Opera on a budget

by Chris Bertram on October 29, 2003

I went to see “The Opera Project’s”:http://www.nowt2do.co.uk/TPreview_TobAut_Cosi.htm production of Cosi Fan Tutte last night at Bristol’s “Tobacco Factory”:http://www.tobaccofactory.com/theatre.htm . I wasn’t sure quite what to expect, since my previous experience of the venue had been for the excellent “Shakespeare”:http://www.shakespeareatthetobaccofactory.co.uk/ productions there, rather than for anything musical. The theatre is very small and the audience entirely surrounds the “stage”. Anyway, it worked marvellously. Musically, of course, it wasn’t going to be on a par with Covent Garden or the Met since only a very small orchestra could possibly fit in the space. But dramatically it was tremendous with the players in very immediate contact with the audience. The singing was pretty good, but Richard Studer’s very colloquial English translation of the libretto — “You’re winding me up!” etc — and the unfussiness of the production made for a very engaging evening.

Cosi probably isn’t my favourite of the Mozart operas. But it tells us something about the greatness of Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s artistry that they produced something that can succeed in performance in so many different ways and in different productions. Given the right orchestra you could just close your eyes and enjoy the richness of the music, a lavish production from a great opera company can work as a spectacle, and a small-scale budget performance can work as an Oscar Wilde-style comedy.

Given that diversity of possibilities with just one work (and, of course, they aren’t mutually exclusive possibilities) it puzzles me when people say that don’t like opera. (And add to the variations on one work, the different musical styles available!) I can spend an evening amused and engaged by a performance like the one I saw at the Tobacco Factory, or I can put on a CD of Maria Callas or Renata Tebaldi and have the whole world magically become calm and still.

Incidentally, the “Tobacco Factory”:http://www.tobaccofactory.com/intro.htm is a development by “George Ferguson”:http://www.riba.org/go/RIBA/News/Press_37.html , one of Bristol’s leading architects and the current president of “RIBA”:http://www.riba.org/ . He’s a real visionary (and a leading British exponent of new urbanism). The theatre he’s designed there runs at a slight loss, I understand, but it adds value to the whole complex which in turn helps to enliven what was a fairly run-down part of the city.



Sumana 10.29.03 at 7:06 pm

I don’t dislike opera. I just don’t have the education to understand what makes it enthralling. I’d say that’s why a substantial number don’t care for it – it intimidates us.


teep 10.29.03 at 8:27 pm

It doesn’t take tons of education to enjoy the opera. Take a stab at it. It’s less intimidating than you might think. I have been having fun with the opera (season ticket holder, even) for some time now, and even have web pages about same:



Chris Bertram 10.30.03 at 7:42 am

I very much endorse Teep’s comment. As well as being very diverse, it is worth remembering that there was a time and a place when opera and popular culture overlapped. I’m thinking especially of Italy at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. A figure like Caruso wasn’t (only) adored by educated people, and Adelina Patti was the Diana Ross of her day.

Having said that, I think what most opera-haters think of when they hate it is either Italianate opera with an absurd plot and consumptive soprano or Brunnhilde in viking helmet. In which case, I’d recommend something like Strauss’s Elektra as an antidote.


wolfangel 11.04.03 at 3:31 am

I’ve enjoyed some opera I’ve heard and not others. My main problem is that I have no idea where to start. So I don’t.


Chris 11.04.03 at 5:03 am

Some operas I love–say, Turandot–and others I find insufferable. No different than anything else in that regard. I am a bigger fan of the male operatic voice than the female, so I find I like operas with male leads (or at least fun male arias). I do not, for whatever inarticulably snobby reason, care much at all for operas in English. This is probably related to my more or less complete distaste for musical theater; my appreciation for some lyric opera is a mystery.

I wonder if it is listening to people sing at each other in a language you don’t understand that puts people off.

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