Opera Up Close has developed a reputation for bringing fresh and intimate stagings of opera into new venues. Combining first class acting and singing and inventive orchestrations, the company has now staged 21 operas. As their production of Verdi’s La traviata prepares to open at Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre, Opera Up Close’s Artistic Director, Robin Norton-Hale, spoke to Glen Pearce about both the opera and the company itself.
What appealed to you about La traviata?
It’s been one of my favourite operas for years. I think Verdi writes really physiological interesting characters, traviata and Rigoletto really are two fascinating looks at psychology. In traviata, the heroine, Violetta, is by far the noblest person in the opera. She’s had a very chequered past. Depending on the language you want to use she’s been a high-class prostitute (or courtesan in the more polite way of putting it). What that means, in the way society looks at it, is that she has no chance of redemption, so the play that it’s based on and the opera itself were considered very shocking at the time. Verdi actually makes her clearly by far the best person morally in the opera and it’s clear to me that he’s really angry with the hypocrisy of society. I think it’s very political and fits well to do it now.
You’ve set this production in the 1920s – what was the thinking behind that?
There have been productions of La traviata set in more modern eras. I think you slightly tie yourself in knots if you do that, trying to explain the world of the high-class courtesan. We don’t really have that now but what we do have is a society that really judges people for what they’ve done in the past. Anyone who is in the public eye is likely to be dragged through the wringer at any time by the media or public opinion. I think it’s a very relevant story in that way.
The 1920s, while nearly a hundred years ago, seem a very modern era, the first decade of modern western society if you like. The fact that women were bobbing their hair and drinking and there were adverts – it was the big start of consumerism. It feels like the audience aren’t that far removed from what is going on but, at the same time, I’m not having to explain the situation of a high-class prostitute and can keep the story quite close to Verdi’s.
You’ve adapted the libretto for La traviata yourself, how do you go about that?
What we tend to do with Opera Up Close is rather than call our show translations we call them versions. That’s not a cop-out, but rather we very deliberately allow ourselves a bit more creative licence in terms of what the words literally mean in order to tell the story more effectively – whether to a modern audience or in the world in which we’ve chosen to set it.
It is treading a fine line; you don’t want to make it too prosaic. Sometimes when I’ve tried to set something really matter of fact in an opera it just sounds ridiculous when sung. Opera is heightened and more poetic, but you don’t want to go so far down that route that is seems unreal and a bit pretentious or remote.
By allowing ourselves not to translate literally what the words say but to adapt a bit it does give us some freedom but it’s tricky!
Opera Up Close has been credited with bringing new audiences into opera – is that important?
It’s a really good question. For me, it is important to say that we do not exist explicitly to bring opera to a new audience. I love opera personally, and everyone who works for the company believes that opera is a really exciting and engaging art form, but there are many people, including a lot who go to the theatre all the time, who think opera isn’t for them.
Of course if you love opera you want to introduce it to a new audience but I think if you specifically set out to say this is for a new audience there is a risk of making decisions that aren’t the best artistic decisions. If you make a show for what you think a new opera audience needs there’s a risk of patronising. I’m a great believer that if you are telling the audience in an engaging and interesting way it doesn’t matter if someone is an opera aficionado, or it’s the first opera they’ve ever seen, it should speak to them.
I’m really proud of the fact that lots of people come and see their first opera with us. Funders get very excited when audiences fill in their surveys saying this is the first time they’ve seen an opera, but I also make the point that, if people come see an opera and never come again, that’s no good at all. If someone comes to us for their first opera and then their second, third and fourth, then that’s really important. Equally we have people who go to the Royal Opera House or ENO all the time who come to us for something different, something more intimate.
What are the challenges of performing opera on an intimate scale?
One of the challenges for something like traviata is that it is romantic grand opera and there’s an expectation of a certain grandeur. Normally there would be a chorus of 50+ and you get a sense of the opulence of Violetta’s world from that. We don’t have those resources so we need to make sure we’re not short changing people. The flip side of that is that, while its written for a large orchestra and big choruses, La traviata is essentially a story of three people, and if you take away all those extra forces, orchestra, chorus and massive sets, you get to the heart of the story and it really lays bare peoples motivation in it.
What would you say to anyone who says opera is not for them?
Opera is a very broad term; people don’t tend to say something as broad as I don’t like books. They may not like a certain author so I’d say something like, so if you’ve tried a Mozart opera and didn’t like it why didn’t you like it, and you may like a Puccini opera as they are incredibly different beasts.
The other thing is don’t worry about understanding every single moment of it – it is ok sometimes to just let the music wash over you. I think people sometimes get hung up on not hearing every single word, and that’s especially true when people are coming to see a show in English. When you have five people singing different words at the same time the composer never intended audiences to be able to hear all those words, whatever language it is in. I think people are used to TV or spoken theatre and are afraid of missing something, but you can look at the relationships visually on stage while the music is telling you something almost subconsciously.
People also often think they need to have a lot of prior knowledge to understand an opera, but I’d forget that and relax and just see what you get out of it.
Is there one opera you’d really like to give the Opera Up Close treatment to?
There are lots! In terms of scale I absolutely love Benjamin Britten so something like Peter Grimes. I can’t think how to do it on a small scale though as I think you need the chorus.
The other one I’ve been talking about doing for Opera Up Close for years is problematic, as it’s not as well-known and we do have to sell tickets, is Jenůfa by Janáček. Again the psychological detail of the characters – the stepmother murdering a baby but really with the best intentions, if you can murder a baby with good intentions – I think would be incredibly powerful up close. I’ll keep on talking about it and our producer will keep asking ‘how are we going to sell the tickets?’
La traviata runs at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn 22 June – 4 July
For more information visit www.operaupclose.com