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London pub gives opera a new look

A new English translation of Rossini's comic opera opened this week in an unlikely venue -- the back room of a north London pub, which has become the British capital's first new opera house in more than 40 years.

entertainment Updated: Oct 12, 2010 13:08 IST

"Figaro, Figaro, Figaro!" sang the baritone in the opening scene of 'The Barber of Seville', as the 120-strong audience looked on rapt, sipping their beers.

A new English translation of Rossini's comic opera opened this week in an unlikely venue -- the back room of a north London pub, which has become the British capital's first new opera house in more than 40 years.

It is at the vanguard of a drive to make opera more accessible to those who think it is stuffy and only for the rich, by staging shows in intimate venues for a fraction of the price charged in the palatial theatres of Covent Garden.

"Opera still has a serious image problem," said Robin Norton-Hale, director of the Barber, which is showing at the King's Head Theatre in north London for 15 pounds (17 euros, 24 dollars) a ticket.

"The reason we want operas in these kind of venues is so that people can experience opera in a completely different way."

Her version of Rossini's masterpiece is certainly different. She has translated it into modern English, slimmed it down to two hours, relocated it to the city of Salisbury and added a healthy dose of slapstick humour.

But the new opera house has some well-established patrons, including one of the world's leading directors, Jonathan Miller, and there is no compromising on the performers, who are all professionals.

The owners of the 19th century King's Head set up a theatre in its back room in 1970, where stars such as actor Hugh Grant and playwright Tom Stoppard cut their teeth, but it has now been transformed into a full-time opera and musical theatre venue.

The first show under the new 'Little Opera House' is a tale of a young woman and her lover, a wealthy aristocrat who enlists the help of the barber of Seville (or Salisbury) to outwit her overbearing guardian and win her hand.

When the six-person cast breaks into song, the sound roars through the packed little room, but when they want to whisper, they can still be heard -- giving the rapt audience a unique experience.

"It's an extraordinary thing to be that close to an opera singer, to a tenor or a soprano that's really going for it, to really see the magic of the human voice," said Adam Spreadbury-Maher, artistic director of the theatre.

The small venue also gives young singers an invaluable chance to develop.

"Opportunities in London are very rare," said cast member John Savournin, who trained at Trinity College of Music in London. He enthused about the intimacy of the performance, saying: "It's a way of keeping opera alive."

Judith Mitchell, who came to the first night with her husband Tim despite not being a big opera fan, agreed, saying: "You almost feel part of it."

The contrast with the Royal Opera House, Britain's premier opera venue located just a few miles away in Covent Garden, could not be more stark.

There, more than 2,000 people a night pay up to 388 pounds (616 dollars, 443 euros) for a ticket to see some of the world's top singers and musicians perform in a spectacular auditorium clad in red and gold.

Where the pub singers have only an upright piano to accompany them, the opera house performers are backed by a world-class orchestra as they sing the full-length libretto in its original language -- in Rossini's case, Italian.

"We do grand opera on a grand scale," said the ROH's creative director, Deborah Bull.

But she admitted traditional opera was not to everyone's liking, and praised the new venture for allowing people "to look at the art form through a different lens". She said: "You're still looking at a great piece of work."

With this in mind, the ROH has taken pains to open its doors to the wider public, offering discounted student, family and same-day tickets, streaming its shows live on the Internet and playing them for free on big screens nationwide.

It has also commissioned musicians to write contemporary, short operas performed in its smaller theatres, with next year's clutch including works by Monty Python's Terry Jones and Stuart Copeland of The Police.

"We're working at both ends of the scale, always aware that audience behaviour is changing -- people want to discover things differently from (how) our grandparents did," Bull said.

First Published: Oct 12, 2010 13:03 IST