Opera for the masses, by the masses?
In a disused tin-plate factory in a backstreet of Digbeth in Birmingham, an extraordinary thing is happening – a brand new, full-scale opera is being born. This can only mean one thing – world-renowned opera director Graham Vick is back in town, and his one-production-a-year Birmingham Opera Company (BOC) has once again sprung into life.
While the announcement of their ‘helicopter production’ of Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht for the Cultural Olympiad is grabbing the headlines, the BOC has been staging groundbreaking opera in unusual locations around the city for more than a decade. It has never based a production in a traditional theatre, opting instead for large disused, or unlikely, urban spaces: a shopping mall, empty factories, an abandoned ice rink and even a former city centre bank.
With the absence of conventional stage and seating areas in such venues, the BOC have developed productions that cleverly blur the distinction between actors and audience. The audience is in the thick of it, herded and moved around as the action unfolds around them, and quite often becoming unwitting participants whilst experiencing the full musical force of opera, up close and personal. They are engulfed by the sound of the orchestra, a huge chorus, and of course, the lead soloists. It’s better than a royal box.
In the spirit of Vick’s desire to experiment, break new ground and to never repeat, the company has commissioned an entirely new opera for this year. Life is a Dream was written by composer Jonathan Dove and librettist Alasdair Middleton and is based upon a mythological tale by 17th Century Spanish playwright Calderón. The company has had less than three months to bring this new opera to life.
The surprising part about this most unusual of companies is that its chorus and cast of actors are ordinary members of the public who volunteer their services. Birmingham Opera Company actively encourages people from across the city, with little or no previous experience of either opera or performance, to join the cast.
Yet despite a seeming similarity to a New Labour-style ‘social inclusion project’ there is a notable absence of familiar buzzwords. The productions are not designed to make opera ‘relevant’ to the experiences of inner-city youth or build the ‘self-esteem’ of people so often labeled ‘underprivileged’ or ‘vulnerable’. As one critic noted; ‘none of the works it has staged… has seemed an obvious choice for a company that involves as many local people as possible in every production’. Vick himself adds ‘if we were introducing audiences and participants to a new art form, then let it be to the art form at its most challenging and spiritually powerful.’
The reason an opera company consisting of so many novices can perform to such a high level is due to the BOC’s conviction that we are all, with a push, capable of raising our game. The amateur chorus and actors work long and hard in order to meet the standards Vick expects for his productions. Crucial in this mix is the support of professionals. Vick has assembled a team of actors, choreographers and musicians who train and work alongside the amateur cast, acting as their mentors.
To conclude, what Graham Vick and his company demonstrate so well is that opera, regardless of when, where and by whom it was made, can speak to us all and enrich our lives. When parochialism, ‘relevance’ and the politics of identity encourage us look inwards and backwards, the passion of Vick and his team to involve and teach the general public about opera, and his faith in their ability to understand and appreciate it, should be applauded and encouraged.
The world premiere of Life is a Dream is on 21 March at the Argyle Works in Birmingham.
Niall Crowley is a founder of the Birmingham Salon and a member of Birmingham Opera Company’s volunteer chorus http://www.birminghamopera.org.ukTagged in: Birmingham Opera Company, Mittwoch aus Licht, opera, Stockhausen
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