OPERA / The very best of little and large: Travelling Opera does it with a cast of 14, Classical Productions with a cast of hundreds. Paul Fisher counts the costs, and the pork pies, involved in bringing Carmen to the people of Bath and Birmingham

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Finally the applause faded and the couple in the next seats, who had noticed me scribbling in a notebook, asked my opinion of the show. Before I could say I thought it thin in parts, they told me they were Carmen's parents.

'She was fantastic,' I said truthfully, thinking it oddly prosaic that Carmen should have a Mum and Dad. It's a phenomenon no less odd than Travelling Opera, an independent company which tours the regions with stripped-down versions of mainstream operas. The Barber of Seville in Norwich one week, Don Giovanni in Chelmsford the next. Last month, at its Carmen premiere in Bath, a cast of 15 and an equally tiny orchestra sent a full house at the Theatre Royal back to their homes in a high good humour.

Odder still, the company has made a profit for seven years and does so by insisting that opera-going is a normal, unpretentious pleasure. 'We're nearer to Radio 2 than Radio 3,' says Peter Knapp, Travelling Opera's founder. 'We're Friday Night Is Music Night and always very tasteful, well sung and well played.' All perfectly true and it makes for a night out governed by easy intimacy rather than social nervousness.

It also proves that even icons have parents. At the stage door, Carmen's proud father reminded me to 'make sure you write something nice about her.' OK, Mr Mooney. Your Janet was erotic and wilful and powerful enough to carry the role. Her solos and duets with Julian Gavin's Don Jose were wonderful and they needed to be. The stars really have to star when spectacular bits are fudged as hordes of factory girls, soldiers and gypsies are played by the same, small, frantically busy cast.

Travelling Opera makes aesthetic virtues of economic necessity. 'The greatness of Carmen,' Knapp says, 'is in the way Bizet handles characterisation - which, in this case, is just Carmen herself and Don Jose.'

Knapp is a cheery populist and an old- style actor-manager who sounds off on the 'misuse of public money' to subsidise flabby outfits like the Royal Opera House, the Welsh National Opera and Opera 80 (now English Touring Opera). He derides music schools which are terrified of emotions and don't teach acting skills. 'They concentrate on the right trill in the right place and not on how to communicate passion.

'Because we work so close to our audience,' he continues, 'our singers have to be young and beautiful. There are no over-40s playing breathless virgins.' In Carmen, his looks-first recruitment policy results in slender women who bare their cleavages as well as their souls. The men, however, are bigger bummed and Don Jose's fight with Zuniga looked like Tweedledum and Tweedledee pitching in to one another.

At Classical Productions' Carmen, playing in Birmingham's National Indoor Arena from 19 October, there will be few in the 10,000-seat stadium who are near enough to peep down blouses or snicker at tubby lovers. But for Bizet's story and tunes, the Little Travelling Opera and Large Classical Productions Carmens are radically different. Where Little sells to provincial theatre-goers used to intimacy, Large chases metropolitan arena-punters with an eye for spectaculars that demand spectacles; where Little sings an English text adapted by the ubiquitous Peter Knapp, Large uses the original French libretto and displays translations on giant surtitle screens; where Little makes do with minimal props and proscenium arches, Large does it in the round on a purpose-built revolving stage; where Travelling Opera's Carmen hit the road on an outlay of pounds 25,000, the other one has a pounds 4.5 million investment. Such a bizarre Bizetness needs a trot through a few more statistics.

In Birmingham 4,000 pork pies are on order to feed the 250 stage-hands and there will be goodness knows how many bales of hay for the 10 horses. The 100-ton set fills 18 container lorries and includes 1,000 lights and nine miles of electrical cabling. There are 50 dancers plus a troupe of Flamenco performers, and a 100-strong chorus plus 75 boys in a children's choir. During the set-pieces 500 performers will crowd the stage. The singers must wear infra-red hearing aids to allow them to hear the orchestra without delay while they are elevated on computer-controlled hydraulic ramps to a 200ft-long suspension bridge. Such high tech could be highly tacky but in 1989, during the first run of performances in Earls Court, Japan and Australia, the critics loved this overblown Carmen. 'A miraculous production which is as good to listen to as it is to look at,' wrote the Sunday Express and the Guardian called it 'stunning to watch'.

Over 80,000 saw the Classical Productions Carmen first time round and Knapp, who has a showman's way with a statistic, says even more will have watched his version once it finishes a 250-performance run. Such hype is cringeworthy stuff for normally cosseted opera fans but what really has them choking into their dress suits is that both companies succeed without any public subsidies.

If, as I do, you find most opera verges on pantomime, the absurdities diminish if you know that half your seat doesn't belong to the taxpayer.

These two companies sneer at 'the establishment' and appeal directly to 'the people'. Here their claims are interchangeable. Says Knapp: 'Opera is very much part of European culture and doesn't have mass appeal in Britain. We hope to remedy that and show the people it isn't stuffy and can be the most enormous fun.' Harvey Goldsmith, the pop impresario who co-owns Classical Productions with the PR man Mark McCormack, also casts himself as a man of the people. 'A lot of people don't know how to cope with going to the opera house. All we're doing is making the music accessible and expanding the opportunity. I want the people to feel part of it all.'

Whether it's high-budget maximalism or penny-pinching minimalism, here is opera for a larger portion of the masses than have heard it before. Elaine Padmore, Classical Productions' artistic director, says both approaches are valid and talks of 'Carmen's amazing capacity to expand and contract'. She cites the all-black musical Carmen Jones and Peter Brook's hugely successful Le tragedie de Carmen and says that, above all, opera demands high levels of skill.

Classical Productions recruited the internationally experienced Steven Pimlott to direct its Carmen. And Padmore, who herself used to be Radio 3's head of opera, gives a role call of the Carmens the production has used: Maria Ewing, Victoria Vergara and Ning Liang in 1989 and Julia Migenes, Cynthia Clarey, Wilhelmenia Fernandez and Elena Zaremba for this revival.

Over at Travelling Opera they may be cheap but they're not nasty. Peter Knapp studied with Tito Gobbi and has sung with Kent Opera, English National Opera and Opera North. His last non-Travelling Opera job was this summer when he sang in the Glyndebourne Festival production of Janacek's Jenufa. His players have equally impressive credentials: Janet Mooney's programme biog, for example, lists studies at the Guildhall School of Music and roles with ENO and London City Opera.

'And did you know Janet was a backing singer for Wham] on their tour of China?' Mr Mooney asked while we were waiting for the star to clean off her make- up. Mrs Mooney scolded her husband, saying: 'That was ages ago. You shouldn't tell people about that.' 'Has really sung to the people,' I wrote in my notebook.

(Photograph omitted)

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