‘Opera should belong to everybody’


Grimeborn - Credit: Archant

Reinvigorating classics and telling new stories: Grimeborn festival celebrates opera artists shaking up the genre

Leave your preconceptions about opera at the door, as Grimeborn returns for its twelfth successive year at the Arcola theatre to banish stereotypes about the genre. The lineup features bold new versions of classics, long-forgotten works, and new pieces from up-and-coming opera artists.

“Opera should belong to everybody. Its roots are in the streets, in the stories we share, and in the power of music to unite and affect us all,” says Mehmet Ergen, the Arcola’s artistic director. “Grimeborn exists to champion that power, and to make it accessible: with affordable ticket prices, a diverse programme and a platform for the young and the new. Twelve years in, it’s still building momentum: with more and more people attending the festival each year. I think this year’s line-up is the most exciting yet, and I can’t wait to see it on our stages.”

Grimeborn 2018 kicks off on 24 July with Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, directed by Royal Opera House staff director Julia Burbach with musical direction by Peter Selwyn. The production turns the lens on the representation of women from ancient myths to the #MeToo movement. Set in Rome 510BC the original story sees Lucretia sought out in the night by prince Tarquinius. This time around in Dalston 2018, a man and a woman invite you to watch a re-enactment.

“The story is centred around a strong female protagonist and two very important narrators. The relationship between them all, not to neglect the audience who is being addressed regularly by the chorus, makes for an interesting construct that invites a director to get very creative and find a particular narrative strand though it,” director Burbach explains. “It’s like a game; you introduce an audience to the rules of a complex story and then when they think they know where it’s going, you break the rules and introduce new ones.”

“I think audiences enjoy themselves more when they get to be actively challenged, surprised, emotionally moved and invited to question and discuss the topics we explore. I want them to feel that they are active participants in a show, particularly in this production. After all the process of viewing and being viewed is something that has always played an important part in society. The next step to think about would be, how normal the passive viewing of violent acts has become? How do we feel about that as a society? How do we feel about voyeurism? Does our attitude change when the viewed object is unaware of the viewer? All these relationships are interesting topics to explore,” she adds.

In her production of Madame Butterfly, Burbach opted to turn the protagonist into a ghost in order to make her into a more “knowing and empowered” character - and allow modern audiences to relate to her. She says plans are in place to add a similar twist to her opera at Grimeborn.

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“I am planning on doing something similarly radical with Lucretia; create a character whose actions I can understand and hopefully that will make her more accessible to a modern audience.

“The core human stories told have not changed and neither have people, deep down.”

Having recently staged a Händel production in an old factory building in Berlin, Burbach says it was great to see “opera-newcomers, drag queens more at home in the club scene, and regular opera goers of all ages all enjoying the same evening sitting side by side..”

“Grimeborn is another great example of classics and opera being a good evening out for diverse audiences,” she says.

“There is nothing more exciting or rewarding than to be approached by a total newcomer who comes to you and says, ‘that was my first opera and it was so fantastic.’

“Humans respond to music and good stories, so everybody is potentially in reach. Of course there might be something you don’t like. I certainly don’t like all operas I see or hear. I would say, just go again and try another one. After all, you don’t stop going to cinema just because you did not like one particular film.”

Other productions among the 17 to be performed at Grimeborn throughout August include Carmen The Gypsy, where Romani composer Dan Allum has reimagined Bizet’s opera set amid Britain’s traveller community. A Fantastic Bohemian is the recreation of an Offenbach opera set in Mexico City’s movie studios. While Opera Mouse and Jazz Cat are animal-inspired shows for kids, and Patrick Kennedy’s European premiere of avant-garde rock-opera Elephant Steps is an incense-scented spectacle.

Further details and tickets from arcolatheatre.co.uk

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