Edinburgh Featival Day 15: Acting up and playing it down: Condoms, oral sex and Foster's amber nectar all play their part in a new kind of opera. Leo Burley reports

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'CARMEN get it in the Dream Tent' urged the pre-festival advertisements but alas (go down on one knee, clutch left hand to breast, extend right arm to audience), Opera Karaoke on the Meadows failed to materialise - much to the disappointment of a thousand would-be Pavarottis, who had hoped to deliver their Nessun Dormas to the accompaniment of a 'fully taped orchestral backing'. Now those in search of alternative arias are beating a path to the Assembly Rooms, where two companies are providing a more substantial challenge to the high art of opera.

In Kill Me, I Love You, Opera Circus, a four-strong troupe of classically trained opera singers, performs a 70-minute smash-and- grab raid on 11 famous operas. The Toreador's song from Carmen, for example, is sung in rather butch drag by baritone Don Bennington, while Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore becomes a can of Foster's amber nectar. Condoms in Fidelio and oral sex in The Barber of Seville round off what you might regard as an unashamedly populist approach.

Frustrated with traditional opera's emphasis on vocal beauty at the expense of physical expressiveness, Opera Circus formed 18 months ago to redress the imbalance. 'We're not just making fun of opera,' explained David Pearl, the 6ft 3in tenor. 'That would be too simple. We are passionate about it. We love it so much we're prepared to do violence to it.'

The weapons employed are those of the clown: slapstick, irreverence and confusion. 'First, Commedia dell'arte provided the narrative structure for opera,' said Tina Ellen Lee, one of the group's two sopranos. 'Then we started learning contemporary physical theatre and found that we were doing something new - trying to keep the purity of the singing voice while doing clowning, comic roles and tumbling.'

Drawing on the nomadic tradition of commedia, the company employs only minimal, fold-away sets and few props, though a piano is required for the accompanist Chris Squires. No programme notes are used for fear of putting off the uninitiated, yet despite all the emphasis on accessibility, many of the bums on seats belong to traditional opera devotees. 'We take pieces completely out of context and the experienced opera-goer can obviously appreciate the humour in that more than most,' said Pearl. 'Much of the work we do has immense application in traditional opera. We are developing physical techniques which are making us stronger and better singers.'

When not touring, the company maintains its precarious balancing act between old and new. Bennington and Jan Mooney have just completed work with the English National Opera, while Pearl and Lee have been studying with such physical theatre gurus as Monika Pagnaux (movement adviser to Theatre de Complicite) and the writer / director David Glass.

Their next project will be a collaborative effort with Glass which Lee describes as 'a new opera with old music, though it will have newly composed work as well'. But, as it happens, a matter of yards away in the Assembly Rooms' Edinburgh Suite, an Australian company has beaten Opera Circus to it.

Chamber Made Opera's Recital features the actress / soprano Helen Noonan as the ghost of opera, reliving her prima donna glory through 10 famous arias. On stage, the accompanist John Colwill provides music from The Magic Flute, La Boheme, La Traviata, La Wally and other classic operas, while David Chesworth's ambient composition underscores the 75-minute performance. 'Recital deals with opera's loss of potency because of its lack of attention to drama,' explained Noonan, a graduate of the National Theatre Drama School in Melbourne.

The company was formed in 1988 by the director Douglas Horton with the aim of 'broadening the contemporary relevance of the opera medium'. 'Essentially that means dispelling some of the myths that have grown up around opera,' said Noonan, whose role in Recital examines the myth of the delicate prima donna. 'One of the great ironies of 19th-centruy opera is that it requires women of incredible physical strength to play heroines who are forever dying of love or consumption.'

While Noonan professes a deep respect for traditional opera, she rejects the tragic, male-manipulated role-model of singers like Maria Callas, and emphasises her own athleticism, stamina and physical ability. Recital's programme notes satirise the lack of such skills in most mainstream opera. A column of stick-figure diagrams illustrate stock prima donna postures under the title of Callas-Thenics, with individual headings such as 'The Verona Sweep', 'Scarpia's Lunge' and 'The Faustian Plead'.

'4,362 times have I died. 3,491 have I kissed or been kissed. 85,432 times have I swooned. 112,765 times have I been applauded,' boasts the ghost of opera as her epitaph. A black-and- white set, replete with dry ice, underlines the theme of opera as a dead ceremony, though finally Noonan is released from her wig and gown to speak freely as the pure spirit of music.

'It's a very affirmative piece,' she said after the performance, still bearing traces of ghostly make-up. 'We're saying that if you take away the crap and the trappings, the excesses and absurdities, opera is potentially the greatest art-form of all.'

Recital, 6pm, to 5 Sept (not 2 Sept); Kill Me I Love You, 12 noon, to 5 Sept (not 3 Sept). Both at Assembly Rooms (venue 3), 54 George St (Booking: 031-226 2428).

(Photograph omitted)

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