Review: La Tragédie de Carmen at Asylum Chapel

As operas go, Bizet’s Carmen is a good choice for anyone in search of an entry-level option, because chances are most of us know more of the music than we think. In La Tragédie de Carmen, Peter Brook, in collaboration with composer Marius Constant and writer Jean-Claude Carrière, takes this a step further, condensing Bizet’s four-act original – and all its greatest hits – into just 80 minutes. This means we lose all but four of the characters, and instead focus solely on the tragic “love rectangle” between the protagonists.

Photo credit: Ugo Soffientini

Micäela (Alice Privett) arrives from the country looking for her childhood friend Don José (Satriya Krisna), a corporal in the Nationalist army, with whom she’s in love. He, however, has fallen for the seductive Carmen (Chloe Latchmore), who leaves him after a brief romance for Escamillo (James Corrigan), an officer. After trying and failing to win her back, Don José murders his former lover in a fit of passion.

Directed by John Wilkie, Pop-Up Opera’s production of La Tragédie de Carmen is exquisitely performed by the four singers and musical director Berrak Dyer; watching and listening to her perform the opera’s entire score on piano is worth the ticket price all by itself. Though it may be much smaller in scale than a traditional performance of Carmen, there’s nothing half-hearted about this production, which brims over throughout with passion, intensity and obvious talent. As the tragic love story unfolds, a video screen shows images from the Spanish Civil War – which, in this updated version of the story, has just ended – as well as Pop-Up Opera’s trademark minimalist surtitles, which provide us with just enough of a translation to understand the context of each scene, but don’t distract from the action.

Cutting back the story so dramatically has both advantages and drawbacks. On the plus side, it’s much shorter and more accessible than the original, with a more straightforward storyline, which makes this an ideal ticket for an opera first-timer. On the other hand, it’s all over so quickly that there’s a risk of the audience not becoming fully invested in Don José’s relationship with Carmen, or appreciating why he reacts so violently to her rejection. This is dealt with, to some extent, by setting the action at the end of the Civil War, and portraying both Don José and his love rival Escamillo as having suffered some trauma as a result of what they’ve seen and experienced during the conflict. In light of his obvious fragility, perfectly captured in Satriya Krisna’s performance, the apparent ease with which Don José is driven to madness doesn’t seem quite so hard to accept.

Peter Brook’s aim in writing La Tragédie de Carmen was “to focus on the intense interaction, the tragedy of four people” that lies at the heart of the story. Pop-Up Opera have stayed true to that purpose, and while some may take issue with Brook’s extreme edits, it’s hard to find fault with this particular production of his work. (That said, I do recommend sitting at the front if you can – depending on the venue, some audience members further back may struggle to see what’s happening during the final climactic scene.) Whether you think you like opera or not, this one is certainly worth a visit.

La Tragédie de Carmen continues on tour – for full details visit

Interview: Joanna Turner, Baseless Fabric

“Our first scene pops up in a pub or café. The opera singers look like normal people having a drink and then start singing their conversation – so for people who don’t know the performance is about to take place it’s a bit of a surprise!”

Joanna Turner is Artistic Director of UK-based promenade theatre and opera company, Baseless Fabric. Following the success of their 2016 street opera production, Drifting Dragons, they’re about to hit the high street once again with a new production of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.

“The first scene lasts about ten minutes and then the characters move to a new location, usually a supermarket or library, where they meet up with other characters for the next scene and then onto another location,” explains Joanna. “So people are free to follow the whole story of our characters around the high street or just the short section where they come across us.

“The performances take place in eight different locations across our home borough of Merton, South London, which has huge economic and social differences west to east, so allows us to bring opera directly to where people are going about their daily lives and give people who may otherwise never have the opportunity to experience opera the chance to see it. Last year we did a new opera, Drifting Dragons, inspired by local people’s stories, and had amazing reactions from people – especially those who’d never experienced opera before, didn’t know that what we were performing was opera and were astounded at how loud our singers were! It was wonderful to see their initial bemusement turn to interest and then absolutely engaged with the story and the performances.”

