Artists and creatives from a range of artistic disciplines combine to create multi-media work, so that ‘a play’ ‘an exhibition’ ‘a film’ are no longer adequate descriptions for a lot of stuff going on out there. And digital developments and a culture of creative experimentation mean there is a continuous supply of new work to feed the demand for immersive art.
So how does opera get in on the act? It, of all art forms, could be seen as the most distancing: physically, it seems to require the largest auditoriums, the biggest stages and 80-player orchestra pits; emotionally, its range goes from high to alpine to hysterical; and intellectually, it requires not just a simple suspension of disbelief but a certain socially learned mental adjustment in order to fully digest and appreciate its sophistication.
Well – it seems that OperaUpClose has found the answer: bring the professionals into small theatre spaces, leave them in their every-day clothes, forget the make-up and wigs and pretty much let them sing.
Mimi’s leitmotif in La Bohème is perhaps one of the most recognizable phrases in all opera, and if you’re a fan of soaring lines, you’ll rarely fail to get goose bumps on hearing it. But when it’s being sung, full-throated, just feet from you in a room the size of the average restaurant, those goose bumps are more of a full-body massage – including internal organs – and all without the aid of amplification. What better description of immersive art?
OperaUpClose does plenty more to close those traditional gaps between performer and audience: the set is student digs; Rodolfo writes on a laptop; scraps of food come in Sainsbury’s carrier bags; and the libretto is peppered with contemporary references. At points, as the Bohemian boys are knocking back shots and play-fighting with the beanbag before going out on a Christmas Eve bender, you feel that this could be an episode of Skins or the Inbetweeners.
But the real coup-de-theatre takes place during the interval. Going into exact detail about what occurs would spoil the effect; all I will say is, when you’re told to leave the auditorium and go down to the bar while the stage is reset, do so! The result is simple, effective and more immediate than most performance art pieces – new-fangled or traditional.
This production is not without its flaws. Key to the story of La Bohème is that Mimi is consumptive, coughing her way from entrance to exit. Trying to convince a modern audience that Soho Bohemians drinking Buds and discussing blogs wouldn’t simply take her round the corner to the free NHS Walk-In Clinic in Frith Street is a bit of a stretch – perhaps they know something we don’t about the effect of imminent cuts? And when the performers are so close and have got your trainers and jeans on, it can be a little more difficult to accept the time they spend onstage doing unobtrusive business while the leads emote than it would if they were half a mile away and wearing breeches.
The real let-down – and one I sincerely hope OperaUpClose addresses in future performances – is the decision to use a pianist as a stand-in for a whole orchestra. He was a good musician making a valiant attempt at rendering Puccini’s score, but the addition of three or four more performers, using one of the many reductions available, would have made an immense difference, preventing the occasional slips into a high-school or rehearsal-room ambiance. And, Soho Theatre, get the piano in your bar tuned!
These problems aside, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed any opera so much in years. Maybe not since Jonathan Miller’s production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, itself a chamber opera, with cleverly intimate staging.
Perhaps, then, there is something to be said for opera up close – OperaUpClose certainly thinks so. Now in rep at the King’s Head Theatre, what the company calls London’s Little Opera House, throughout the year they are presenting such classics as The Barber of Seville, Pagliacci, and Madame Butterfly, along with new works.
On the strength of their La Bohème, I think I might eschew both the more costly productions at the RoH and ENO, and the hit-and-miss nature of the current rash of immersive experiences around town, and go and get my liver massaged by voices for a couple of hours.
La Bohème runs for an extended season until 19 February at the Soho Theatre and in rep at The Kings’ Head Theatre, Islington from 1 March.
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