OPERA / Con brio: Sheep, beaches, erotic sex, funny jokes: anything goes in a David Freeman production, except tiaras. After 10 years of Opera Factory, he's still tilting at train-spotters

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The Independent Culture
THIS piece, I explained to David Freeman, was meant to be one in which he looked back on 10 glorious years of running Britain's most successfully unorthodox opera company and had no regrets. Unless, of course, he did have some, which would be more interesting.

But Freeman wasn't in retrospective mood. 'What we've done is past: I don't see the point of agonising over it. And if anniversaries are about feeling you're here and you've made it, well I don't feel that. We're here and clinging on precariously.' This is how it has always been through the decade that Opera Factory has existed in Britain. Every season it has died and been resurrected in its ledger books like the accountancy equivalent of a Fisher King. Every season there have been anxious board meetings about the future, with periodic salvation in the form of gods incarnate such as Michael Vyner, who in 1984 took Opera Factory under the wing of the London Sinfonietta, and Nicholas Snowman, who in 1986 got the company residency at the South Bank.

But these have been backstage traumas. Front of house it has seemed an irresistible rise: from the brash troupe of singing actors assembled by a young Australian to give opera a kick up the pants, playing the Drill Hall (spiritual home of sexual liberation drama), to the established company at the Queen Elizabeth Hall playing Mozart to capacity houses.

Of course, it's not the sort of Mozart you would find at Covent Garden, nor is the audience one you would find at Covent Garden. The achievement of Opera Factory is that a high percentage of its patrons don't consider themselves opera-goers at all. They are a theatre audience, crossing the cultural divide between speech and singing and finding it less painful than they thought. Freeman's company is part of a revolution in the opera world: a social and artistic revolution which has penetrated, maybe mortally, the old regime.

Historically, opera has been subservient to a tyranny of top Cs and tiaras - star voices and the people who pay for them - which made it an exotic and inaccessible activity. Even when television arrived to open things out it was still, ironically, the glamour, the exclusivity that was sold as opera's unique selling point. Top Cs and Tiaras was the title of a TV series which defined opera to its viewers as big stars in expensive frocks, smiling through the tears of their not very credible roles. Pavarotti specials do the same. And theatre doesn't come into it, beyond showbiz spectacle.

But in the 1960s there were signs of change. The age of the director was about to dawn in opera; and when it did, in the Seventies, there were few better qualified to seize the advantage than David Freeman who, still a student, set up Opera Factory in Australia in 1973. Born in Sydney to middle-class parents, he had access to European culture without having its ancestral burdens on his shoulders. He trained as an actor, studied music and could sing. And at 21, as he ran Opera Factory, whose name suggested rolled-up sleeves in a chandelier business, he also ran a theatre company.

Then love intervened, in the form of a girlfriend emigrating to Switzerland. He followed her and together, in 1979, they founded Opera Factory Zurich - choosing opera because Freeman didn't feel confident to direct theatre in German. In 1981 they came to Britain with Handel's Acis and Galatea, in which Freeman characteristically sang the role of Polyphemus as a wino. It was seen by Lord Harewood, then managing director of English National Opera, who encouraged him to stay and set up another Opera Factory in London.

The idea was that it might be incorporated into ENO as a satellite venture, dedicated to challenging new work - the sort of thing that ENO has now in its Contemporary Opera Studio. But the deal never happened. Opera Factory stayed independent; and despite its relationships with the London Sinfonietta (which ended last year) and the South Bank, it remains so, 18 productions on. According to Freeman, 'People are always saying, 'We'd love to have Opera Factory here with us,' but what they mean is they'd love to have their Opera Factory here. Independence makes you vulnerable, but it's a strength as well.'

And what has Freeman's theatreless (it can't exactly call the QEH its own) Opera Factory stood for? Its productions have always been in English, often racy and irreverent, frequently in modern dress; but you could say the same of other companies too. Radical opera is in danger of becoming commonplace.

'You have to ask yourself,' Freeman says, 'what 'radical' is. A lot of the experiment going on now doesn't get beyond the design. What people write about productions is just fashion notes: if it's in modern dress it's radical, if not it's traditional. It's just too easy for a director to say, 'Here's a piece that works like this, I'm going to do the opposite' - and provided you do it with enough chutzpah you get noticed. But I don't think Opera Factory's ever done that. We've done extreme things, but we've always worked from the inside out. If a piece is political, let it be as political as possible. If it's violent, let it deal seriously with the topic of violence. If it's fun, let it be so funny that people complain - as they did in our Cosi - that they can't hear the music for laughing. If it's erotic, let it be really sexy. That's all we do.'

And that's why Freeman's experiments have been more effective, and influential, than many others. The Cosi is, by common consent, one of his best: a robust revisitation of Mozart's seaside romance that was all Ambre Solaire, beach games and bikini bottoms. It sounded like the sort of work the enfant terrible of American opera, Peter Sellars, is dubiously famous for, but it outclassed Sellars because beyond the camp there was a depth of human theatre: a sense of characters entangled in each other's lives that touched the audience at a level to which opera doesn't often penetrate.

