Hip-hop meets Mozart

Glyndebourne is changing its image by offering a fresh take on 'Cosi fan tutte', mixing the opera with urban beats. Matilda Egere-Cooper chills with the cast
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The Independent Culture

Targeted at teenagers, it's Glyndebourne's hope that the inclusion of hip-hop conventions will render opera cool, and make it more accessible to a younger generation.

As a hip-hop writer and virgin to the classical world, even I found that after attending the first in-house rehearsal at the Glyndebourne opera house, I could appreciate this opera's latest transformation. The UK hip-hop producer Charlie Parker has been brought in to arrange the Mozart/da Ponte opera in partnership with the conductor and music arranger Jonathan Gill, and they successfully retain the musical foundation while including the stylish and attractive sounds of hip-hop music.

The production also features the Southbank Sinfonia - a group of 24 young musicians - and a UK youth crew who will dance, rap, beat-box and sing on a stage that's designed to look like an abstract council estate, with displays of graffiti art.

Librettist Stephen Plaice has tailored the original arias and recitatives to rely on inner-city vernacular and rapping, placing the characters in a contemporary setting and modernising their roles. Ferrando and Guglielmo, the two wayward officers in the original comedy, are now Freddie and Liam, musicians who are persuaded by Don Alfonso (now Donnie the renowned music promoter) to woo each other's fiancées, Fiordiligi (Gigi) and Dorabella (Bella).

Instead of disguising themselves as Albanians after claiming to go off the war, Freddie and Liam pretend to go on tour, and masquerade as film producers who engage in a bit of lover-swapping as part of Donnie's bet to test their partners' fidelity with the help of Despina, formally the maidservant but now the girls' actress flatmate.

It's all very 2006 and would make for a fine EastEnders plot, but it was the universal theme of love that persuaded director Clare Whistler that a collaboration between hip-hop and opera could work. "Because they're entirely different worlds, and I thought the one thing that could make it fusion is that it's a story about love," she says. "And that can go in any genre, and that's kind of where I took it from, really."

Paradise, a British-born, New York-reared MC who plays Donnie, admits that although he wasn't an opera fan, he was optimistic that hip-hop could adapt to the classical stage. "We in hip-hop, we're always embracing," he says. "We love it when we can go and prove ourselves in different places. Especially this - this is a pivotal point to be here. They never thought hip-hop would make it this far. Here we are, on these grounds, and we're so diametrically opposed as well.

"With the writing, the way I see it, hip-hop is poetry anyway. Their recitatives and the way it was worded is no different than Shakespeare writing his plays, or Chaucer writing his things, so to me when I see hip-hop, it's just a modern thing to all that anyway."

As for the story, he says: "It's about the emotions of young people. It's about kids, teens, youths, when they're at that stage, 16, 17, when they think they're in love... and for them, at that time in their life, that's it. And the characters explore that. So the theme of love is universal, and there was no problem being able to translate it to today."

The biggest challenge of the project has been determining how much to give and take from hip-hop, and during School 4 Lovers' two years in production it has been plagued with minor setbacks over creative differences. Jessica Walker and Christine Gelder, who play Bella and Gigi, and Ville Salonen (Freddie), are accomplished opera singers, but they stay faithful to their craft just as much as Paradise sticks to rapping.

Parker's biggest gripe is that the orthodox nature of the opera didn't allow for the creative freedom that the producer was accustomed to, as he would have liked to develop the vocal style of the opera singers.

"When it comes to this project, it's not like we've both met on an equal plateau and we brought opera into our realm," he says. "We've been brought into their realm, so we're working with an opera score, in an opera house, planned by opera people. We're working to opera-house procedures, which, as hip-hop people, it's not really the way we work."

Also, updating Mozart's music wasn't as easy as slapping a hip-hop beat over it and calling it a day. "Most of Mozart's music is not suited to hip-hop," Parker admits. "Harmonically, it might be - I can take two bars of any Mozart music and loop it, and you'd get a good loop. But that's not what this is about. This is about trying to put something on stage where the opera singers can represent Mozart, and make it intelligible to a younger audience, and we bring in hip-hop as well. It's complicated."

Especially for the opera singers, who've found it hard to chill out, in the hip-hop sense. "For an opera singer, the kind of training is so formal, and they're taking a kind of great risk even being involved in a production like this," says the librettist Plaice.

"It's been hard to loosen up," adds Walker. "It's been a challenge. But we've all learnt from each other and we can't be precious about what we do. Because this is Glyndebourne and they're trying to do something that would be perceived as trendy, there's a tendency to laugh at it. But people in the opera field can learn from this as well."

School 4 Lovers - a Hip H'Opera isn't an entirely new idea. MTV found relative success with the concept in 2001 with an adaptation of Bizet's Carmen, casting singer Beyoncé as the legendary seductress, alongside a host of rappers and actors.

"The audience is dying out, and when those people die out, who's gonna come and see opera if they don't feel it's relevant?" asks Paradise. "If the youth of tomorrow don't feel that opera is relevant, than of course it will die out."

Parker says that teenagers will find it enjoyable and even traditionalists who feel uptight about the opera's revamp might change their tune once they see it. "What's good about it is, anyone who comes to see this will enjoy it," he says. "I think it's a good show, it's humourous, and artistically it's credible. There are some great moments in it, there's some great musical moments in it, but I think ultimately it's a step. "I think if people are really interested in seeing what creative artists from the hip-hop world can do with other genres of music, they will be impressed."

As I watch a scene between Donnie, Freddie and Liam (Marvin Springer), the contrast between Donnie's rapping, and Springer and Salonen's melodic crooning is unusual, but refreshing. Most of the other scenes also maintain the essence of the opera, but even the inclusion of youthful dialogue and the occasional flash of hip-hop beats instantly modernise the composer's work. The combination of the two genres makes Mozart more accessible, and the aim to bring in younger audiences is not only well-intended, but plausible.

It's a bold move for Glyndebourne to make, but it's part of a serious strategy to attract a younger audience with cheaper seats and a more contemporary feel.

'School 4 Lovers - a Hip H'Opera', Glyndebourne, Lewes, East Sussex (01273 815 025; www.school4lovers.com), 16-18 March