Barnstormer: Popup opera comes to Ditchling


Is this a still from the latest hollywood action thriller? Well, no. Actually we (that's my bum in a walk-on role) are the cast and crew of an entire opera house. Perhaps the smallest touring opera in the world… 


After three weeks working on the music and creating the drama in rehearsals with our musical and artistic directors, we pile into the van and set off to the four corners of England, and sometimes further afield, bringing opera to unusual venues. 


There's almost always no set at all (what could we fit in that minibus anyway?) and the music is provided by an electric piano, or sometimes an acoustic piano if the one at the venue's in good shape. And there are voices. Everyone in the cast is of course professionally trained and many have sung on the biggest stages around the world. 


But what makes this kind of opera special – and surprising for many who come to see us – is how involved we make the audience feel. You won't need your opera glasses, darling. We make sure that many find themselves in the middle of the action as we often perform in the aisles almost as much as on the whatever stage there is at a particular venue (and there often is no stage at all). Farms, tunnels, pubs, churches, schools and occasionally, theatres! As I write this, I'm looking forward to our sold-out show at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester and then in a couple of weeks we're back in Sussex for a return show at our of our favourite venues, Court Gardens Farm in Ditchling, East Sussex. The owners always treat to scrumptious home-made dinner (with a drop of their own wine, ahem) before the guests arrive and the audience is always up for into the comedy of the piece, well, after we get them going (and they've had more wine than us). 


That's part of the fun of doing Pop-Up Opera, it's the people you meet, those who run the venue and help us put on the best show we can, the audience (who we usually meet after the show and certainly meet during it) and of course, the rest of the cast. The minibus is always fun and then when we're doing a tour of a few days away, there's all the banter and the drinks after the show and the gossiping and bitching. It's just like any other office really. Although I suppose singers are a little larger than life – do you want to see a shy type on stage in front of you? 


That's the other great thing about Pop-Up Opera, you're so close to the audience that all sorts of opportunities for new fun or drama arise. They can see your eyes and any tiny expression can be read, so you can share so much more. And you can include them in relevant bits of the opera, whether it's looking for a high five when the lovers get together, or borrowing someone's phone to take a photo of the wedding. We're never there to humiliate anyone of course, that's our role…


And finally there are the surtitles. We sing in Italian and so have surtitles on a projector to let you know what's happening if you're not fluent, but they are not exact translations. Some of the biggest laughs come when the knowing explanation comes up on the screen behind to explain whatever craziness has just happened. I think it gives people the best of both worlds as they get the story in the language the composer scored it for but with the translation that allows them into the world of the time and helps explain some of the subtleties which a straight translation might not.


The Barber of Seville is one of the most famous operas in the world for a reason. When Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse include Figaro's opening aria in a sketch, you know it's public property. There's so much fun to be had with the music and the story is so crazy and almost pantomime-like that it's not long before the audience are belly-laughing away and completely forgetting their at that stuffy thing called opera. I think it must be what going to see it in Italy in the 19th century must have been like. 


Right, I'd better pack my brill-cream and run for the bus!


Popup Opera returns to Court Farm Gardens on 28 May with Il Matrimonio Segreto (The Secret Marriage);



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