Michael Nyman

Press Coverage


OperaUpClose has big ambitions

London Evening Standard, 25 March 2011 :  Mar 28th, 2011

By Nick Kimberley

At last week’s Olivier Awards, there was an act of giant-killing that was the theatrical equivalent of a Conference team winning the FA Cup. The title for Best New Opera production was taken by a La Bohème that started out in the upstairs room of a Kilburn pub, the Cock Tavern (capacity, 35).

The company responsible, OperaUpClose, was founded by Adam Spreadbury-Maher, the Cock’s artistic director who has since taken on the King’s Head in Islington, too. He receives no public subsidy, and produced La Bohème with just piano accompaniment. It went on to fill the slightly larger Soho Theatre and recently decamped to OperaUpClose’s new home, the King’s Head, which has rebranded itself as London’s Little Opera House (capacity, around 100). Since the show first opened at the Cock in 2009, it has notched up 224 performances, with total attendance at all three venues of 21,000 - and it was put together on a budget of £1,000.

A few days after the Oliviers, it emerged that some members of the chorus were disgruntled that they had not been paid. Spreadbury-Maher insists that everyone involved knew what they were taking on: “People signed up on a week-by-week basis, and it was absolutely clear that it was on a voluntary basis. If we hadn’t had a good response to our advert for volunteers, we wouldn’t have done the opera, and most of the chorus members say that they love the show. We’re proud of what we are doing with no money: think what we could do with just a little funding. We’re not asking for the £26 million that the Royal Opera House gets - but we have our fingers crossed for the next Arts Council England funding round at the end of this month.”

OperaUpClose is now working its way through opera’s greatest hits: not only Puccini’s La Bohème but also Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, presented as The Barber of Seville, or Salisbury; and Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, subtitled Bangkok Butterfly. The supplementary titles indicate the company’s approach: each opera is re-imagined both dramatically and musically, and the results have divided critics and audiences alike. Some love the immediacy, while others find the interpretations intrusive and the reduced orchestrations a betrayal.

Where everything staged so far dates from the 19th or early 20th centuries, the company’s next production is of Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea, premiered in Venice in 1643. It takes a sardonic look at the state of Rome under Emperor Nero, who will stop at nothing to get his hands on Poppea, the object of his desire. The production will be directed by controversial playwright Mark Ravenhill (Shopping and F***ing and Mother Clap’s Molly House).

Although the partnership seems unlikely, he is no opera virgin. In the 1990s, he directed several small-scale touring productions. This time, his involvement goes further: he has also written the translation that the singers will use. Ravenhill is convinced that presenting the work in a pub theatre opens up possibilities: “For a start, we can be sure that the words are crystal clear.

Even with the best will in the world, it’s hard to make every single word count in large opera houses. Monteverdi wasn’t writing to fill a 2,000-seat Victorian theatre. Nor was he writing for a little room behind a pub, of course, but in the opera house, you have to pump up the orchestra into something the composer didn’t intend. In some ways the scale of the sound that we can make is closer to what Monteverdi would have heard than something that’s been inflated to fill a huge theatre.”

Not that Ravenhill is seeking to replicate the baroque sounds that Monteverdi imagined (a matter of some conjecture, since no definitive score survives). In collaboration with music director Alex Silverman, Ravenhill has opted for a jazz-inflected trio of piano, saxophone and double bass. Hardly less radical is the decision to include an aria specially written for the occasion by Michael Nyman. That, though, is not so different from the practice of Monteverdi’s era: scholars believe that, while the opera is largely Monteverdi’s, several other composers probably made contributions, including the sumptuous love duet that closes the opera, casting a glowing light on Nero and Poppeaplayed by Zoe Bonner, who have schemed, connived and murdered their way to erotic ecstasy.

Their climactic duet has worried Ravenhill, not musically but historically: “The original audience would have been more aware than we are today of the irony of the duet. They would have known what Roman historians tell us about this marriage: it wasn’t going to last. Poppea’s first child died young; then when she became pregnant again, Nero kicked her in the stomach, she lost the baby and died as a result.”

It was to bridge that gap in a modern audience’s knowledge that Ravenhill commissioned Nyman’s aria. Sceptics will probably wail that OperaUpClose’s whole project is a misguided attempt to second-guess operatic history. Others will find the results stimulating and refreshing. Yet Ravenhill insists that he’s not deliberately setting out to make Poppea fit with any notions of broadening opera’s appeal.

“Accessibility isn’t a very good reason for putting on a show. In any case, it would be an odd form of accessibility when opera is available in theatres seating a couple of thousand people, and we’re putting it on in a theatre for just 100 people. I’m interested in the piece because I think there’s something about this opera that we can only discover in a smaller space and with a smaller audience.”

Whether it turns out to be another Olivier winner remains to be seen.

The Coronation of Poppea is in rep May 5-9 at London’s Little Opera House at the King’s Head, N1 (020 7478 0160; kingsheadtheatre.com); Michael Nyman’s opera, Facing Goya, is released by MN Records in April

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