A pleb at the opera

Otello 02_1

I’d only been to the opera twice in my life before last night. The first was to see a local company perform in Bradford, at what is now Pictureville Cinema, but was then the Library Theatre. I love Pictureville, but the loss to the city of a community theatre with a raked stage and an orchestra pit is still a loss.

Anyway….I had a friend singing in that performance, so I went along. I’m afraid I didn’t much enjoy it; I can’t even remember what it was; something by Bizet, perhaps, I can’t be sure. I thought it was silly and dull. So that was it for 20 years.

My next experience, Opera North’s 2007 production of Dido & Aneas, was much more positive. I went to this, and dragged my partner along with me, because I have a thing about early music, especially Purcell. I absolutely adored it. But I was aware that this was a very different beast from  ‘normal’ opera; it was short, and in English, with tunes.

‘Normal’ opera remained, to my mind, difficult, overblown and unrealistic, lacking in real plots or proper melodies, expensive and elitist. Most of all it felt as if it were not for the likes of us, the uninitiated.

I do love live performance though, and I hate to write anything off, so the invitation from Leeds Culture Vulture website and Opera North to see Verdi’s Otello in return for blogging about it seemed a great opportunity to have another go at working out what all the fuss was about.

I was prepared to enjoy myself if I possibly could, and the warm welcome from ON staff prepared me still further. My fellow bloggers were all as least as uninitiated as I, many of them complete opera virgins. We found a solidarity in our apprehension and, indeed, in our willingness to roll with this. A glass or two of wine and we were ready for anything.

I’d never been to the Grand Theatre before, so that was a treat to begin with, particularly as my first view of it was from the stage into the ornate auditorium –  we stood in the performers’ shoes, wondering at what it would mean to sing out into such a space. There we met the lovely David Kempsey, who sings the not-so-lovely Iago, and discussed the technical and creative challenges  faced, and embraced by an opera company. Speaking of opera as musical theatre, he was at pains to emphasise its accessibility. His own down-to-earth friendliness and charm probably served the cause in this as well as his words. A quick tour of the impressive staging for Otello, and it was time to take our seats, by now suitably primed, for the performance.

And the performance was grand. It started with a bang and ended in tears. Great stuff!

I was relieved to find that it wasn’t difficult to understand.The surtitles were incredibly helpful. I’d heard that their use has been a controversial issue since their introduction and that they are still deplored by some purists – I found an elderly but interesting article on the topic:  why we have to learn to love surtitles . I try to imagine my experience without them – and without previous knowledge of the plot. I would have been lost. And, hey, scanning them whilst attending to the performance was much easier than tweeting through BBC Question Time.

It helped that I did know the plot, of course. I know it very well, in fact, since I used to teach Shakespeare to teenagers.  It struck me that my students would have found this straightforward story, stripped of nuance but turbocharged with raw emotion,  much easier to access than the text – initially, at least. I could have used this to inform their studies, had I known it then.

It was not as unrealistic as I’d feared. I did find that the casting which – and I can totally understand this – rests more on singing ability than looks or age, required a bit of suspension of disbelief. We have become far too used to physical uniformity in public performers. In comparison to the usual ‘standard’,  these were a bit of a motley crew. However much I might applaud such diversity from an ideological standpoint, so rarely is it seen in  public reality, that it took a bit of getting used to; about twenty minutes, I’d reckon.

There weren’t any tunes. I started off waiting for one to emerge and then gave up, deciding that my expectation was getting in the way of what else was on offer. Which was music that could go anywhere. I’m still not entirely confident about this, but by the end of the performance I was at least ready to accept it as a workable option. Because it did work on that indefinable level that we come to all creative activity hoping to find.

Listening to Othello and Desdemona’s duet, I understood, as I never had from readings of the play, how such an apparently ill-matched couple could possibly fall in love. From then on I was content to enjoy. And the final scene was so charged that I found myself hoping something would intervene to avert the tragedy. Daft I know, but it drew me in.

The liveness of the whole thing was a delight. I’ve never seen anything quite so live – so many people working together, in the moment, to make something so nicely coordinated. I had to constantly remind myself that the singers weren’t mic’ed up but were making those sounds with just their bodies, that it wasn’t a sound system accompanying them but a real orchestra – of people.

Of course, it’s expensive. Our complimentary seats would have set us back £50 or £60. However, seats can be had from as little as £15. This is no longer ‘elite’ pricing, when you weigh up the cost of tickets for more plebeian events such as football matches or rock concerts, all of which have ballooned in recent years.

I don’t think the evening’s experience will turn me into an opera lover. But I had a good time, and  I no longer fear that it’s compulsory to become an opera lover to enjoy attending the opera from time time, as part of my general cultural pleasures. A good result, I think.

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