OPERA / By the people, for the people: The Floodgates, an everyday opera of West Country folk, is homespun in every detail. Matthew Brace reports from the Somerset Levels

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The Independent Culture
Watch out, there's a community opera about. Nowadays, it seems, you can barely set foot outside without stumbling across the 'outreach' department of some national opera company busily trying to ease its subsidised conscience and lose its elitist tag by placing its specialist skills at the service of the community.

Over recent years, we've had Welsh National Opera reaching out into the far-flung reaches of Cardiff, Opera North co-ordinating a community version of West Side Story in a disused Yorkshire mill, and even Glyndebourne, reputedly the elitest of elitists, originating grand blockbusters with the citizens of Hastings and Ashford. Only last month English National Opera was down in Plymouth presenting a week's run of its Vikram Seth-scripted community opera, Arion and the Dolphin.

It was Britten, of course, who began it all with the post-war community singalongs of Let's Make an Opera and Noyes Fludde. These days, however, it's no longer ideologically acceptable simply to give your audience the chance to join in, they have to create the thing too. But how much help they should get, and how much they need, continues to be a matter of debate within the operatic community itself. On one point, though, the professionals have so far been agreed - that local communities need at least some degree of outside assistance to get them started in the first place.

So The Floodgates, which began a 10-day run in Yeovil last week, should mark something of a watershed. It is, its creators claim, the first opera of its kind to have been created solely by local people, and thus should pose a direct challenge to those national companies which have increasingly traipsed out to the country and set about organising performances 'for' the locals rather than 'with' them. It's a distinction Nick Brace, the composer and writer of The Floodgates, is keen to make.

'There is a tradition of the ENO and others deciding to stick 'community' on to something,' he says, 'which I find completely abhorrent. It is patronising, arrogant and cynical, and things can go very wrong. Rather than giving these ideas to some writer who then goes and sits in his holiday cottage in Wales for a month, we are getting local people to create it from their own experiences, their own thoughts.'

In response, Rebecca Meitlis, who directed ENO's Arion and the Dolphin in Plymouth, argues that, instead of quibbling over what is or isn't 'community' opera, producers should be teaming up to concentrate on the much more important question of how to save the artform.

'We were very careful not to call ours a community opera,' she insists, 'because it was done very much on an educational basis. We called it an 'opera for schools, professionals and the community'. And, during its production, we effectively created our own community both on and off stage.'

'Companies like us can use our resources and our clout to attract funds, publicity and audiences. I'm sure The Floodgates is also very beneficial and valid, so surely there's room for both.'

She stands by the Dolphin opera and what it achieved for Plymouth and is already answering calls for an encore.

'I actually had one woman who had not been well when she joined the opera and gained so much from it that she wrote to me to say that the experience had saved her life. We were able to bring in people on whatever level and find a place for them in the performance. We even had three profoundly deaf boys dancing in the final production.'

Arion, though, still relied upon a mainly London-based production team, not to mention a libretto based on classical Greek myth and written in absentia by Vikram Seth.

By contrast, the Crescendo Project, under whose aegis The Floodgates is being presented, specifically resisted going to London to find a director or to Bristol to find its musicians, but chose instead to tap the 'rich vein of talent' present in its own backyard. As a result, the actors include a helicopter technician, a chauffeur, a farmer, and the boss of a Morris Minor renovation company whose only other claim to fame was when he starred as a stunt double in a film called Confessions from a Holiday Camp.

And, whatever waves it makes in the insular world of opera, The Floodgates is almost certain to cause ripples in its own sleepy Somerset backwater, as well as bringing smiles of recognition to the faces of its inhabitants, with its tale of a mythical flood that threatens to wash to the surface the darkest secrets of the country folk and expose the Somerset Levels as a hotbed of rural intrigue and hidden passions.

A clandestine love affair between the new postmaster and a lovelorn lady of the village; a shady character who loiters in the doctor's waiting-room for the chance to riffle through people's medical records; and a constant battle between the needs of the young and old - all are present, and all make up an image which is a far cry from the rural idyll the area presents on a hazy summer Sunday afternoon when the peace is broken only by tunes drifting out from rehearsals in the village hall.

'There are going to be conversations in the car on the way home after this, I can guarantee it,' Brace declares. He was determined, he says, to make his audience feel more than just bystanders. 'There will be people who will go away from it saying, 'My God, that character was me' or 'I used to know a bloke just like that.' '

The legend on which the opera is based warns that, if the floodgates are kept shut, demons lurking beneath the farms and villages will grow and their mischief turn deadly, whereas, if the gates are opened and the waters let in, their evil will be out in the open for local people to see and control.

In the opera, a conflict develops between those who want to open the floodgates and thus rid the place of the secrecy which has stifled it for so long, and those who want to maintain the status quo. Both groups are fully aware of the underlying tensions which exist in the area and which have influenced the work.

But does the soporific atmosphere of villages like South Petherton, Combe St Nicholas and Haselbury Plucknett really hide such strife and discord?

'This area has as much going on under the surface as anywhere else,' says Brace. 'There was a need to acknowledge that rather than just say we live in a green and pleasant place. There is still quite a romantic image of the countryside, but we need to know that there are homeless people in Yeovil, that there is a problem in this area with juvenile crime.'

But The Floodgates is also intended as a celebration of this part of South Somerset and of the way everyday life could be enhanced by honesty and openness.

Brace was heartened therefore to discover recently beneath the floorboards of his new house a dog-eared copy of the Somerset Evening Post dated 19 July 1968, and bearing a photograph of bales of hay floating in an expanse of flood water. 'I couldn't believe it,' he says. 'It was the same date, 26 years to the day, as our first performance. If that doesn't bring us some good luck, nothing will.'

'The Floodgates': Crescendo Arts Factory, Yeovil (0935 410708) to 30 July

(Photograph omitted)

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