Looking back over previous programmes it’s not hard to see that opera and opera-related work is a steadily growing category at the Edinburgh Fringe. This year boasts nine staged operas, compared to just five last year. Compared to this year’s International Festival offering of just two fully staged operas and four concert performances this could signal a shift in focus for opera lovers in favour of the Fringe. Not to mention that while the International Festival does also feature vocal recitals, the Fringe has a plethora of other opera-related performances.
The reasons for this changing landscape are numerous, but budget, of course, plays a role. Operas are expensive to produce and especially so when international companies tour with elaborate sets, orchestras, full choruses and star performers – no wonder the opera offering at the International Festival favours concert productions and gasp-inducing ticket prices. Given that opera is expensive to produce, it is surprising that more and more fringe opera companies are appearing across the UK. This revolution in the opera world marks a shift from budget guzzling national portfolio companies to smaller performer/musician-led groups carving out careers and productions in much the same way as fringe theatre companies have for years. Fringe opera companies now produce many more times the number of operas in the UK than the big national companies do and this is partly about singers claiming agency over their careers and working outside the “industry” or at least just gaining valuable experience before launching into the auditions maelstrom. Either way, opera lovers on low budgets win.
In the age of free market capitalism however, the increase in fringe opera companies is only possible if there is also an increase in demand. So how is opera enjoying this renaissance of interest in austerity Britain? I don’t have the research findings yet, but I’ll make an educated guess at the factors at play. On one hand the music of opera is far more present and accessible in our lives than we might think: opera in adverts, accompanied by lush visuals; opera soundtracks providing the emotional backdrops in film and TV, for example. Think also of how often you hear opera on talent shows like X Factor, BGT or The Voice.
Purists might scoff, but as opera seeps further into popular public consciousness, I’d guess that the idea of listening to, or even attending opera, might seem more OK. Alongside this, large opera companies have recognised that the perception of elitism is not in their interests and they have been hard at work making their spaces and images more accessible, such as the Royal Opera House “Open Up” building project that makes the public spaces of the building accessible to everyone throughout the day. The Royal Opera House and Welsh National Opera for example, also tend to favour stylish fashion orientated advertising design over the traditional opera images of roses, champagne and plush velvet.
Check out the social media of any large UK opera company and you’ll see backstage images, stage hands, opera divas larking about, musicians in casual wear – it’s all very human and relatable. Opera singers too have been using social media platforms to reveal their dry sense of humour (Karita Mattila) or LGBT ally status (Joyce DiDonato) for example.
There is a sense in which the outreach programmes of the past – let’s take a soprano to an inner-city school and see their wide-eyed amazement – is evolving into a more sincere attempt to make opera seem, well, normal. Liking opera no longer marks you out as some kind of snob or weirdo. In this environment, fringe opera companies are still faced with creating work that they can afford to produce and tour. The inevitable result of these pressures is either slightly amateurish, low budget production for sympathetic friends and family, or productions driven by a truly innovative and creative resourcefulness.
Choices have to be made regarding reduced scores and orchestras, or piano accompanied performances, and easily transportable sets. Contemporary readings tend to mean cheaper costumes. Choices in repertoire are affected by whether a chorus is needed, or whether it can be reduced. The particular demands of operatic singing mean opera singers struggle to sing night after night in a long run – so do they do a short run (or single performance), do they allow gaps in the run, or do they bring two alternating casts? Look at the opera offering on the Fringe this year and you’ll see a variety of solutions.
There are two opera festivals devoted to showcasing work by companies of the artistically creative and resourceful sort. Têtê à Têtê based at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith since 2006 and Grimeborn on the other side of London, at the Arcola Theatre in hipster Dalston since 2007. Both these festivals take place in the summer and so there is an overlap with the Edinburgh Fringe which could mean competition or opportunity. Virtually Opera have chosen to preview their contemporary comic opera The Perfect Opera in Hammersmith before bringing the production to Edinburgh this year and I’ve a feeling this might be the way of the future for fringe opera companies who seek the wider benefits of the Edinburgh Fringe, as well as the niche networking opportunities of the fringe opera festivals in London.
So, if you are an opera lover or you maybe want to dip your toe into the art-form in some way, here are a few of the works at Edinburgh Fringe 2019.
Firstly, some Fringe regulars doing full operas: Aria Alba are doing the vocally demanding La Sonnambula by Bellini, about a sleep-walking woman. Opera Bohemia are tackling Lehar’s joyful The Merry Widow for one performance, while Cat-Like Tread, devotees of Gilbert & Sullivan, will be sharing what purists think of as the pinnacle of the G&S output, Iolanthe. Completing the productions of existing operas are the little heard Il signor Bruschino by Rossini brought to the Fringe by The Cambridge University Opera Society and the rarely heard, dark masterpiece La Voix Humaine by Poulenc that is written for a single soprano on the telephone to her lover. It’s a real treat to hear it in a staged production. Opera Kipling will be performing Love Me Out: The Opera a new adaptation of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte – I’m rather enjoying the references to Take Me Out and Love Island, very appropriate for this couple swapping comedy.
Comedy is also the name of the game with The Perfect Opera, a new work that seeks to tackle the problem of making opera funny for today’s audiences. Composer Leo Doulton collides opera and sketch-show conventions adding a mix of musical styles in a very serious attempt to conquer the comic opera genre. Comic opera, it is fair to say, doesn’t usually offer many belly laughs, but has always enjoyed a certain freedom to reference popular culture, indulge in intertextuality and borrow from popular music. The Perfect Opera seems set to take these principles to a very contemporary place, with Macbeth, a pantomime camel and hip-hop foxtrot sketches defying the idea that comic opera is “funny – for opera”. Louise Geller’s show The Comedy of Operas is a comedy themed recital that also explores some of opera’s funny situations and characters, with props and storytelling. Hilarity is also bound to ensue in Madame Chandelier’s Rough Guide to Opera.
Two contemporary works on more serious themes stand out for me. Eclipse by Daïmon Opera is a semi-staged work on the theme of light and dark with poetry and music both historical and contemporary. Dead Equal created by Rose Miranda Hall and Lila Palmer tells the story of WW1 heroine Flora Sandes, using the verbatim accounts of army servicewomen. I’m also hoping to catch Ah, Ye Gods, What Power You Have Given to Beauty, a recital of music by women, or about strong women, featuring Austrian mezzo Ulrike Wutscher. Erin Alexander’s On a High Note is a show/recital structured to shed light on the career of Graziella Sciutti, a contemporary of Maria Callas, and highlights the emotional and costly price of success. My own show, Admiring La Stupenda is also a show about a singer – in my case the legendary Australian soprano Joan Sutherland. In the guise of a talk about Sutherland I play music and demonstrate operatic movement while dressing in improvised gowns and straying off topic, using my experiences of Sutherland as a vehicle to explore my relationship to my mum, sex, anxiety and postmodernism, while unearthing the bygone identity of the opera queen. If you want to hear me wax on about opera a bit more having read this, then join me
at Greenside @ Nicolson Square from Fri 2 – Sat 17 Aug (not 11) at 3pm.