While Drifting Dragons was written to be performed on the high street, the audience reaction was so positive that this year the company have been inspired to try a classic. “Cosi is an opera that I know very well – I was Assistant Director on Opera North’s production a few years ago – and so I already had ideas about how to cut it down, how to re-imagine scenes in a modern context and I’d actually already directed two scenes in a site-specific context at Opera North for Leeds Light Night,” says Joanna. “We did the boys’ opening trio over a pint in the pub – which will be similar to our starting scene – and the girls’ duet, choosing which new boy to flirt with, in a library. So although re-imagining the whole opera for the high street, including cutting it down, writing a new modern English libretto and Leo Geyer arranging the music for three instruments has been a huge amount of work, it was a continuation of these ideas.”

Reducing a three-hour opera to a performance that lasts about an hour has required the team to take some ruthless decisions. “We’ve basically cut anything that doesn’t move the plot forward,” Joanna explains. “There are some gorgeous bits of music in Cosi but they don’t do anything to move the plot forward so they’ve all gone, particularly lots of arias. Most of the ensembles are in but often edited down. One of the main characters, Despina, has been cut – traditionally she’s the girls’ maid, and in a modern high street context she seemed a bit unnecessary, so that was another way to cut out quite a lot of material.”

Joanna’s no stranger to presenting opera in pop-up site-specific contexts, with freelance directing experience that includes the Cosi scenes for Opera North and a project for Welsh National Opera called Nine Stories High, the Wrexham Soap Opera: “Once a month for nine months a short opera scene happened in a high street business in Wrexham – in the shopping centre, Tescos, a bowling alley – and was also filmed and put on YouTube with a jingle so people could watch it live or online like watching a soap opera,” she says. “I loved those projects because the audiences you were reaching were different to regular opera-goers; seeing the reactions from people who’ve never heard an opera singer live before – and so up close to them – plus seeing them get caught up in the storytelling is absolutely thrilling.

“I also enjoy the logistics of promenade performance, which while crazy to work out can be so creative for the storytelling and provide such an enjoyable audience experience. So after freelance pop-up opera work that took place in one location, when we set up the company and were creating promenade theatre work, we wanted to see if we could make promenade opera happen in different places along the high street. Presenting opera in this way also allows us to make relationships with a large number of different local businesses, as the scene in each is so short, and so allows us to reach a large number of people.”

The production is free and unticketed, and the company hope to reach as many local people as possible – particularly those who’ve never seen opera before. “We really want to give people who might never otherwise experience opera a chance to do so. If you already love opera and want to come and see our re-imagining for the high street, that of course is great too, but for opera-lovers it’s aimed at people who enjoy seeing operas cut drastically and re-imagined unexpectedly – this isn’t a production for purists!”

And for those who are new to opera and may be unsure what to expect, Joanna has some advice: “Don’t worry if you can’t hear or understand absolutely all the words all the time. Opera singing is unusual and it can be difficult to hear all the words all the time if you’re not used to it, and especially as sometimes there’s different people all singing different words at the same time! We work hard with the singers to make the words as clear as we can, but don’t worry if you don’t hear absolutely all the words all the time – as hopefully, if I’ve done my job making the storytelling clear, you should be able to understand what’s going on and follow the story – just concentrate on that, and as your ears tune in you’ll hear more and more words.”

Above all, Joanna and the team are looking forward to seeing the audience’s reactions to their new production. “Last year we had such wonderful reactions from people who told us afterwards they’d never seen or heard anything like it before and really loved it,” she says. “And as we’ve been going round the different businesses to get permission to perform there this year, I’ve been overwhelmed with the number of people who’ve said last year it was absolutely amazing and they definitely want us back. So I really hope all the crazy logistics of adapting a classic to the high street work as well as our new piece and people enjoy it as much as last year – and we reach even more people who’ve never experienced opera before.”

