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OPERA / Arias a la carte: Rosie Millard reports from Arundel on a company that caters to tune-starved commuters

'IT'S THE combination of opera and eating, I think,' says Elaine Holden, manager of First Act Opera Company. 'I thought it was the most brilliant idea when I joined the company. I still do.' In the words of one of its fans, First Act Opera equals 'Classic FM with food'. Performing an unashamedly populist programme of opera hits at pizzerias, brasseries and private functions, it aims to bring some of the ambience of Covent Garden to Network SouthEast land, converting hundreds of pizza- munching commuters into opera buffs as it goes.

'Well, before we saw First Act, we knew nothing about opera whatsoever,' said John Sutton, a Benetton manager, as he tucked into his main course at the Cafe Des Amis in the small Sussex town of Arundel. 'We went to all the Lloyd Webbers in London,' interjected his wife, 'but never opera. Now we're totally hooked. We've bought Essential Opera on CD and John, who would never come to anything like this before, can't get it off the car stereo.' The Suttons, who had come down from nearby Angmering, settled back after their main course to enjoy a 20-minute operatic version of Top of the Pops.

'The formula is fairly simple,' says First Act's founder John Nuding. 'The audience eats its starter, then we sing for about 20 minutes. Then everyone eats their main course, then we sing again, then they eat pudding, and we, erm, sing again. And that's it.'

With a central core of about four performers, First Act simply performs what everyone wants to hear: the Champagne chorus from Die Fledermaus, the Lakme duet (aka the British Airways tune), arias from Figaro, La Boheme, La Traviata and, naturally, 'Nessun dorma', Puccini's football weepie.

First Act's first booking was in 1990, in the inauspicious surroundings of the Pizza Express, Maidstone. 'I just thought it would work,' says Nuding, 'with classic opera pieces - you know, pop hits. Yes, adverts on telly and the World Cup have done us a power of good. Everyone knows the tunes.'

A former furniture salesman and loss adjuster with a keen sense of lost or, rather, misplaced talent, Nuding's stage career began 10 years ago with an evening course in acting at Maidstone College of Further Education. 'I never sang before; you know, I was always told to shut up in the school choir. But I always wanted to perform.' Encouraged by his tutor at Maidstone, he seriously began to consider singing for a living. 'Then personal things happened to me - a bereavement, actually. I re- evaluated my life, and just decided to go for it.'

In his role as compere, Nuding clearly sees the task of bringing the delights of Puccini and Co to the commuter belt as a vocation. 'This is sung by a lady,' he says, temptingly introducing the first number. 'A lady who likes to meet the men. I say no more]' Lorna Washington, one of First Act's regular singers, then plunges into Musetta's waltz from La Boheme.

Accompanied only by piano, she belts out the aria while wandering about the restaurant seductively swishing a black stole. The Arundel audience sits back, delighted that (a) it knows the tune and (b) it is sung so well. 'It's so nice not having opera in bulk, if you know what I mean,' whispers Mrs Anita Pascal from Slindon. 'This is much lighter and easier. It's all that can-you- pass-the-mustard recitative stuff that I can't stand. Here, they just pick out the nice bits, and it's fun.' She gazes at Lorna Washington, by now wrapping her stole around a man who bears an uncanny resemblance to Norman Fowler.

The aria ends to loud and sustained applause. The Norman Fowler lookalike is positively glowing, having been singled out so charmingly. 'I love this kind of audience interaction,' he says. 'At the end of the week, it's a great uplift to have evenings like this, with mainstream Mozart and so on. Around here, if you want opera, you really have to go and find it.'

For, while the South East is affluent enough, cultural outposts are not its forte. Since the demise of Kent Opera, and setting aside Glyndebourne and a few touring companies, the only opera you will find if you live anywhere between Folkestone and Littlehampton is at the end of a long train ride to London.

First Act, with its regular bookings at restaurants in Arundel, Hastings and Tunbridge Wells, looks set to clean up. The company has even sung to the Prime Minister at a Conservative Party do in Huntingdon. 'I'd like to sing to John Smith and Paddy Ashdown, too,' says Nuding excitedly. 'I've got big plans. In fact, I'd like to do the Ring]' Whether the audience at Cafe Des Amis, or indeed any other of First Act's South Coast haunts, would be quite ready for Wagner's entire cycle is perhaps a question that even the energetic Mr Nuding has not yet wholly addressed, yet his formula is clearly a winning one.

'We've been coming to First Act for the last 18 months,' said Nancy Woolven, from Worthing. 'The last classical thing I've seen, apart from this, was the London Philharmonic in Worthing Hall. I'm in a theatre- goer's Society, lovey, but I don't often go to London. I like all the music First Act do. I can't criticise any of it. When we know they're on, I just automatically say, 'That's it,' and we go.'

'Well, although I am familiar with Covent Garden, I find it rather a strain, getting the last train back to Littlehampton after a show,' said Mr Denton, aged 77, who is a Cafe Des Amis regular. 'They do those Murder Mystery evenings here; well, I don't like that with my food, but I don't mind opera with food, or jazz, for that matter.'

As I left the Cafe Des Amis, the company embarked on the drinking song from La Traviata. The audience toasted the company with unrestrained enthusiasm; the Sutton family sat in a trance, glazed smiles on their faces. 'I'm just amazed that I enjoy opera as much as this,' John Sutton said. 'You know, TV doesn't capture it at all. If they're trying to encourage opera, this is the way to do it.' Mrs Pascal beckoned me over. 'It's just so lovely to have opera on our doorstep; in a sense, this is giving us something we lack.'

First Act Opera are at Englefield House, Reading, 6 June; The Italian Way, Hastings, 18 June; Cafe Des Amis, Arundel, 25 June

(Photograph omitted)