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Sunday, July 3, 2022

In conversation with the Oxford Opera Society

Clementine Scott speaks with an exciting new student opera venture.

Of all art forms, opera is the one that can perhaps feel the most overwhelming to the uninitiated — there are the venues in every major city that make you feel as though you’ve stepped back into the 1800s, the convoluted tales sung in a foreign language, and, above all, those eye-watering ticket prices. Enter Opera Scenes In Concert, a performance somewhere between a concert and an acting showcase, featuring composers from Handel and Monteverdi to Rimsky-Korsakov and Offenbach, as well as nearly every major operatic titan in between. 

‘We have so many different periods, genres, and national traditions. A beginner gets to dip into all these different types of opera’, says Laura Butcher, one of the production’s co-directors and a French & Italian student at Merton (indeed, she credits her love of the latter language to opera — ‘[Mozart’s 1787 opera] Don Giovanni has one of the most funny, witty, librettos, to do it justice you need to immerse yourself in the Italian’). 

Those who aren’t so familiar with the plots of the major operas, or who wish to immerse themselves in the romance, revenge and occasional comedy so characteristic of the genre, needn’t worry that Opera Scenes isn’t staging a full production. The performance will not consist of disparate scene selections with nothing in common with one another, but of scenes united around the theme of ‘Chiaroscuro’ — just as that artistic technique revolves around contrasting light and dark, so too do the scenes oscillate between tragedy and light entertainment. 

Cast member and Master’s student Zhaoyi Yan tells an amusing anecdote about the rapid switch in acting and vocal technique between playing the daughter of a dying father in Don Giovanni to a Parisian courtesan in Lehar’s The Merry Widow., but Butcher interestingly highlights how both scenes are concerned with, although in highly different ways, sexual attraction. Furthermore, co-director Deborah Acheampong, a fresher at Worcester reading Theology, adds that since the running order of the scenes takes us from a very dark opening scene (from Marschner’s Der Vampyr) to a much lighter closing one (from Mozart’s The Magic Flute), the show as a whole comes to be about ‘the perseverance of human bonds’.  She adds, ‘it’s hopeful in that way, and shows there’s a light at the end of the tunnel’. 

Another consequence of choosing to stage opera in this format is a production that is much more accessible to singers auditioning for it. Butcher explains that ‘in a full production, not as many singers would get to perform, and because the singers were cast before the scenes were chosen, the scenes could be picked based on their strengths and types of voices’. Yan had prior experience singing operatic arias in a concert setting, but feels thrilled by the learning experience of acting in a dramatic scene, telling Cherwell that ‘it’s been a big leap, with the intimate interactions in the Don Giovanni scene we started off so shy, but gradually developed trust with one another.’.

Opera Scenes is providing an exciting step into unknown waters for crew as well as cast. Butcher has previously worked as an opera director’s assistant, but that involved ‘putting the director’s vision in place, so this is the first time I’m directing my own vision’. Acheampong, moreover, has come upon directing opera almost by chance (‘I’m from a state school background, so I got into opera drip by drip through Spotify, and then I saw The Magic Flute and Tosca and thought “these kinda slap”’). Most of her prior experience is in writing plays, monologues and screenplay, while occasionally playing cello and singing (‘several different interests of mine were coalescing, so I thought, why not pursue this?’). Acheampong’s multifaceted interests have led her to a varied approach to directing; while the pastoral Acis and Galatea ‘is less theatrical, more about them just appreciating their environment’, she was able to pay attention to dialogue and play with inserting comedy when it came to the conspiracy of the sorcerers in Dido and Aeneas (‘the queen sorcerer and her lackeys are trying to one up each other’).

Of course, opera’s issues with accessibility go far deeper than Oxford, and Butcher, Acheampong, and Yan all speak insightfully on this.‘With opera there’s a perception of cultural capital. It’s an association with the upper class – if you don’t belong in that class then you won’t belong there,’ says Acheampong. ‘But there’s also a more fundamental issue with material funds, paying for seats and singing lessons. If you’re trying to get into opera and you’re going up against people who’ve had money and trained from the age of five, there’s always going to be a disparity.’. Butcher and Yan, who hail from Germany and China respectively, speak eloquently of the financial status of the opera industries in their home countries; the more generous German state funding of opera has made Butcher acutely aware that in the UK and US, ‘opera is a business that’s bound to make losses, it’s not well subsidised so needs to be run for profit, even though with streaming more people are watching than ever before.’. 

Still, the Opera Scenes team as a whole radiates hope, that there are new ways of presenting old material and new ways of making opera accessible to all. As Yan tells us, ‘we’re just trying to say that “this is fun”, you can enjoy this no matter who you are, for half an hour you can come and have a peaceful, or an exciting, time.’.

Image Credit: Giusi Borrasi//Unsplash

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