Opera: How big is your aria?

First 'Madam Butterfly' at the Albert Hall, now a vast 'Aida' at Earl's Court: Nick Kimberley has seen the future of opera, and it's as big as stadium rock

START A CONVERSATION about opera and the word "elitism" always crops up before long. The world "vulgarity" might not enter the debate until later - but eventually, it will. One of the things that makes opera so appealing is this healthy vulgarity: of emotion, of musical effect, of sheer spectacle. Let's face it, there's a certain crassness in the very idea that, if you want to make your point, it's better when hammered home with music. This, however, is what opera's all about.

Throughout history, opera's ideals have been strengthened - or compromised, according to your point of view - by a desire to reach big audiences. The Roman amphitheatre at Verona, for example, has an annual festival at which audiences of 16,000 have enjoyed unamplified opera since 1913. Such arenas, however, are not widely available in Britain - and nor, dependably is Mediterranean weather. But new electronic equipment makes a different kind of arena opera an option.

Later this month, the pop-music promoter Harvey Goldsmith brings to Earl's Court in London a production of Verdi's Aida that was recently staged in Amsterdam to an audience of 40,000. Verdi himself might have jumped at the chance to have his music relayed by means of the kind of 96-channel sound system Goldsmith will use. And Aida isn't the only opera to have received the arena treatment recently. In February, Puccini's Madam Butterfly was seen by a total of some 70,000 people, in 16 performances in Birmingham and at the Royal Albert Hall in London. This new interest in "arena opera" completely belies the art form's reputation as being only for a small, rich coterie.

The Albert Hall Butterfly was staged by David Freeman, whose own company, Opera Factory (founded 1981, and now threatened with extinction due to lack of subsidy), has long striven for a kind of "poor-opera" theatricality that returns the form to its sources in ritual, myth and allegory. Freeman has always been committed to opera's high-art potential, without ever being an "elitist" in the pejorative sense. "It's not that I was wearing different hats when working for Opera Factory and when doing Madam Butterfly at the Royal Albert Hall," he says. "Both are experiments in their own right. There's a certain fascination in the craft of taking on a space as big as the Albert Hall where, as with anything else, the peculiarities are its strengths and its weaknesses. If you don't recognise the peculiarities, whether of the opera, the performers or the space, you come up with something less interesting and complex than if you use peculiarities as strengths."

Freeman's Butterfly was promoted by Raymond Gubbay, the biggest classical- music impresario in Britain. Though most of the time Gubbay promotes conventional concerts at the Barbican, the Royal Festival Hall and the like, his previous opera productions at the Albert Hall (Puccini's La Boheme in 1996, Bizet's Carmen in 1997) certainly attracted large audiences. These productions however, compromised themselves by attempting to transplant conventional opera-house aesthetics into a huge, round space, and they didn't win critical acclaim.

But then, for Butterfly, Freeman threw out all notions of the proscenium arch and staged the show in the round. It had a dramatic cogency that worked no matter which angle it was seen from. As Freeman himself explains, this entailed reminding his performers to "hold on to the intimacy of the piece. When they do boxing at the Albert Hall they don't box bigger; there's no reason to act bigger. Even in spoken theatre, one tends to angle ever to slightly out to the audience - but there's no point in doing that at the Albert Hall. The singers had to act so that the audience could understand, even from their backs, what the scene was saying. In a curious way, it was close to film acting: if anything, more intimate than a proscenium production."

The Earl's Court Aida takes a different approach. It's produced, directed and conducted by the Italian maestro Guiseppe Raffa, whose company, Operama, plans to forego the paraphernalia of sets, using laser projections instead to produce its scenic effects. Raffa set up his company 10 years ago, and proudly boasts: "The smallest audience we play to is about 8,000, the largest 40,000. We have several hundred performances behind us, and we've done several 'editions', I would call them, of Aida: traditional performances with real animals, a version with a mechanical set. And now this one, with projection to create the effect of three dimensions. The last 30 years have seen opera in decline, because there's no relationship between what you spend to create it and what you earn from the tickets. So the choice is this: either we leave opera as it is and let it die. Or we adapt it to the financial strictures and to the technology of today. I made my decision."

Harvey Goldsmith sees what he and Raffa are presenting as "an introduction for people without prejudices". The hi-tech scenography will depict an Egypt that Cecil B De Mille would have recognised. As a trustee of the Royal Opera House, Goldsmith has strong views about the state of subsidised opera in this country, and not surprisingly he emphasises the importance of good management. "Artistic directors work best under pressure, to a budget. They don't work best when they think someone will write a cheque out for everything they want. The reason the Royal Opera House is in such a mess is that artistic management has taken precedence over house management. But arts subsidy is still necessary for providing opportunities to develop, behind and in front of the stage. We're in the commercial world and don't ask for subsidy, but we couldn't exist without the opera houses."

Raymond Gubbay is no less outspoken about the world of subsidised opera. "What we do cannot replace conventional opera companies, all of which we need. The Royal Opera is a separate case, and there are grounds for considering the privatisation of Covent Garden. It's a terrible drain on the rather meagre resources available in this country, which distorts the whole picture. The regional companies need all the help they can get, and we're not a rival to what they offer. None of us works in isolation, we all feed off each other."

Both Goldsmith and Gubbay feel that the way they do opera only works for a handful of pieces. Giuseppe Raffa reckons otherwise: "We could do the whole of the operatic repertoire. If you'd asked me five years ago, I would have said 'No', but with today's technology, there's no limit. There's a company in England developing a sound-system whereby you don't need microphones, and we'll probably be using that in the next two years. Even the system we have now produces CD-quality sound. It's not the kind of equipment you buy in a shop, I can tell you."

There's no doubt that the quality of sound projection is the single biggest problem. "I'd heard horror stories about how bad the sound was," David Freeman admits. "But I think, in fact, they did a pretty good job. And it's getting better, too. In 2005 this debate won't be an issue. There'll be a few Rumplestiltskins stamping their feet in protest that the world has changed, but it's so obviously a good thing overall: all those people coming who really aren't opera buffs. It's so depressing, always performing for a club. That's why I enjoyed working with Raymond Gubbay. It's such a relief to find somebody in opera who isn't a snob. Good taste is the death of art, and when opera was a powerful art form, it certainly wasn't in good taste."

Staging opera in the arena is not a panacea for all of opera's ills. But it does contribute to a redistribution of availability. Freeman's Madam Butterfly was as moving as any I've seen, and next year, he and Gubbay plan an Albert Hall Tosca. Even if this or that show fails to measure up, arena opera provides an element of diversity that may well prove crucial to opera's future rude vitality, in and out of the opera house.

! 'Aida': Earl's Ct, SW5 (0171 373 8141), 23-25 Apr.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice