Category Archives: Theatre

A Night at the Opera

With her deep upturned pout, ragged blouse and tangled locks, intertwined in the French flag as black and white bleed into red and blue, the face of Cosette is instantly recognisable. Les Misérables’ ceaseless popularity is testament to a particular musical taste that has been fostered since it first opened in the West End in 1985. Victor Hugo could never have imagined that his novel would be seeing in the new year of 2013 with the release of Tom Hooper’s much anticipated film of the stage musical. What is it about this French revolutionary drama that has so captivated the minds and hearts of the world? The catchphrase of Hooper’s film catalogues basic human passions: ‘Fight. Dream. Hope. Love’. For me, this very aptly encapsulates the essence of the musical. There is little more harrowing than Fantine’s impassioned and desperate reminiscence of a life that could have been in ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, a performance  delivered with much raw sincerity by Hathaway in the teaser trailer of Hooper’s film.


Yet personally, these four words of ‘Fight. Dream. Hope. Love’ are equally relevant to a form of theatrical music that glows much more dimly in the vivid forum of world entertainment. And that is opera. Whose voice can be more dreaming than Madame Butterfly’s in ‘Un Bel Di’? More full of love than Isolde’s in her ‘Liebestod’? More hopeful than ‘Nessun Dorma’, an anthem so inspiring it was used as the theme for the 1990 FIFA World cup?

Why is it then that comparative to musicals, we seem to be less roused by opera? Perhaps it is because we associate it with the velveteen hues, cut glass chandeliers and gilt of an expensive night out at the theatre. Zachary Woolfe’s article (@zwoolfe) in ‘The New York Times’, ‘How Hollywood Films are Killing Opera’, notes that it is only the use of famous divas in America that guarantees audiences. This prompts us to ponder whether the quality of operatic music in itself is no longer enough to secure profits. Woolfe also points out that the Hollywood glamorisation of opera has done little to help its credibility as an artform. Citing Vivienne’s trip in ‘Pretty Woman’ to see La Traviata as an example, his point becomes crystal clear. She is taken on a glitzy date escorted by helicopter, peering out of the box with her opera glasses, a bold vision of diamonds, white gloves and a full, sweeping red gown. Much as she is moved by her experience, it seems superficial and frivolous: all she can say is  ‘It was so good I almost peed my pants!’ Julia Roberts’ fame, beauty and cinematic presence inevitably leaves the impression that a night at the opera is an elite evening of entertainment enjoyed only by the glittering and the fabulous.

Vivienne indulging in the opera

Vivienne indulging in the opera

The use of opera in the advertising world is similarly problematic. Two recent adverts for Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Male aftershave shows a changing room of half clad athletic men pouting, perfuming and preening as they change into sharp tailored suits, no doubt preparing to attend a decadent party. In the second, a man and a woman in a similar state of undress awake in a sumptuous boudoir. The male, playing the quintessential ‘man in uniform’ as a sailor,  mysteriously disappears, leaving only his scent to linger in the love nest. By coupling opera with such scenes of modellesque beauty, rose tinted light, silk and indulgence, we cannot help but feel it exists in a world of perfection, a world of high fashion. It is not something that we can immediately relate to.

The mystique surrounding opera frustratingly veils it from stirring emotions within us just as powerful, if not more so, as any resounding chorus of an Andrew Lloyd Webber classic. Certain companies and productions are working hard to unclothe opera of its supposed pretensions, stripping it down to accentuate best its movingly human qualities. Opera North’s 2011 ‘Carmen’, for example, set the saga in the mellow grounds of a Spanish wine bar complete with fairy lights and rickety tables. To the audience, it was a scene not too distant from a favourite Mediterranean summer holiday. As a classically trained singer myself, I was a member of the chorus of Leeds Youth Opera for four years. In my time there, I was a Germanic huntress in Weber’s ‘Der Freischütz’, a medieval crusader and harem girl in Verdi’s ‘I Lombardi’ and a Greek wench in Mozart’s ‘Idomeneo’. As a company, we always aimed for diversity and to challenge our audience’s expectation. With this in mind, Hades in our production of Offenbach’s ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ was transformed  into a seedy underground nightclub and the sopranos, myself included, played burlesque dancers in fishnets and platform heels. Finishing off the party in the final act was a drunken performance of the famous Can-Can dance to disco lights, as energetic and frolicsome as a girly hen do.

Leeds Youth Opera's chorus for 'Idomeneo'

Leeds Youth Opera’s chorus for ‘Idomeneo’

It is staging and costume that prove vital tools to ground opera in a way that all audiences can access and enjoy. Indeed, as part of Cambridge’s Festival of Ideas, a newly composed opera ‘Lost’ was performed in the Fitzwilliam Museum. It involved both audiences and performers moving through the galleries parallel to the narrative’s progression, becoming themselves lost and immersed in the art work. It is this sort of intelligent innovation of operatic performance and reception that inspires and fosters emotional and intellectual connections between the listener and the music. The passions of ‘Fight. Dream. Hope. Love’ are allowed liberation from the cobwebbed traditions of more conventional theatrical performances and simultaneously escape the romanticised associations of the media and film industry, invigorating a diverse multitude of people. Opera is supposed to be a dramatic work set to music. And so we must keep experimenting with where that drama can take us.


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We shadows have offended? Has ‘accessible Shakespeare’ become inaccessible?

‘Accessible Shakespeare’ draws in the audiences. Be it through modern staging and costume, translations of Shakespearean English into ‘gangster chat’ or forays into multicultural interpretations such as King Lear performed at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe in Mandarin, the way that we watch Shakespeare is endlessly shifting.

It’s always said, is it not, that classical literature is applicable to all times and cultures? Shakespeare certainly fits this bill. The popularity of productions today proves that his plays can metamorphose to fit any audience type, any culture, any time, any fashion. There seem to be no limits.

Yet, mesmerising as these new interpretations can be, has the ‘accessible’ become ‘inaccessible’? The move out of stiff ruffs and men in tights to David Tennant’s parker jacket and beanie hat in the graveyard scene of the RSC’s Hamlet in 2008 may engage the audience’s empathy, yet this destabilising of stereotypical Shakespeare can leave us somewhat disorientated.

Whilst supervising University of California students on Pembroke College’s annual summer study programme I found that multicultural and deconstructed Shakespeare aiming to be ‘accessible’ can leave those wishing to find Shakespeare feeling totally lost. Travelling to Stratford, we enjoyed a performance of Dmitry Krymov’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It). Having seen multiple presentations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and having just studied the Shakespeare paper in my English degree, I was fascinated by the show’s premise. A performance involving five metre puppets, acrobatics, an on-stage audience, opera, fireworks and of course, Venya, the athletic and endearing Jack Russell. What’s more, the director chose to focus solely on the parts of the mechanics performing ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ and claimed he wanted to dissolve the boundaries between Shakespeare’s different plays so that his audience left the theatre unsure quite what they had seen. And to top it all off, it was performed entirely in Russian. What cultures all around the world typify as quintessentially British had become nomadic, and I, as a veteran of performance watching, could not be more intrigued.

The doomed lovers’ story played out in a montage of cumbersome puppet dances, dog yaps, histrionic opera and primitive sexual overtures. To add to the disorientation a paper lion frolicked through clouds of sparks whilst Thisbe’s tears comically, and literally, flooded the stage. This blend of the elements and merging of the senses created for me an utterly unprecedented vision of the play. Yet the confused murmurs of my companions suggested that those most keen to access Shakespeare were feeling bewildered.

Our second opportunity to show off our Shakespearean heritage to our visitors was at the Fringe. If anything encapsulates ‘accessibility’, it is the Fringe in its diversity. There is something for all. So we ventured to watch C Venue’s Shit-faced Shakespeare, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream almost literally hallucinogenic in that the actor who played Lysander was ‘shit-faced’ and the audience’s heckling kept him that way. Whilst I enjoyed the merriment, again, my students were craving that authentic ‘Shakespearience’.

Luckily, the Globe Theatre’s Henry V soothed their discontent. Compared to the haphazard cascades of sawdust and rough shorn wood of Krymov’s set, the Globe’s timber, thatch and the curls of paint embellishing the stage’s ceiling in true Renaissance style provided enough of the ‘actual Shakespeare’ they had all so yearned for. The contrast in their reactions left me to ponder the definition of ‘accessibility’ in conjunction with literature that lasts. Perhaps when we seek to modernise Shakespeare for audiences of diverse age, culture and taste, we lose those who are searching for his dramas the most. Puck’s candid epilogue suddenly smarts. Maybe the shadows of the ‘dream’ have offended, and their offense is made more overt by modern interpretations that seek intentionally to destabilise the themes of an already labyrinthine play. Yet, with themes of disguise, mistaken identity and feigned insanity, Shakespeare’s plays would suggest a regard for the world of theatre as one of artifice and illusion. Perhaps then he never sought to be truly ‘accessed’ by his audiences, however quirky the costumes.

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