Our Singers Need The Whole Package: Interview with Robin Norton-Hale

First on the FringeOpera couch: Robin Norton-Hale. A director, translator and producer, Robin is the artistic director of OperaUpClose, forming part of the creative trio who founded the production company back in 2009. They have since made pub opera their trademark. Warbling their way through the operatic repertoire, Robin and her team write their own spruced-up English librettos, set works in new contexts, and bring opera to life in an exciting, pub atmosphere. And if you want to take a pint into the show with you, that’s fine!

IF

Am I right in thinking that OperaUpClose is targeting a new generation of opera goers?

We always have an intention and a commitment to keeping prices down so that people who are put off by the traditional prices of going to see an opera will come. And there is an intention to remove some of the barriers that might put people off coming to opera. But that’s not why we exist. That’s part of the way we operate, but what we wanted to do was opera in a different kind of space, and if in doing so we bring opera to a new audience, then that’s great.

Is it important to you that existing opera fans come to see your productions as well?

Absolutely. I think within the press we were initially seen as sticking a finger up at the opera establishment. There’s an assumption that people who are really into opera and love going to the opera house would not like our show. But it’s simply a different experience; you can’t judge an OperaUpClose show on the same criteria. It’s not necessarily about competition with the established houses – a lot of our audiences go to both.

Why do you think that some people, especially younger generations, often don’t consider going to see an opera?

I think partly it’s the media’s fault, which is often lazy in its depiction of opera. I think there’s a lot of reinforcing of stereotypes (like ‘opera = fat woman in a horned helmet’), which puts people off. There’s also a bit of snobbery in the theatre world that opera singers can’t act, still, which in general is completely untrue these days. Here, all our casting is at least half based on whether they can act, because they really need to be able to when they’re a metre away from the audience. They need the whole package!

Do you think it’s also a question of language? Is that why you stage your productions in English?

Partly, yes. One of the reasons we do it in English is a practical thing. I think it would be deeply pretentious of us, given the size of theatre, to stage it in Italian. It would really ruin the illusion if you had a surtitle box. One of the things I think really worked with La Bohème is that the setting could have been an actual bedsit, you know, it had a bay window and everything. And people said after the first 10 minutes that they actually forgot that people were singing.

A lot of opera ‘purists’ might have been a bit stirred up by your use of the electronica in Don Giovanni

It really fitted the pre-recession London world that I was looking at. In all the major opera houses, they think it’s ok to update an opera, but not to update the form of the music. The overwhelming assumption when people heard that we were using an electronica was that we were doing it deliberately to try and be cool, which was the thing I was really afraid of because I didn’t want it to look like a gimmick. There shouldn’t be a massive divide between popular music and ‘art’ music.

Does the venue play a large part in your success?

Definitely. I think the very architecture of a venue creates a certain expectation and atmosphere. The positive side of performing in the pub is that we don’t have to explain that you can come in jeans. There are no preconceptions.

Why up close?

It’s exciting in our context because you can even see the direction someone’s eyes move. It’s challenging, as well, because a lot of opera is actually quite big in terms of emotions and storylines – the cliché of it being over the top does come from somewhere. I think what we can sometimes show that maybe the operas were better dramatically than people thought. This is often hidden behind spectacle. Sometimes by something standing up to scrutiny, you can say ‘hang on, the composer really knew what they were doing, they wrote a really good piece of drama’.

Do you think OperaUpClose has contributed to the way people will view opera in the future?

There was no intention of creating a new movement, or ‘changing the face of opera’, or anything as arrogant as that. We just wanted to do La Bohème in a pub. And if it was successful, maybe we’d do another one in the following year. But it was just so crazily successful that we kept going!

OperaUpClose’s next production – their own interpretation of Verdi’s ‘A Masked Ball’ – will begin at the King’s Head on 17th April.