The travelling songsmen

There's no rest for the tuneful as the touring companies set off around the country
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The Independent Culture

"Opera on the road" conjures up images of JB Priestley's The Good Companions, in which a touring ensemble bickers its way round a fast- disappearing rural-industrial England, packing church halls and squeezing laughs from Nottinghamshire mining villages. As London opera embarks on a new season, spare a thought for the ensembles that take opera the length of Britain, shoehorning a Carmen or Madam Butterfly into venues such as The Theatre at Chipping Norton, Theatr Elli in Llanelli, or Kendal Leisure Centre.

"Opera on the road" conjures up images of JB Priestley's The Good Companions, in which a touring ensemble bickers its way round a fast- disappearing rural-industrial England, packing church halls and squeezing laughs from Nottinghamshire mining villages. As London opera embarks on a new season, spare a thought for the ensembles that take opera the length of Britain, shoehorning a Carmen or Madam Butterfly into venues such as The Theatre at Chipping Norton, Theatr Elli in Llanelli, or Kendal Leisure Centre.

Just how do they do it? While Opera North and WNO tour larger venues, and Scottish Opera-Go-Round reaches out to the Highlands and islands, the doyen of wandering companies is English Touring Opera, whose productions of La Bohème and The Cunning Little Vixen open at Hackney this week. It will then take the two operas on the road, along with Jonathan Dove's Tobias and the Angel, a collaboration with the Young Vic, which sold out four nights in London last month.

" Tobias is a community opera with three choirs: it's a big undertaking for us," says ETO's general director, James Conway. "It involved a lot of preliminary spadework in outlying areas tracking down local talent. Tim Yealland, our outreach director, has been out in the field for the past year, rustling up performers; our assistant director and conductor go and work with local forces, but we rely a lot on local amateurs who give their time for nothing.

"Some venues are so cramped that ETO's technical manager, David Ferrier, will give me that look, as if to say, 'You're a sadist!' But people in Cumbria pay taxes, too, and our tours are supported by the Arts Council England. You have to make things work in smaller venues: their audiences matter, too. It's a designer problem, but if a designer doesn't like problem-solving, he's working for the wrong company!"

ETO is not the only opera company touring this autumn. Mid Wales Opera is a modest-budget company hiking good-quality productions to outlying, even underprivileged, communities, and the seats there are handsomely subsidised, so audiences can afford them. Its artistic director, Barbara McGuire, admits that things can become quite interesting on the road. " Don Giovanni's last night was horrendous," she recalls, "because Harlech's new theatre (Theatr Ardudwy) was not ready: Health and Safety turned our van away, and we had to ship in sets using small local vehicles. Then a singer was ill and Don Ottavio had to be acted by a girl! But it was a success - set in a New York hotel, with Don Giovanni hauled off down a blazing lift shaft."

English Touring Opera: at Hackney Empire, London E8, Thursday to Saturday, then touring to 4 December (020-8985 2424; www.englishtouringopera.org.uk); Mid Wales Opera: 'Rigoletto' tours England and Wales to 14 November ( www.midwalesopera.co.uk)

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