That, Freeman says, is because directors don't push singers hard enough. The assumption is that opera is rendered incapable by its vocal requirements from working like ordinary theatre. 'Which is why I set up Opera Factory in the first place, to try and bring about a shift in perspective. Everyone thinks if you speak on stage it's natural, if you sing it isn't: two different worlds. But that's only because they think opera began in 1594 in Europe and developed in a certain way. Opera didn't begin in 1594. It began with what we think of as ethnic theatre. And if you go to any culture outside the western tradition, from ancient Greece onwards, you won't find these hang-ups. They speak, they sing, it's all the same.'

Of course, Opera Factory's repertoire is western, but Freeman still thinks his argument applies. 'Look at what happens in spoken theatre. People get together, they learn words, practise them for weeks, recite them in a dark room where other people pay for admittance and the air isn't good and the light is artificial - and you're telling me it's unnatural to sing? I tell you, Chekhov only looks as though it's closer to reality than Mozart. Nobody talks like they talk in Chekhov. In Shakespeare there are arias right, left and centre.'

So the rationale of Opera Factory is integrationist, crossing back and forth into theatre. Three years ago it staged, side by side, Aribert Reimann's opera The Ghost Sonata and the Strindberg play it was based on, with overlapping casts. Next year will see Euripides's Bacchae, done as a play with music by Xenakis.

Not everyone likes Opera Factory; and among those who don't, the usual argument is that far from taking opera into new ground, Freeman has just shifted an inevitable point of compromise. When voices ruled, theatre suffered: in Freeman's theatre, voices suffer. And it's true that you don't go to an Opera Factory production expecting world-class singing. His rehearsal methods rely on a small, regular corps of singers - one of them his wife, Marie Angel - who turn up in one production after another. It makes for an unusually responsive ensemble style where, as Freeman says, 'we've already done the ABC with each other so we're on about F pretty soon,' but it also means that the voices aren't always ideal for their roles. And Freeman anyway doesn't set much store by vocal niceties in performance. 'Singing is expressive speech, and when it's expressive that's fine. When it's not - when it's just something for its own sake - then I'd rather go and listen to the birds. They're probably more interesting, and less self-conscious.'

He doesn't set much store by composers' intentions either. Most of Opera Factory's work has been with living composers - Birtwistle, Tippett, Osborne - and amicable, although Peter Maxwell Davies got upset about a production of his Eight Songs for a Mad King that had the protagonist defecating on a toilet seat. Freeman dismisses the complaint as 'trivial - he never even saw it'. But dead composers have their lobby groups; and not all of them rejoiced to see the gods on roller skates in Cavalli's La Calisto, the bikinied Cosi or - more serious - the contraction of two operas into one in Gluck's Iphigenias. Lobbyists of sensitive dispositions are further upset by the proliferation of mess (gore in Iphigenias, ice cream in the recent Don Giovanni) and flesh. There are times when Freeman seems to be striving for naturalism through naturism.

'People demand to know if I don't feel responsible to the composer. But what does that mean? It's like saying I'm sitting on this chair - do I have a responsibility towards it? Whatever I do to Don Giovanni isn't going to take it away. It's still there for someone else, so how can I be responsible to it? Unless, of course, art is a recitation of holy script and 'What would Mozart think?' if you do something different. But that's a ludicrous question. What would Mozart think of where we're sitting now? He'd be amazed. What would he think of John Eliot Gardiner? He'd be amazed. You don't travel 200 years and not end up very surprised.'

The problem is that traditional audiences don't like surprise. 'The biggest thing you can give someone in a familiar opera is the feeling that he's never seen it before. But there will always be people who'd rather be reminded of their past experience of it and take a legalistic attitude to seeing that the details are exactly reproduced. Train-spotters. I'm delighted that train-spotters like trains, but I'd rather look at a tree than talk to them about it.'

WHEN Freeman does look back over the past 10 years, his assessments of success and failure carry their own surprises. By common agreement Cosi, Calisto and Birtwistle's Yan Tan Tethera were triumphs, while Mahagonny and Hell's Angels (Nigel Osborne's pan-historical allegory on politics, sex and death, to Freeman's own libretto) were flops. But Freeman blames the production of Hell's Angels rather than the piece, which most critics deplored equally, and cites among his favourites two other productions that were not well received: Iphigenias and the revised Don Giovanni.

The Giovanni revision was an extreme example of the way Opera Factory productions evolve, even when they have the same cast, from first appearances to revivals. 'I think we're the only opera company whose productions regularly get better as they get older,' says Freeman, implying that he expects his performers never to stop working at their roles. He berates the laziness of singers in conventional companies; and anyone auditioning for him is left in no doubt that they'll be pushed to the limit in rehearsal. Freeman is hot on movement, which he never hands on to a choreographer and uses with uncommon creativity - especially creating animals from humans. Yan Tan Tethera calls for a chorus of singing sheep; and there was some smirking news coverage when it was discovered that rehearsals for next month's revival entailed shipping the chorus to a Wiltshire farm for research. 'I don't see why everyone thought it was so funny. If you're going to spend 1 1/2 hours on stage being a sheep you might as well get it from the horse's mouth. As it were. We're a very uneccentric company. In that respect we're quite un-English.'

Not to say serious. However frail its finances, provocative its stance and blunt its statements, Opera Factory's record is clean. It has matured into a permanent and necessary fixture straddling the music and theatre worlds - led by a stage director who is courted in his own right by the glamour houses he still rails against, and by a music director (Mark Wigglesworth) who is young but outstandingly talented. 'What we need now is a theatre of our own,' says Freeman. In the current economic climate that's a pretty serious ambition.

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