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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.