It's not over until the plastic surgeon sings

Arifa Akbar on how opera has embraced modern themes in search of new audiences

It used to be the case that a night at the opera entailed predictably high-voltage romantic melodrama on stage, with plots filled with unrequited love, murderous passions and a fat lady's swansong.

Now, the modern face of opera, it appears, is dealing with themes that are more "kitchen sink realism" than the classical topics usually regurgitated for traditional audiences.

Operas have dealt with such gritty themes as pregnancy, murders arranged on the internet and plastic surgery, and one performance featured simulated oral sex on the stage of the Royal Opera House.

Most recently, The Opera Group has collaborated closely with the Institute of Psychiatry to create a show dedicated to dementia, with a lead character called Mr D, who is suffering from memory loss and psychological agitation. The Lion's Face, whose libretto is written by the poet Glyn Maxwell, is set to be performed at the Brighton Festival on 20 May, and then in London at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio Theatre.

Its sensitive subject matter is indicative of the way opera is being more creative about subject matter in a bid to attract younger audiences, which experts have warned the industry desperately needs.

Mr Maxwell said he welcomed such an unconventional topic: "It's like no other project I've done in theatre... but I have tried to make it a human story with plausible characters and some humour to leaven its darker aspects.

"It does have a man with dementia in it, but there are plenty of characters – even in Shakespeare – who are beyond coherence; look at Ophelia from Hamlet, or Lady Macbeth."

The idea emerged from a workshop in which the composer Elena Langer was exploring wordlessness. The team of opera singers and producers joined experts at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and King's College to develop their understanding of the characters. Mr Maxwell met carers, three Alzheimer's patients – some of whom were experiencing early symptoms – and a host of medical professionals including nurses and research scientists.

Mr Maxwell spent two years researching the illness before writing the libretto, which begins with a seemingly trivial incident when an elderly man forgets his way home and eventually leads to his mental unravelling and retreat into an inner world.

"It is shaped like a detective story in which you want to know what's agitating the old man. He has a very bad reaction to something, obviously a memory from so long ago that it pre-dates his wife. It's a romantic memory. She has to cope with that," said Mr Maxwell.

Next season, The Royal Opera will be presenting the world premiere of Anna Nicole, an opera by Mark-Anthony Turnage based on the tumultuous life of the American glamour model and actress Anna Nicole Smith, who died in 2007, aged 39, after an apparent drug overdose.

It has also created a strand called Opera Shots in which mini-productions will be developed, including Jocelyn Pook's opera Ingerland, about football mania, and Nitin Sawhney's Entanglement, which focuses on a woman taking a pregnancy test.

English National Opera has also transformed its programme. Later this year, it will stage the UK premiere of A Dog's Heart, based on Bulgakov's satiric novel Heart of a Dog, featuring Sharik, a stray dog who becomes a human after a Frankenstein-like organ transplant by his master.

Another premiere, Two Boys, is based on true events in which a teenager attempts to arrange his own murder through the internet. It is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera and will be staged on 24 June 2011.

The new face of opera

*Powder her Face by Thomas Adès, which comes to the end of its run in the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House on 12 May, is based on the life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, whose sexual exploits were the stuff of scandal and gossip in Britain in 1963. It features simulated oral sex on stage.

*Satyagraha, the successful Philip Glass opera which had sell out performances at English National Opera's Coliseum earlier this year, tells of the early life of Mahatma Gandhi and his development of non-violent protests.

*The UK premiere of Parthenogenesis by James MacMillan was staged in June 2009, based on the story of a woman shocked during a wartime bomb into conceiving a child.

*Skin Deep revolved around the theme of plastic surgery and was composed by David Sawer with a libretto by the comedy writer Armando Iannucci. It was commissioned by Opera North and set in the clinic of the cosmetic surgery genius, Doktor Needlemeier, whose slogan is "Putting right what nature got wrong'.

*Tête à Tête opera company's Push! was billed as a unique celebration of giving birth. Composed by David Bruce with a libretto by Anna Reynolds, it gained popular and critical acclaim in 2007 at the Riverside Studios in London.

*The Shops, a comic opera about shopping and stealing by Edward Rushton, was produced by The Opera Group and performed in the Linbury Studio Theatre in September 2007.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future