A couple of years ago I was invited to a dress-rehearsal of an opera made up largely of untrained performers recruited from ‘deprived’ inner-city Birmingham, and staged in a disused factory. The cynic in me feared I was in store for a worthy ‘social inclusion’ project rather than an evening of ‘real’ opera. But then I had never heard of Birmingham Opera Company or its renowned director Graham Vick.
At first sight the company’s approach to opera resembles many of the initiatives around today which claim that opera is too elitist and needs to get out of its stuffy theatres and become more ‘relevant’ to the lives of ordinary people. Birmingham Opera Company certainly likes to ‘get out’. It has never staged a production in a traditional theatre, opting instead for large disused, or unlikely urban spaces; a shopping mall, empty factories, an abandoned ice rink and even a former city centre bank. The Bullring Shopping Centre is a long way from La Scala.
A scene from Birmingham Opera Company’s production of Mozart’s King Idomeneo, staged in 2008 in a disused canal-side factory in Birmingham.
At prestigious institutions like the Royal Opera or New York’s Met, Graham Vick works with some of the world’s best musicians and singers, but in Birmingham he recruits from performance courses, choirs, and schools and colleges in inner-city neighbourhoods such as Highgate, Ladywood and Newtown. In the hands of lesser people, this might be an entirely patronising endeavour, but Birmingham Opera Company places demands, and has ambition and expectation of its performers that is rare in contemporary Britain. Its bottom line, it says, is ‘making opera speak to a broad audience’. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
The opera world is increasingly concerned with its ‘elitism’ tag and some leading figures are going out of their way to ‘reach the people’. High profile opera director Jonathan Miller is one of a number of well known faces behind a new London opera house – at the King’s Head pub in Islington. According to Miller, ‘There is a strange sort of intimacy if you can get away from the luxurious establishments we have, where people just relish being there because they are rich. There is something about the gigantic, gilded theatres that we associate with opera that is wrong’.
Over the last decade, arts institutions have become ever more embroiled in, and led by social policy issues. Galleries, theatres and museums across the country now talk the language of community, diversity and inclusion. London’s ‘Streetwise Opera’ works with homeless people, using music and performance in a therapeutic way, to help build the ‘self-esteem’ of participants. And many more established arts institutions around the country operate similar, outreach-style initiatives. For those of us who uphold the notion of ‘art for art’s sake’, it’s easy to be cynical about any arts initiative that smacks of this kind of ‘instrumentalism’, but it’s worth taking each initiative on its merits.
Since its launch in the late 1980s, Birmingham Opera Company (originally the City of Birmingham Touring Opera) has steered clear of ‘gilded theatres’ and conventional opera audiences . The company doesn’t have its own theatre, or any other building, aside from a small office in the Jewellery Quarter. Finding large empty spaces for productions is both necessary and practical, given that Birmingham is full of them. More importantly, from a creative point of view, the challenge of bringing to life a dead space with no connection to the arts or performance is something that Vick relishes.
Although they target ‘deprived’ neighbourhoods for talent, this is no patronising ‘social inclusion project’. The company’s productions are not designed to build the self-esteem of the young and underprivileged with involvement in work that is ‘relevant’ to their experience. As the Guardian noted; ‘none of the works it has staged… has seemed an obvious choice for a company that involves as many local people as possible in every production’. More often than not they stage difficult, lesser-known operas and make no excuses for the inexperience of their cast. They demand professional standards and invariably deliver highly-acclaimed productions.
There’s a self-consciously informal element to the company’s productions – no stage, no separation between audience and performers; punters are encouraged move around freely as the drama happens around them. This kind of approach has become known as ‘immersive theatre’ and is being used increasingly by theatre companies who feel they need to ‘break down’ the perceived formality of conventional productions and find ways of engaging with a wider audience. But Birmingham Opera Company don’t do this because they are worried that ordinary people are incapable of sitting quietly and attentively for three hours; but because the reaction and behaviour of the audience during the performance is an integral part of the company’s productions.
The reason an opera company consisting of so many amateurs and novices can perform to such a high level is due, in large part, to the support of professionals. Actors, choreographers and singers train and work alongside the amateur cast. Each section of the opera chorus, for example, has at least one ‘mentor’, a young professional singer looking to gain more experience themselves, who acts as a guide to the amateur chorus. And of course, the real stars of the show - the lead soloists, are respected professionals, as are most of the musicians (though some are local music students).
Exposing the inexperienced cast to the rigours and exacting standards required to stage professional opera has a transformative effect. Young school students are never indulged or patronised – they have to put their heads down and work hard and stay disciplined. Vick and his team of professional actors, singers, choreographers and stage crew push their recruits hard, and and it’s quite inspiring to see how well they respond.
For Graham Vick, it’s always a dynamic, collaborative project – he likes the challenge of working with who or what is at hand, whether that’s people of the area or an empty warehouse in Digbeth. These unpredictable factors form an integral part of the finished production. In doing this Vick will seek out and weave into his productions the best ideas from the amateurs he works with.
Ultimately, Birmingham Opera Company is granting an enormous privilege to its amateur cast. And to the audience. Despite the cast’s lack of experience, they are gifted the opportunity that so many young music students and professionals rarely get – to work with some of the best people in their field and the chance to perform in a top opera production directed by a world-famous director.
The audience, many of whom may be relatively new to opera - get to sit (or stand) centre stage and experience the full musical force of opera, engulfed by the sound of the orchestra, a full chorus, and of course, the lead soloists. It’s better than a royal box. But what have any of them done to deserve these privileges, and should such prizes not be given out on merit? Birmingham Opera Company may, like so many other arts organisations, have to jump through all kinds of ‘social inclusion’ hoops in order to obtain funding; it may even share some of those instrumentalist ideas about the arts, but at the heart of its work is the conviction that anyone develop an appreciation of great art, regardless of background or experience.
Equally, their annual productions demonstrate that the ‘just do the best you can’, low-horizons culture is holding ordinary people back, especially the young. Their message - take yourself seriously, work like a dog, raise your game, and (with a lot of professional support) you can do some genuinely impressive and rewarding work, artistic or otherwise – is one that many of our education and arts institutions have forgotten, or long-since stopped believing in.
Opera, regardless of when, where and by whom is was made, can speak to us all and enrich our lives. When parochialism, ‘relevance’ and the politics of identity encourage us look inwards and backwards, the passion of Vick and his team to involve and teach the general public about opera, and his faith in their ability to understand and appreciate it, should be applauded and encouraged.