The Pick - Taking the grand out of opera

October 21, 2010

The Barber of Seville (or Salisbury)

King's Head Theatre, London

Until 14 November (Wednesdays to Sundays)

In December last year, a company called OperaUpClose mounted a new production of Puccini's La Bohème in an old-style Irish pub in Kilburn, north London, called the Cock Tavern. They created a libretto that transferred the setting from Paris' Latin Quarter to a local student squat. They signed up casts of enthusiastic young singers much the same age as the characters. And they replaced a full operatic orchestra with just a keyboard.

Most of the action was staged in a small theatre above the pub. But one act took place in the main bar - and was often greeted by local boozers barracking, joining in and, on one occasion, yelling "Get your knickers off!" for an entire hour. The show proved a huge success and was sold out for 126 performances - claimed to be the longest continuously running opera in history - before proving equally popular at London's Soho Theatre. It will return to both venues from this Christmas.

OperaUpClose has now taken over one of London's oldest pub theatres, the King's Head in Islington, to create London's Little Opera House. Renowned opera and theatre director Jonathan Miller has become a patron and will mount productions of Mozart's Così Fan Tutte and Berg's Lulu next year. He has long been suspicious, he said at a launch event last week, of "grand opera, grand scenery and particularly grand audiences - there are some opera houses where you look at the audience and feel that Harrods food hall has yielded up its dead".

Artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Maher, joint artistic director Robin Norton-Hale and associate director Mark Ravenhill stressed other advantages of opera in more intimate settings. Mozart and Rossini practically wrote their operas over a weekend, but the major opera companies today tend to commission works five or 10 years ahead of their production dates, greatly reducing the potential for any topicality. A small company could be far quicker on its feet, and could also use talented singers whose voices are not strong enough for houses seating thousands. A repertory system to be introduced in February would encourage risk-taking, since new productions could be built around a back catalogue of sure-fire hits.

Like La Bohème, the first production - of Rossini's The Barber of Seville - has been adapted and directed by Ms Norton-Hale. It has been wittily recreated in the world of Jane Austen, with the heroine, Rosina, announcing "I don't self-deprecate, I know my estimate/This little lamb is not so pure". Its style and panache should soon make the new venue an excellent rival or antidote to London's two established opera houses.

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