The Lakeside café, usually buzzing with families and students, was transformed on Saturday evening into the set for the premier of a Pub Opera, written by recent alumnus student, Alex Patterson, for the University Opera Society.
Set amongst a variety of concerts within the ‘Gala Weekend’, a collaborative effort from mussoc and blowsoc, the opera directly followed on from the challenging and stimulating concert that had just taken place in the Djnogoly Theatre next door, during which the University Chamber Choir and Orchestra embarked on some rarely performed repertoire.
The audience could not have been presented with a bigger contrast. As they were shepherded into the seemingly normal lakeside café (the exception of the piano – which, by nature, does not easily lend itself to camouflage!) meals and drinks were served as the audience waited for the opera to begin. The absence of programmes, which were duly given out at the end, helped to generate an air of uncertainty and excited anticipation of what the musical menu had to offer.
As the busy café continued to fill up, the actors casually took their places behind the bar, taking over the jobs of the employees and blending into the audience without many people (except for those of us who were keeping a closer eye!) noticing the subtle change of personnel. Despite the conscious omission of a typical operatic overture, the brief conversation between Max the pianist (Ed Denham), and the ‘lakeside barmaid’ (Olivia) immediately caught the audiences’ attention, showing us straight away that this opera was not conforming to any operatic conventions.
Only lasting the best part of an hour, the opera was refreshingly modern throughout. The contemporary libretto written by Patterson and Sam Booth kept the audience laughing continuously, with modern slang and references to twitter amongst other things. Musical jokes and mockery of traditional operatic techniques were also cleverly interjected, particularly the incongruous perfect cadences placed ironically at the end of recitative sections, despite the preceding pan-tonality. Jeremy Franklin as Louis was particularly outstanding as he effortlessly brought energy into his role with exceptional timing and spot-on expression. The drunken duo, Robert and Elouise (Andrew Randall and Fiona Spencer) also generated a lot of laughter in their subplot, throwing themselves (and at some points each other – albeit accidently!) into their promiscuous and disorderly roles.
The whole café itself was used effectively in the staging, which enabled physical involvement from the audience. The first entry of the drunken chorus was particularly powerful as the chorus stumbled amongst the tables, in addition to the perfectly executed phone call apologetically answered from one of the tables by Lottie (Rosie Gawthorp), who later revealed herself to in fact be part of the plot as she broke out into recitative. (Perhaps the obnoxious nokia ring tone was a conscious decision but I could not help but feel that they had missed a perfect opportunity to further the irony by including a cheesy monotone operatic overture!) In addition to this comedy, the talent of all the singers was extremely impressive. Sian (Sophie Denton) although only appearing briefly in the final scene, demonstrated impressive vocal control in her aria whilst lead female Olivia, final year music student Laurel Neighbour, achieved a convincing and stunning performance throughout, in conjunction with womaniser Adam, played by Rob Welsby.
The off stage solo clarinet, Dean Wood, and trombone quartet effectively added to the atmosphere of the café with a brilliant blend of tone that was well balanced with, and sensitive to, the singers. Conducted from the gallery by Patterson himself, the musical accompaniment, singers and chorus worked together to create a musical and cooperative performance.
Overall the evening was a huge achievement and thoroughly enjoyable. Opsoc and Patterson together with the willing audience proved that opera can be successfully brought into the 21st century and made accessible for audiences of all ages. President and artistic director of Opsoc, Jade Whymark, hopes that the “modern twist of a flash-mob style opera demonstrates how opera can be new and exciting and should not be regarded as dull and outdated.” Opsoc will next work towards an evening of 20th century opera in March, which will continue to adopt a fresh and contemporary approach.