Reinventing Purcell’s Fairy Queen: giant, energetically copulating rabbitsGlyndebourne

Opera is often accused of being a boring, outdated, elitist and inaccessible art form. The prospect of a three hour long performance, in a foreign language, with potentially dodgy acting and period dress can certainly seem daunting, or just plain uninspiring. Admittedly, when it’s bad it can be awful. An early opera experience traumatised me for years after a severely misguided school trip to Sophie’s Choice (2002) by Nicholas Maw at the Royal Opera House, aged eight. Other experiences, however, do not require such a baptism of fire.

Firstly, to address accusations of elitism and inaccessibility, which often put new audiences off, new-age digital media means there is no need to risk bankruptcy at Covent Garden to see opera. DVDs, Blu-ray, YouTube, and live broadcasts in cinemas are all viable ways of accessing it. If you’re looking for the experience as well, then standing tickets ‘up-in-the-gods’ are available at the Royal Opera for under £20. There is also a student scheme, akin to that at the National Theatre, in order to encourage a new generation of opera fans. Secondly, it is worth mentioning that opera was not originally entertainment for the elite – the bawdy characters and simple plots of most traditional operas demonstrate this. It’s really more like pantomime with a symphony orchestra than highbrow theatre. Consider the example of Shakespeare. Opera it is an art form that underwent a cultural shift, from ‘everyman’s’ theatre to the preserve of the elite.

In terms of its traditional, stuffy image, there is in fact a wealth of updated, racy, affordable, and even ‘underground’ opera to be tapped into. I made this discovery two years ago when I attended a site-specific, silent opera in the Young Vic Tunnels (by the imaginatively named company Silent Opera). The premise of silent disco and Punchdrunk, but opera! The performance was Puccini’s La Bohème. In this silent Bohème the libretto was translated into English by director Daisy Evans, which although more modern than poetic, made the story instantly more accessible, and also avoided the headache of subtitle scanning. Each audience member was given a set of wireless headphones, and the live singing of the actors was mixed with the pre-recorded orchestral score by University of London Symphony Orchestra. This peripatetic element made up for the absence of live music and made the performance feel immersive. More importantly, it made for a dynamic experience, dispelling opera’s ‘boring’ reputation - as it was physically impossible to nod off during the performance. ‘Underground’ opera, being quite literally underground, beneath Waterloo Station, is certainly a good place to start. 

Another modern take on the form is Grimeborn – an annual opera and musical theatre festival run by the Arcola Theatre in East London, conceived in 2007 by its artistic director Mehmet Ergen. The name is a punning reference to the prestigious, world-famous Glyndebourne festival in Sussex. Originally an ‘anti-Glyndebourne’, a statement against the champagne and extravagance of the festival, it is now a dominant voice in fringe-opera. The setting is a converted textile factory; a far cry from the scenic magnificence of the Glyndebourne gardens. Grungy rather than glamorous, the dress-code is dictated by the trendy Dalston set rather than the traditional black-tie of the latter. Performances range from innovative adaptations of classic operas, resurrections of rarely seen works, and – most importantly – new compositions. Grimeborn, as with Silent Opera and others such as Tête à Tête, combines technology with ‘edginess’ in order to bring opera to a new, younger audience. It firmly challenges the perception that opera is inaccessible and elitist.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is still a great deal of artistic merit in the traditional stuff. Glyndebourne – stereotyped as the quintessential culturally elite event in the British summer calendar – is now pursuing a similar agenda. Tickets are in general astronomically expensive, but a new under-30s program offers the experience for £30. Alternatively, cheap standing tickets are available on the day and many performances are now streamed live into cinemas across the country. Elitist? Yes, in the sense that it remains a members club, more readily accessible to those willing to pay for the privilege of first-choice tickets. Additionally, the existence of lower-priced tickets does not in itself promote social mobility. So despite its changing ethos, the audiences currently show no great signs of changing from the silver-haired and silver-spooned. However with the rise of digital culture and access schemes, anyone who wishes to can experience Glyndebourne.

Price aside, the quality of the opera at Glyndebourne is consistently astounding. The whole affair is not just a fancy picnic spent surveying the sheep over the ha-ha wall. The membership schemes effectively give the institution artistic freedom, unlike the Royal Opera. It receives a small amount of Arts Council funding for tours but otherwise no public subsidy. As a result, the owners can do as they please, often choosing to champion obscure works and allowing the artists around 1750 hours of rehearsal time per festival, while accommodating cast, crew, musicians in the beautiful Tudor mansion. The thing about traditional opera is that it is incredibly expensive to put on – you need a whole symphony orchestra, a specifically designed opera house, and a cast of highly trained singers. The digital age means that this is no longer exclusively the case but much of the ‘elitist’ debate is linked to the expense of production – the traditionalists are not simply elite by virtue of their being traditional. The colossal amount of effort that goes into production resulted in the first owner John Christie suggesting that the audience wear black-tie out of respect to the performers, a tradition which is still adhered to, but not compulsory.

In terms of performance, it is also just as original and innovative in style as ‘edgy’ London opera. A production of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen – loosely based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – completely reinvented Elizabethan pageantry, featuring a climactic springtime masque involving giant, energetically copulating rabbits. Mozart’s classic Don Giovanni received a 20th century update, with a sleek 1960s Mad Men-esque aesthetic. The outdated, parodied image of the ‘fat lady sings’ that opera struggles to shake is being rapidly forgotten as a result of younger, glamorous performers, such as Danielle de Niese. Married to Glyndebourne owner Gus Christie, the resident soprano is often seen performing in glittering, racy stage outfits that would not look out of place on a Beyoncé or Lady Gaga tour.

There is so much on offer, ranging from the old-school grandeur of long established institutions to the alternative, contemporary take offered by emerging companies. Opera can be funny, serious, racy, conservative, tragic, minimalist, spectacular – the list goes on. And all set to music ranging from the classical to the contemporary. Whether it be Glyndebourne or Grimeborn, a night at the Royal Opera or Silent Opera, there is something for everyone. Not just for snobs, the pretentious, or purists.