octogenarian billionaire husband. The libretto is supplied by Richard Thomas, previously responsible for the controversial Jerry Springer: the Opera.

Later in the year, the English National Opera presents Nico Muhly's Two Boys (from 24 June), a true story of what amounts to "suicide by internet". A teenager is fatally injured and another is caught on camera leaving the scene of the crime, yet this seemingly straightforward case soon leads the police into a murky world of false identities, spy rings and cybersex.

It has been more than 20 years since a major Russian theatre company has performed in London. Sovremennik (or Contemporary) Theatre, set up in the "thaw" under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, will present its distinctive approach to Chekhov via visually stunning versions of The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull.

The company will also offer its adaptation of Journey Into the Whirlwind, Eugenia Ginzburg's memoir of 18 years' imprisonment in the Gulag, a harrowing work that ranks among the greatest accounts of Stalinist terror. All of the Sovremennik productions can be seen at the Noel Coward Theatre for a limited season between 21 and 29 January.

The new year in the visual arts kicks off with an exhibition of the work of Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco (Tate Modern, 19 January to 25 April), featuring photographs, sculptures, installations and strange versions of familiar games - such as an extended chess board taken over by an army of knights - created by one of the most inventive experimenters in contemporary art.

Among much else, the months to come will see Jan Gossaert's Renaissance at the National Gallery (23 February-30 May), the first exhibition devoted to the artist in over 40 years; Anish Kapoor: Flashback at the Manchester Art Gallery (5 March-5 June), bringing together works old and new made of stone, wax and stainless steel; and A Sense of Perspective at Tate Liverpool (1 April-5 June), which explores the theme of living between generations and cultures.

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