Arts: Swan-song of the opera revolutionaries

Its Arts Council grant cut, Opera Factory London is going out with a bang, not a whimper.

In post-industrial Britain, there is no shortage of factory closures; nor of opera companies in financial difficulties. Perhaps, then, it's no surprise that Opera Factory London, the company founded by David Freeman in 1982, will close after presenting its next show, And the Snake Sheds Its Skin, which opens tonight for a two-week run at London's Drill Hall.

Fittingly, the Drill Hall is where Freeman staged the first Opera Factory London show, Harrison Birtwistle's Punch and Judy, but if that suggests a nicely symmetrical return to roots, the new show in fact begins an experiment that Freeman had hoped would take the company a long way from conventional notions of opera.

The company that Freeman founded in London in 1982 was the third Opera Factory. The first opened in Sydney (Freeman is Australian by birth) in 1973. When he came to Europe in 1975, the Sydney company died a natural death. In Zurich, he set up a second Factory with a production of Handel's Acis and Galatea, which attracted the attention of Lord Harewood and Edmund Tracey of English National Opera. They organised London performances of Acis, the success of which generated a relationship with ENO that led not only to Freeman working at the Coliseum but to the founding of Opera Factory London.

Opera Factory has never been a permanent company, but rather an occasional intervention. To ask Freeman why he set up the Opera Factories is to ask him to sum up a lifetime's thought and action, but he gives it his best shot: "It was an attempt to make a company which shared specific ideals about performance and training, about aesthetics and the role of opera in society, ideals very different from the role of a large-scale opera company. Although I've worked in big opera houses, I don't think those companies can really question the idea of opera, even of live performance, in any profound way when they're doing hundreds of performances a year."

What Freeman strives for places his work in an avant-garde theatrical, rather than operatic, tradition: "The so-called theatrical revolution in opera of the 1980s was really a design revolution: the level of performance didn't change much. I wanted a company of people - more like an experimental theatre or dance company - which could do things that didn't normally take place in an opera house. A performance-based, rather than a text- based company. The communication is between performer and audience, not between text and audience."

Not that Freeman's productions scorn opera's "texts": his stagings of Cavalli, Mozart, Stravinsky and Britten have always attended scrupulously to musical values. Yet, as Freeman stresses, the aim is not simply to find a new way of doing Mozart; rather to find new ways of making theatre. In that sense, some of his most interesting work has been staging new works that don't quite fit the category of opera, from Birtwistle's Yan Tan Tethera (1986) to Nigel Osborne's Sarajevo (1994), a recasting of Greek myth in terms of contemporary civil war. For Freeman, "the idea was definitely not to come up with a new Tristan und Isolde. I hear people say, 'If only someone would write Tristan for today." If they did, no one would want it. We live in a time of diversity, not of Wagnerian unity, and we need art that reflects that."

That's why, before the Arts Council cut the company's grant, Freeman had set about redefining its work in terms of what he calls "Theatre of the World". The new show, And the Snake Sheds Its Skin, was the first step in that direction. The music is by the Senegalese composer Habib Faye, best known for his work with Youssou N'Dour, and Freeman himself wrote the libretto, drawing on ancient Sumerian creation myths.

For Freeman, the piece is an attempt to reflect the fact that "Europe is no longer Europe in the sense that it was in 1950. There are huge wanderings of people across the globe, we know much more about other cultures, there is a 'world theatre culture', which, in many ways, has more in common with opera and mixed forms than with a Chekhov play.

"We hang on to our temples of art, glorifying a great past, and I'm not against that, but I want to work in a way that reflects how things are changing around us, not as some kind of social work, but in terms of wanting to create something new artistically.

"I'm pleased that probably the last show Opera Factory does will be entirely different from anything we've ever tried. That seems to be one of the main points of the company: rather than going out with one of our most famous productions, so as to remind everybody how good we were, I'd rather remind them how interesting we were."

Opera Factory's production of 'And the Snake Sheds Its Skin' runs from Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30pm at the Drill Hall, London until 25 April (0171-637 8270). It will then go on tour to the Oxford Playhouse (10 May), Cambridge Corn Exchange (16 and 17 May) and Reading Hexagon (May 20).

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