How dare they do it to Shakespeare?
"The story of Othello is a tragic version of Much Ado About Nothing"
It's not a pairing of equals or opposites that seems 'natural' somehow – after all, for many people, Shakespeare and opera don't rest easily with anything, let alone each other
Yet despite this rather daunting premise, OperaUpClose is doing just that – marrying both distinctive disciplines into the audacious cocktail that is Music Oft Hath Such A Charm.
"Shakespeare and opera are sometimes written about in a way that assumes they are both difficult and elitist," says the group's director Robin Norton-Hale. "And consequently people accept and absorb that and don't try it.
"I think the key thing about both is that they're written to be performed live and enjoyed by audiences.
"When people actually go and see an opera or Shakespeare play, they're often really surprised at how much fun it is and how much they understand."
Apparently attitudes towards Shakespeare productions are more relaxed than is the case with opera. The director explains: "You can now go to a pub theatre and see Shakespeare with just two people and a dog. You can see the Reduced Shakespeare Company, or a full-blown RSC production, and it can be set in any time, but no-one says: 'it's outrageous. How dare they do that to Shakespeare?’
"Well, that attitude now needs to be applied to opera. I think people can be a bit precious. People are still very shocked when operas are rewritten, reduced or reinterpreted." She claims identifying OperaUpClose's version of La Traviata, performed with five singers together with a three-piece orchestra.
Robin cites her raison d'etre as "wanting everyone to feel like, even if they thought they didn't like opera, that perhaps after seeing Music Oft Hath Such A Charm they might be tempted to go again – because not all opera is the same.
"A Mozart comedy is different to a Puccini tragedy, and likewise, if someone you knew went to the cinema to watch a film they didn't like, you wouldn't say they didn't like cinema, period, you'd say they didn't like that particular movie."
Discussing the type of show she is directing, Robin admits the group is in relatively uncharted waters. "It is a new style of show for us in that it's a patchwork of ideas that didn't originally go hand-in-hand, but that as a whole has a value all to itself.” Although she is aware that the use of the word 'journey' in relation to theatrical productions can sound pretentious, she doesn't flinch from admitting that this is precisely what she wants to do.
"I don't think it will be as simplistic as a load of tragic scenes followed by happy ones," she says. "But it's all about finding connections and I think that's why Shakespeare is so interesting.
"You have plays that are obviously tragedies and other plays that mirror them as comedies – for instance, the story of Othello is a tragic version of Much Ado About Nothing".
The sheer seat-of-the-pants cheek of the production suggests a looser narrative than one might ordinarily expect; maybe even a touch of improvisation. But Robin denies this.
"It's much harder to improvise because the music carries on," she says. "If someone fails to come on stage on cue, you can in a standard play make something up to cover it, but in an opera it's more complicated.
"In extreme situations the musical director might get the musicians to repeat four bars because they're good enough musicians and can do it in such a way that unless you knew the opera really well, you wouldn't know.
"But that improvisatory quality that you get in theatre happens less in opera because you've got that structure the music gives you."
15th April | 7.30pm
OperaUpClose presents Music Oft Hath Such A Charm
The North Wall Arts Centre, South Parade, Oxford, OX2 7JN
£22, £18 concs
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