As a company, Baseless Fabric’s aim is to engage people to see theatre and opera in unusual ways and to see the world around them in new ways: “One of our reviewers last year described us as ‘a unique company who create unique experiences’ (Everything Theatre) and that’s pretty much the best compliment we could ask for,” says Joanna. “By presenting opera and theatre in promenade and site-specific formats, we want to engage people with art forms they might not otherwise have the initial inclination or opportunity to experience, which also enables them to see and experience their local area in new ways – if you see opera in your local supermarket, or experience theatre through a mobile app while following a character through the park and hear her thoughts on what she sees (our A Secret Life in 2016), that allows you to see the world around you with fresh eyes. Opera in particular is frequently seen as elitist, expensive or not relevant and we want to show that it doesn’t have to be any of these things.

“Baseless Fabric is also a Shakespeare quotation about theatrical magic, something appearing real but isn’t and being gone in an instant, which seems appropriate for our site-specific work. One moment we’re singing in the supermarket, the next we’re gone and the supermarket is back to normal, but the people who saw us won’t forget that experience.

“We want to create work that has a strong focus with our local area, builds a relationship with the people in that area and engages them with art forms that they might not ordinarily experience. We’re a registered charity and engaging with our local community is integral to our work, whether that’s workshops teaching young people about opera, or interviewing elderly people about their memories of being a teenager, and running workshops at schools with teenagers about their relationships with their grandparents and how being a teenager differs then to now (all of which inspired our creation of A Secret Life). We’re also very interested in engaging people with their area’s forgotten history in an unusual theatrical format, and presenting work in public spaces that allows people to see those spaces and the possibilities of theatre and opera in new ways.”

Look out for Cosi Fan Tutte in various locations around Merton from 27th July-6th August. Check the Baseless Fabric website for details; all performances are free and unticketed.

Review: Il Matrimonio Segreto at Mill Hill Music Festival

Guest review by Lucrezia Pollice

Pop-up Opera attempts to engage and give agency to audiences who would not normally attend the opera. To do this, Cimarosa’s 1792 comedy Il Matrimonio Segreto (The Secret Marriage) has been modernised to a 21st century setting, acting is exaggerated and the concept is at times ridiculous, playing on the comedic side of the narrative.

It is a comedy to be taken with a laugh and an open mind, it pushes many boundaries and manages to reach many people in meaningful ways. Most importantly the music and quality of the performers is of really high quality, and that is the strength of the company. If anyone thought the opera was boring, go and see this performance and you will not be disappointed – this one is definitely not boring!

Photo credit: Richard Lakos, The Other Richard

The show was quick, did not bore the spectators and did receive laughs from the public. Although in Italian, large screens project short colloquially translated captions and satirical images accompany the story in a very easy to follow manner. The story commences with the secret marriage of Carolina (Chiara Vinci) to Paolino (Mark Bonney). However, Carolina’s father Geronimo (Joseph Kennedy), a rich and mean merchant, is Paolino’s master and would never approve their marriage. Around them is the classical comedic scene of that time – Elisetta (Emily Blanch), her sister, the English Count Robinson (Tom Asher) who wants to take Carolina’s hand and the rich widow, auntie Fidalma (Vivien Conacher), who also has a burning desire for Paolino. Conflict and tension are obviously present. Carolina’s father is determined to have his daughters married to respectable people and with the excitement of knowing that English Royalty is planning to take one of his daughters as a wife, stakes are raised high.

The performance is full of comedic over the top tableaux. Auntie Fidalma’s passion is exaggerated into a blazing sexual need – as she presents the audience with her book Sex and Joy and reproduces orgasms on stage – it is so ridiculous that it cannot be found funny! The sisters fight with boxing gloves and the English count is disturbingly but realistically extremely sexual.

Photo credit: Richard Lakos, The Other Richard

However, as an opera native and lover it was very difficult to watch the performance the entire way through. The musicality of the performance was lovely to listen to, but unfortunately modern satirical references, costumes and acting would override the music and in my opinion destroyed the magical poetics of the opera. Having said this, for non-opera goers this might be a very interesting beginning to engage in the art form.

