OPERA / Arranged marriage: A new opera house opens soon - just for a fortnight. Nick Kimberley reports on a shotgun Blood Wedding

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The Independent Culture
Wagner fantasised that his ideal opera house would be 'a crude theatre of planks and beams', built on a meadow at the edge of town, and pulled down after three performances of Siegfried. At that point the composer would exhort his audience, 'Now go and do it for yourselves]'

His fantasy comes close to reality for the Women's Playhouse Trust production of Nicola LeFanu's new opera Blood Wedding (based on Lorca's play of the same name), due to open at the end of the month. Faced with London's dearth of small theatres that can handle opera, WPT has rented a film studio, not in a meadow but in Docklands. Here a cavernous sound-stage will be transformed into an acoustically customised opera house for nine performances of Blood Wedding, after which it becomes a film studio again - no Wagnerian fancy but absolute economic necessity.

The first opera tackled by WPT in its 11-year history, Blood Wedding, at a cost of pounds 350,000, is far and away the company's most expensive project. The company's theatre director Jules Wright, who will stage the work, admits that when she first conceived the project she had no idea what she was letting herself in for: 'I thought, 'We'll do a small piece - just 17 musicians and 15 singers . . .' It's taken three years to raise the total cost, of which only pounds 33,000 is from public funding, via the Arts Council and the London Arts Board. The piece is so big that WPT may not survive it, but there's no point in saying, 'When we get the money we will do X'. It never works like that.'

And so a new opera house is born, for a fortnight. At least the opera is guaranteed a longer life: a tour of Russia is scheduled, Australia is interested, and who knows, someone in this country may take it up. If they do, the opera will be doing better than Lorca's original play which, first performed in 1933, was not restaged in Spain until 1962.

Yet now Blood Wedding is the work which guarantees Lorca's status as one of the century's great playwrights. Derived from a newspaper account of actual events, it tells the sorry tale of a woman who runs off with a former lover on her wedding day. She and her lover are then pursued and killed as the culmination of a bitter feud. With its heightened emotion, stylised dramaturgy - the characters include the Moon and Death, disguised as a beggar-woman - and its erotic obsession with death, the play is already almost an opera. As Jules Wright says, 'The poetry of the piece is so fantastic, it deserves to be an opera.'

Wright is confident of her choice of Nicola LeFanu: 'I listened to acres of work by contemporary composers and whittled it down to material that I liked. In the end I decided to approach Nicola - she goes to Australia and is often inspired by that landscape, and what had interested me about the Lorca was, partly, the territory in which it happens. Some people don't see Nicola's work as passionate. I think this is a real advance for her, she does find the passion in the piece.'

Anne Manson, who conducts the performances, concurs: 'I wouldn't say that the music has an 'English' sound to it, it's a universal language. She writes very lyrically for voices, for which we are all very thankful. Seventeen musicians is quite a large orchestra, and she balances it very well. Without being tonal, the music achieves a miraculous sense of line. In moments of passion the line is interrupted of course, yet it's very lyrical, very natural, well suited to the people who are singing. There's no stretching.'

This is not Nicola LeFanu's first opera, but it is her longest and largest. It is also, she says, the first for which the subject has been chosen for her: 'For me the question, which I thought about for a year, was, 'Can I do Blood Wedding?' I knew Lorca's work, but I hadn't seen the play. Maybe that was a good thing - I reacted to the text rather than to the ghosts of other productions. I have just enough Spanish that I could read it in English and Spanish.

'That was useful because I had Deborah Levy's libretto, but I could also react to Lorca's sound-world. Deborah had a number of translations. As a poet she was well placed to pare down those translations to something much tighter - music needs very little text. My job was to find how the dramatic structure could be expressed in the musical structure, which led to some quite dramatic changes in the play's chronology, because I wanted a musical logic to the way people interact. I don't think that at any point we're not respecting the original, but stage time in a theatre piece is absolutely different to musical time. We had to make it our own.'

Although Deborah Levy does not read music, LeFanu has not felt that as a disadvantage: 'Deborah has a lot of stage experience, but not of opera experience, so we were complementary. We had long walks where, rather like an actress asking a director 'Why would I do such and such?', I would ask Deborah why she felt a character did this or that. There were important decisions which we took together - the play can exist, as Lorca often saw it, in a kind of flamenco-y Spanish way.

'Either you go for that completely, or not at all. We went for it not at all, because we are two women working in the 1990s in England. Half-hearted Spanishry would be terrible. There are places where Lorca has songs - you can even hear crackly 78s with Lorca himself singing. We felt that was not operatic, that was part of a view of the play, so Deborah avoided pretty songs with rhymes and made out of it a marvellously feeling and intense single long poem.'

Like Britten's operas, Lorca's play is often said to embody its creator's pessimistic sense of the price to be paid for pursuing his homosexual desires. Such a reading has helped LeFanu, but it has not restricted her response: 'All of us are rather androgynous, and Lorca clearly had a degree of androgyny. In a way, I think he's more successful in dealing with his female characters than with his male characters. We felt that the Bride in the play faces issues that women still face, she has to choose between breaking the social codes which will mean not only going against her family but against the tribe, the larger community - or, if you like, a sensible course of action. She has to deal with her own sexuality.'

LeFanu has been an outspoken polemicist on behalf of women composers, and her opera continues the struggle. Indeed, it came close to being a victim of the struggle: 'If you look over the range of opera commissions in recent years, it's marvellous how much is going on, but there's a prevalence of commissions to, if you like, the young men who are the obvious names of the day. Not altogether, but that is the tendency. The whole genesis of this opera has been very interesting - we've had classic cases of the establishment turning its back and then realising that this is a good thing. So doors open which have previously been slammed shut.'

Jacob Street Studios, Mill Street, London SE1, 26 October to 7 November: tickets pounds 10 to pounds 50 (071-497 9977)

(Photograph omitted)