Pub opera takes on the world's finest at Oliviers

Opera is gearing up for a David and Goliath battle as a production first performed to 35 people in a pub takes on the collaborative might of five international companies at the stage's answer to the Oscars. Opera UpClose's La Bohème is nominated alongside Adriana Lecouvreur, lavishly staged at the 2,200-seat Royal Opera House, in the best new opera production category at next Sunday's Olivier Awards.

La Bohème – eventually a sell-out at the 150-seat Soho Theatre last summer – opened to its tiny first audience at the Cock Tavern in north London in December 2009. The nomination is particularly notable because it was the company's debut show.

Adriana Lecouvreur, which starred Angela Gheorghiu in November, was co-produced by the Royal Opera House, Vienna State Opera, San Francisco Opera, the Liceu, Barcelona, and Opéra Bastille. The other Olivier contenders are Elegy for Young Lovers at the Young Vic; and A Dog's Heart at the London Coliseum.

Robert van Leer, head of music and arts at the Barbican, said OperaUpClose's nomination "can't help but change perception" of opera, adding that any production that took a work into a new place, a new context and new audience was good for the genre.

La Bohème was scheduled to run for six weeks at the Cock Tavern Theatre in Kilburn, but ended up playing for over five months, a stint the company believes is a world record. The theatre expanded its capacity to 50 seats to meet demand.

Robin Norton-Hale, joint artistic director of OperaUpClose, said the Olivier nomination showed that there were "different ways of doing opera and different ways of doing [it] well". She added that it was exciting to get both audience and industry recognition. Last month, La Bohème was named best off-West End production at the Whatsonstage.com Awards, voted for by the public.

OperaUpClose's innovative production of Puccini's classic featured a new version of the libretto, a young cast, and an intimacy not often experienced with opera: the second act takes place in the bar. It was the first opera to be staged at Soho Theatre. One of the highest-grossing shows in the venue's history, it returned for another sell-out run earlier this year.

"To be nominated for an Olivier on a show this early in the career of the director, writer and company is an absolutely phenomenal achievement," said Steve Marmion, Soho Theatre's artistic director. "I have been directing 15 years and not managed it. It's a genuinely monumental achievement to have got to the longlist, never mind the shortlist."

Elaine Padmore, director of opera for the Royal Opera, agreed that the company's nomination was "fantastic". She added: "The Oliviers is a great event, but normally it's just a polite tussle between Royal Opera and English National Opera as to who is going to win."

In October, OperaUpClose became the resident company at the 107-seat King's Head Theatre in Islington, north London, where La Bohème is currently in repertory.

Royal Opera

Founded 1947 by royal charter

Home The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden First production Carmen at the ROH, January 1947

Annual revenue £98m

Government funding £27.5m Arts Council grant

Biggest audience 84,600 for La Traviata (June 2009) (2,225 at ROH, plus big screens and cinemas)

OperaUpClose

Founded October 2009

Home The King's Head Theatre, London, since October 2010

First production La Bohème, December 2009 at the 35-seat Cock Tavern Theatre

Annual revenue About £400,000

Government funding Nil

Biggest audience 150 at Soho Theatre last summer

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