Review: Sasha Regan’s All Male The Mikado at Richmond Theatre

Following the triumph of last year’s HMS Pinafore, Sasha Regan and her boys are back with a new adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Transporting the story of Yum-Yum, Nanki-Poo, Ko-Ko and friends from Japan to a campsite in 1950s England, the show continues the signature blend of charm, humour and surprising (in a good way) vocals that’s proved such a winning formula in previous productions.

Shortly before the show began, I heard someone in the row behind hinting that they might start singing along, which served as a helpful reminder that The Mikado is a wildly popular and well-known show. (He didn’t sing along, by the way.) However, to me it was entirely new, and I could hardly have asked for a more unconventional – or enjoyable – introduction to an already quite bizarre little tale.

Photo credit: Stewart McPherson

For the similarly uninitiated, here’s a brief summary: Nanki-Poo (Richard Munday), the son of the Mikado (James Waud), has run away from the prospect of being married off to the elderly Katisha (Alex Weatherhill), and disguised as a wandering minstrel has arrived in Titipu in pursuit of the young, beautiful Yum-Yum (Alan Richardson). Unfortunately she’s about to marry Ko-Ko (David McKechnie), the recently appointed Lord High Executioner – but he has his own problems, as he’s been condemned to death for flirting and therefore faces the “extremely difficult, not to say dangerous” prospect of having to behead himself. Meanwhile, all the officials have resigned in protest over Ko-Ko’s appointment, leaving Pooh-Bah (Ross Finnie) to take on every other position of authority in town. Chaos, not surprisingly, ensues.

Sasha Regan’s inspiration for the all male format came from memories of same-sex school plays, and despite all the grisly talk of beheadings, The Mikado retains that air of childlike innocence and fun, particularly once the “ladies” enter – though I’d have to say the standard of the performance far exceeds any school play I was ever in. The production itself has the charming simplicity you’d expect from a school camping trip in the Enid Blyton era (Ryan Dawson Laight’s set is essentially three very versatile tents; Ko-Ko’s axe is a cricket bat; and the “orchestra” is musical director Richard Baker on the piano) – but there’s nothing amateur about the vocals. Unsurprisingly, in this department it’s the female roles that are particularly memorable, if only because it’s a surprise to hear men hit such high notes, and do it so beautifully. Alan Richardson and Alex Weatherhill steal the show as Yum-Yum and Katisha with heartfelt and vocally on-the-money solos, but also very believable performances as lovesick women – though Katisha’s vigorous pumping of her bicycle tyres suggests it may not necessarily be love that she’s after.

Photo credit: Stewart McPherson

Whereas the female characters in this production usually get a laugh just by being on stage (as the curtain rises on Act 2, we catch them indulging in a pre-wedding makeover – and possibly enjoying themselves a bit too much), most of the comedy within the plot itself falls to the men. This is particularly true of David McKechnie, whose Cockney rogue Ko-Ko – along with Ross Finnie’s self-important Scottish bureaucrat Pooh-Bah and Richard Munday’s endearingly bewildered Nanki-Poo – handles some tongue-twisting lyrics with great aplomb and spot-on comic timing as he attempts to talk his way out of his fate. And if his “little list” isn’t particularly topical, it’s still great fun (and besides, it’s not like most of our politicians really need any help in looking ridiculous just now).

It seems likely that Sasha Regan and her talented company have another hit on their hands. If you’ve never seen The Mikado before, this is a thoroughly entertaining – if quite mad – first look; if you know it well, it’s a refreshingly different take that makes Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic feel brand new.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Clementine Lovell, Pop-up Opera

Pop-up Opera was established in 2011 with the goal of encouraging more people to see and enjoy opera. After recently performing their first ever tragedy, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, the company return to comedy for their new production of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, which will – as always – take them to some unique and unforgettable venues around the UK.

Director Clementine Lovell founded Pop-up Opera on her return from living in Italy. “When I began training as an opera singer I had mixed reactions from my friends. Opera wasn’t really their thing – one even claimed to be ‘allergic’ to it. That stayed with me, and I wanted to prove them wrong, to show them that opera could be magical, hilarious, devastating or moving.

