How To Choose An Opera

In a previous life of food PR, I used to gird my loins on the last day of trading before Christmas, to take calls from clients needing moral support in the wake of discussions with their supermarket customers demanding multiple ideas for the Christmas range for the following year. Hadn’t the poor clients suffered enough sweating blood for the current year?

Thinking back to the dress rehearsal of Die Zauberflöte, St Paul’s Opera’s 2016 production, I was asked by more than one member of the cast what was in store for 2017. Well, one could read that as flattery, but maybe more a case of déjà vu, albeit in a parallel universe.

The truth is, the selection process never starts nor finishes. The ideas are constantly around. It may be a costume that inspires, or a production, a play, a discussion, or knowledge of available voices that would make the perfect ensemble, say for Cosi fan Tutte or Carmen. And, of course, you can also ask your audience what they think!

At St Paul’s Opera we are in a position of privilege – the privilege of youth. With only four years of opera productions under the belt (Giannia Schicchi / Der Schauspieldirektor, Turandot, Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte) we have a vast selection of classic operas to choose from. Ah, but that’s putting it too simplistically. And undoubtedly offering too much choice. Here’s what I mean.

We could look at the early works – Montiverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, or one of Handel’s, such as Rodelinda or Giulio Cesare – all very tempting.

Mozart, although already explored by SPO, offers many more delicious titles (and requests are plentiful). How about everyone’s favourite, Le Nozze di Figaro?

The Bel Canto repertoire is extensive and glorious – it’s hard to resist classics such as Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, or Bellini’s La Sonnambula, let alone the fun of Donizetti’s cheeky L’elisir d’amore or the florid history of Anna Bolena.

Verdi’s marvels Rigoletto and La Traviata are failsafe crowd pleasers. Puccini moves us into the Versimo opera of gutsy and heart wrenching classics like Madama Butterfly and La Boheme that not-nobody can resist.

Britten is the classic Marmite option. Beautiful but perhaps a tad too challenging – Peter Grimes or The Turn of the Screw anyone?

And how about Jonathan Dove’s Flight? Right on 21st Century classic repertoire.

And we haven’t even started on the audience favourites in the operetta repertoire – too many G & S to mention, Die Fledermaus, The Merry Widow? Aaagghh! …Stop.

“Errrrmmmm… excuse me… what about Richard Strauss… or, er, dare I mention… Wagner…?”

I. SAID. STOP!!

And so it goes. But at some point, choices must be made. So, let’s strip it back a bit. There are hundreds of wonderful operas to choose from. But nothing is ever that simple.

Let’s start with the fact that we all want to put on a production that is as something we can all be proud of. That means it has to delight the audience, challenge the singers and musicians, inspire the Musical Director (MD) and provide dramatic fodder for the director (or in our case, plural). It also means a show must put ‘bums-on-seats’, as we are, after all, a charity event and fledgling artistic business.

So, we have a vast repertoire to choose from, and some commercial considerations to take into account. But there’s even more to consider.

Whatever we choose has to appeal to aspirational singers who see a role that will look good on their CVs along the stepping stone of their career. We have been very successful in attracting emerging talent from London’s top conservatoires, and long may this continue, as it inevitably means that the level of musicianship and artistic quality benefits the overall production.

And we must not forget that the emerging talent reaches beyond the singers. Let’s ask one of our directors, Ashley Pearson, where their inspirational choice lies?

“As a young director in London, it’s rare to have the opportunity to work with a company that provides the range of choice and support that SPO has given me. I often come into a job which already has a show, a cast, a venue, a strict budget, and perhaps even a general concept. I think all directors have a ‘bucket list’ of shows they’d love to work on…”

Alright: all good stuff, and we have our ear securely tuned to these sources of opinion. However, we mustn’t forget our audience who, last year, voted with numerical as well vocal volume with sell out crowds on two nights. A completely random poll didn’t really throw up any clear winners as to 2017’s choice. However, what it did tell us very clearly was a) they thoroughly enjoyed their evening with St Paul’s Opera and b) that they would be returning for more this year.

So there it is. A clear cut directive on how to choose an opera. Yes?

No, of course not! After all, this is art!

So maybe we want to find an opera (or –etta) that isn’t quite the regular repertoire, something that perhaps the members of our audience, who are regular opera-goers, haven’t seen in a while, or something that delights and entertains many of the SPO fans who enjoy an evening of community entertainment (given the popularity of the pre-performance picnicking) as much as classic opera values.

“Hey”, we said, “…how about,” we said, “…the last time it was performed,” we said…

And there it is………Orpheus in the Underworld!

And on the basis that, when you decide your new car’s going to be a red Fiat, that’s suddenly all you see out there on the circuit. Oh well, imitation being the highest form of flattery and all that.

So, while there may be a couple of other productions of Orpheus kicking around out there this year, we can certainly guarantee that ours is going to be an evening to remember. (Are you ready to can-can?)

(Vicar: “Excuse me: I love La Boheme!”

Us: “Yes OK Debs. Maybe next year.”).


Patricia Ninian
SPO Founder, Producer and Principal Singer