Little Opera House on the Prairie

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The bawdy back room of a pub in Islington seems an unlikely place to stage a production of any opera, let alone Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, but this was precisely the setting for a new take on a classic cautionary tale, Madam Butterly (Or Bangkok Butterfly). Welcome to the alliance of the King’s Head Pub and OperaUpClose.

With fringe theatre at its peak, OperaUpClose’s critically-acclaimed production of Puccini’s La Bohème (currently showing at the Soho Theatre) has welcomed a significant influx of opera ‘newbies’. Now, armed with fringe’s first-ever rep season and the new, fitting name of ‘London’s Little Opera House’, OperaUpClose brings us a highly diverse and exciting programme dedicated to “presenting new, difficult and classic opera in intimate spaces” for the so-called opera ‘virgins’ as well as the ‘regulars’.

Adam Spreadbury-Maher, Artistic Director, says that “directing chose me” – which he qualifies, with characteristic bluntness, as a “wank answer”. In fairness, though, this is probably true of most creative people. Affirming his response, he explains that his musicianship has never left his work as a director and that there is “always a sense of lyricism” in his work.

As we talk of the current productions, it’s evident that Adam possesses a vast knowledge of his craft. While La Bohème “lends itself to a youthful cast”, he’s conscious of the difficulty of the roles in Butterfly and recognises that various roles within the opera wouldn’t ordinarily be taken by “early-career singers”. But, having watched Adam’s production, which he co-wrote with the company’s Executive Director Ben Cooper, I saw the wealth of talented singers that he describes. Tackling these roles at such a young age is incredibly demanding but these students handle it with professionalism and presence.

Adam insists that these young singers make complete “dramatic sense” – and I very much agree. This talent pool of young singers creates an amazing audience-performer connection which is sustained throughout the performance. This is largely because of two things: the incredibly intimate space which made the performance quite overwhelming; and the age of the singers in comparison to the age of the roles themselves.

I commented on how unimaginable my first experiences of OperaUpClose were and how, as a Conservatory student, one is taught not to exceed the boundaries of classical music; OperaUpClose seems to be beating down the walls of this box. Adam agreed, speaking of how fringe theatre has “helped achieve these new ideas which are not so conceivable” and how “the established opera houses are closed to anyone outside a specialist audience.” For that reason he wants his productions to make a “hole in the wall”. The company never imagined that they would be making such a radical impact on the opera scene; they simply “used the space we had, and then created opera according to that space”. It’s a novel approach.

In defiance of my peers, I commented on how critics seem to be trying to squash these productions by writing ‘bitchy’ columns trying to dissuade audiences by talking in too much ‘finer detail’ – to which La Boheme’s director, Robin Norton-Hale replied: “You know you’ve been successful when people feel the need to slam you down.” Good point.

But what of the context of their productions? The staging might not be the issue among the established crowd – but the interpretation could be. I asked Adam to tell me where he’d taken Butterfly: “People have said it’s changed a lot, but it hasn’t really, if you think about it. I’ve moved its location to Bangkok and shifted it forward a hundred years or so but then I had to think, ‘What’s a respectable role for Pinkerton that’s not a naval officer?’ I thought: commercial airline pilot. And what is the equivalent to a geisha now? It had to be something dangerous.” Referring then to the original story, he elaborates: “In conservative 1904 America, a naval officer having sex with a geisha let alone having a child with that geisha was considered outrageous, whereas now if a pilot goes home and says he had sex with a Thai prostitute, no one would bat an eyelid.” Wouldn’t they? “But let us take it a bit further; what if the geisha was a ladyboy? If he bummed a ladyboy, that’s exciting, that’s risqué – but, after all, realistically, ladyboys are the sex industry nowadays.”

As contentious as this sounds, to support this direction Adam questioned the plausibility in the original story of a naval officer going back to 1904 conservative America with a mixed-race child; this seems quite an unlikely event as he would possibly have lost his stature in this time. “So the child is Butterfly’s sister’s child,” he explains, “AIDS is a horrific problem in Thailand and, having killed her sister, the child too is then born with AIDS. In Thailand it is tradition that the child of a deceased sibling is to be passed on to the next sibling, which in this case is Butterfly. If you think about it, this is just as plausible as Brad and Angelina taking children back to America from third world countries. And it is just as outrageous as the original story.”

It’s a bold interpretation, certainly. But when you sit down and watch Spreadbury-Maher’s direction of Madam Butterfly you feel that there is a greater sense of reality. News channels and popular press seize these stories and it’s become something of a ‘celebrity’ craze, hence it comes across as very contemporary and equally as clever – if not for everyone.

“You can’t go home and compare this performance to your recordings of Butterfly,” Adam says. “That would be impossible.” He’s entirely right; the whole production is more of an experience than something you might listen to in a recorded version. And, for this experience, he’s making no claims to compare his production with anything we might expect of an opera company. “You need to leave Covent Garden at the door of our theatre,” he says. So, I entered the theatre in a completely different frame of mind… and came out mesmerized. It was almost as though I had just experienced opera for the first time; having been an aficionado for as long as I can remember, this is most certainly not Covent Garden. And I loved it.

Adam’s take on proceedings is more succinct: “This opera is rough and sweaty.” It was exactly that. Being in a crowded pub, carousing with one’s beer-swilling neighbours – all of it made me smile. Despite the complete lack of money that’s evident in the production, you really feel you have so much more of a connection with what you are watching. As a young person, I thought the libretto was completely up-to-date; it seems less poetic during moments of recitative, but this worked. And then there are wonderful metaphorical phrases in the arias which, again, really complemented the updated storyline. The singer – and the audience, similarly – had nowhere to hide. As an audience member you’re vulnerable, forced to inhale it and even, almost, participate.

With Butterfly in full swing, and the huge success of La Boheme, what more can we expect from OperaUpClose? “Directorial debuts, new translations, new works and more audiences,” Adam tells me. We spoke at length about the future projects, but what sounded most intriguing to me was their future production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni which will begin at Soho Theatre this summer. My imagination fired when I considered what updating Don Giovanni in this vein might entail. As if it’s not there already, you could do so much to mould it into an incredibly dark tale, which is exactly what Robin said she wanted to do. Further works include a new opera to mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11, which could prove somewhat controversial. But then ‘controversial’ is what they do. Besides, they must be doing something right since, at the time of writing, the 2011 Olivier nominations were announced with La Bohème in the running for Best New Opera Production.

If you choose to experience this type of ‘fringe opera’, which I thoroughly recommend you do, might I offer the same advice that Adam Spreadbury-Maher gave me: leave Covent Garden at the door.

OperaUpClose’s Madame Butterfly is playing at the King’s Head Theatre on London’s Upper Street from Saturday 19th Feb to Monday 28th March. Their production of La Boheme returns to the King’s Head from Tuesday 1st March. King’s Head Theatre, 115 Upper Street, London N1 1QN. Box Office: 0207 478 0160. Website.

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