Bubbles and squawks

It's a soap. It's also an opera. And it all makes perfect sense, says Mark Espiner
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The Independent Culture

Ellie is a lesbian, but her parents don't know. They've got too much to worry about, what with Gran's Alzheimer's and incontinence. The house is too small and Mum doesn't get on with Gran - it's putting a strain on everyone. Anyway, Dad is virulently homophobic so coming out to him isn't going to be easy. And Rob, Ellie's ex-boyfriend (who has just discovered he is adopted) doesn't know either. Meanwhile, new girlfriend Sue is upset that Ellie won't tell her parents and tries to help her do it.

Ellie is a lesbian, but her parents don't know. They've got too much to worry about, what with Gran's Alzheimer's and incontinence. The house is too small and Mum doesn't get on with Gran - it's putting a strain on everyone. Anyway, Dad is virulently homophobic so coming out to him isn't going to be easy. And Rob, Ellie's ex-boyfriend (who has just discovered he is adopted) doesn't know either. Meanwhile, new girlfriend Sue is upset that Ellie won't tell her parents and tries to help her do it.

It's a classic soap opera plot: emotional conflicts, secrets and lies. But this soap isn't on TV. It's being performed live, in a theatre, in three 40-minute episodes over three weeks. And if you miss any of the parts, there is a special two-hour omnibus edition at the end.

More unusually, this performance is taking the term of soap opera quite literally. The cast of eight are all opera singers, the script is a libretto. Opera Soap is exactly what it says it is - a soap opera opera.

Exploring the boundaries of soap is Absolute Theatre's forte. Late last year it staged Battersea Square - a live soap opera performed weekly in a pub in south London. It was the success of those shows that spawned Opera Soap. In Battersea Square the pub regulars could suggest, through feedback forms, where the storyline should go. The local MP had a walk-on part and the Metropolitan Police, cameo roles. And the two "series" of this living soap went down so well with the regulars, who turned up to the pub for a pint and a plot twist, that Absolute Theatre director Andrew Pratt was convinced of the appeal of live soap.

Battersea Arts Centre, who had produced the project, commissioned this second phase to move into actual opera. BAC's artistic director, Tom Morris, approached Absolute Theatre with the idea and Pratt seized on it. He began to write a storyline in collaboration with composer Simon Fraser.

The resulting libretto communicates the gritty issues with intense emotion and is peppered with expletives and domestic detail. "I wasn't writing to any tunes," Pratt explains. "I was trying to make a piece of intimate TV-style soap opera that had lyricism. I wrote words that could be sung," he says. Choosing characters was straightforward - enjoyable, even. The mode of handling soapy personalities is, for Pratt, a major part of the appeal of writing in this genre. "It's wonderful to be able to go back to the same characters all the time," he says, "to have really long relationships with them; that's one of the strengths of soap, why people think those characters are real."

Pratt is earnest and committed to soaps; his staple diet is EastEnders. But this project and its perceived aim could be seen as poking fun at opera, of ridiculing it. Pratt is quick to put down the criticism. "I was worried people would think that we were taking the piss," he says, "but the thing behind this whole project is about taking something very familiar and everyday and saying, 'Look, there's more to this than meets the eye', because you can put it on stage with an operatic sensibility behind it and make it work." He then launches into a diatribe of what many may criticise opera for: that it is lavish and out of touch; vast productions with vaster budgets and more than a whiff of exclusivity. But in discussing its shortfalls, he reveals as passionate a response to the opera form as to soap and articulates his vision for it in this project. "The whole point of opera," he says, "is that it should be the ultimate synthesis of design, music and acting - all those things should come together. Opera Soap may be constrained and based on soap opera, but it is trying to bring all those elements together to create a theatrical language that makes it work ... I hope people that will come away thinking, 'Well, what is opera'?"

Watching it in rehearsal, it seems to be hitting its mark. The lyricism and scoring of the work is emotive and at times genuinely tear-jerking - the impact heightened by the music. Gran struggles to remember her daughter-in-law's name, while her son argues with his wife, who is trying to write a shopping list. The internal motivations of the character, as well as their dialogue, are articulated by vibrato voices overlapping and singing simultaneously to add to the atmosphere of domestic struggle.

Composer Simon Fraser has warmed to writing his first opera score. "I haven't been conscious of trying to write great tunes," he says, before elaborating on how he scored the work for an intimate ensemble of piano, cello and violin. Fraser has introduced recurring themes and motifs to represent the characters and their conflicts. The design has operatic style, too. It is witty and gestural. For the domestic scenes, a cupboard opens out, the individual drawers containing (in miniature) the interior domestic details of a modest home - its wallpaper, chairs and table - which are pulled out and stood on end to form the set.

Opera Soap has already had an enthusiastic response from those in both the opera and soap worlds. ENO has backed the project, offering rehearsal space, providing trained répétiteurs and helping the company find singers - there was, apparently, a deluge of enthusiastic offers from trained opera singers. Other opera companies are said to be exploring the idea, too. Soap stars such as The Royle Family's Ricky Tomlinson (formerly of Brookside) and EastEnders actress Louise Jamieson (aka Rosa DiMarco) are also supportive.

Jamieson, herself an opera enthusiast who has campaigned to keep the art form widely available, is particularly excited by the idea. "I think opera should be as accessible as possible," she says. "I think this is a brilliant idea because it connects two different types of culture." Jamieson points out that opera can be as accessible as soap, citing Puccini as an example. She goes on to say that this kind of kitchen sink soap opera opera should succeed, because it has something everyone can identify with. Jamieson herself was very upset to have missed Battersea Square and is making a date to see Opera Soap.

'Opera Soap': BAC, SW11 (020 7223 2223); the remaining episodes are on 19 and 26 August; omnibus edition on 2 September

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