“Opera is so much a part of Italian culture, so broadly appreciated, and is performed everywhere, not just in the big houses. I grew up in a small village in the UK miles from an opera house. We never went to see it, it wasn’t an option. My uncle has a barn where he hosts folk and blues events and we put on an opera there for a largely non opera going audience. They loved it. It made me think about how the setting can have a bearing on people’s enjoyment, or their willingness to give it a go.”

Photo credit: Richard Lakos
Photo credit: Richard Lakos

Each new space presents a unique challenge: “The production grows and evolves as it pops up in different places. We stage it in the rehearsal room and then adapt it to embrace each venue, so every night is different. The performance spaces vary wildly in size, shape, acoustic, feeling. We get in to the space on the day and start working out the entrances, exits, how to involve the audience… The performers have to think on their feet and be willing to allow some freedom and spontaneity. I think this keeps it fresh and creates a very special atmosphere.”

Clementine has countless happy memories of the unusual venues in which the company have performed. “One of our first venues was a boat made of scrap metal in Shoreham. The stairs were made out of an old car and the room we performed in had previously been part of a bus. We once performed 100ft underground in Clearwell Caves – to make some of the entrances the singers had to grope their way down a very dark tunnel with only headlamps to light the way, and one of them was terrified of bats!

“Another venue was the ruins of Raglan castle, where our backstage area was a crumbled down tower… We’ve also done shows in the Brunel Museum Thames Tunnel Shaft several times. It used to be more challenging to get in there – you had to crawl through a tiny entranceway and then down a scaffold stairway. It was always a nightmare getting props down there. We love going to the Garlic Farm on the Isle of Wight, the audience always go crazy for it. But my favourite venue will always be our original, the cider barn in Herefordshire. You can have a glass of cider from the Ross-on-Wye Cider & Perry Co, and the atmosphere is always fantastic.”

Photo credit: Richard Lakos
Photo credit: Richard Lakos

Il Barbiere di Siviglia is one of the world’s best-loved operas, but for those of us who may not know what it’s all about: “It’s the story of Count Almaviva, who wants Rosina to fall in love with him for who he is, not for his money or fame, so he conceals his true identity. In order to win her he must also get past her guardian, so many ridiculous obstacles and disguises ensue before he can get the girl.

“Our version is unique because it’s truly ‘pop-up’ in the way it can adapt to each space. We want to embrace the fact that we have an electric piano, and that we don’t have the budget of the Royal Opera House. We’ve stripped the costume and set right back so it allows the music and the story to shine through. We want to allow those things to take front stage, to show people that you don’t need all this extra stuff to make a comedy: with brilliant singing and acting and by involving the audience you can still create an amazing show.”

The opera will be sung in its original Italian with English captions, presented in Pop-up Opera’s signature style: “We believe that you can still make opera accessible when performed in the original language. The music, the intentions of the actors, the interaction between the characters and the power of the drama get the story across. The captions are there to complement, not to detract. They keep the audience broadly abreast of the story but don’t demand their attention all the time. With a comedy the captions can add another layer of humour, and we can play around with the modern context. In our last production, which was a drama, we kept the translation more ‘straight’ but still with the same approach of captions rather than a full text translated into continuous surtitles.”

As a company, Pop-up Opera aim to broaden opera’s appeal and challenge the perception that it’s stuffy and elitist. “We want to make our productions engaging, exciting, hilarious, dramatic, moving… We hope audiences go away having laughed until their cheeks ache or having been moved to tears, that they will have been drawn into the story and connected with its characters. We hope they take away with them a thirst for more opera, whether it’s by fringe companies or at the Royal Opera House, and a different attitude towards what they thought opera was about or represented. Never been to the opera? Come to one of our shows! You won’t regret it.”

Il Barbiere di Siviglia can be seen around the UK until 1st September 2016 – check the website for full dates and venues.