Everyone's been reviewing the new Madam Butterfly set in Bangkok where Cio-Cio San is a ladyboy. I won't, because reviews are irrelevant. Much more interesting is the very phenomenom of small scale pub opera. OperaUpClose is part of the completely alternative scene where conventional opera values don't count. So instead of churning out yet another "review", I'll ponder what this means.
Pub theatre has been happening forever - even before Brecht (who himself was reviving an old Munich genre). Like pub music, it's direct and unadorned. Usually it's pretty awful, but there's nothing like a bored, drunk audience for a reality check. Cliques exist, but not crowds of fawning luvvies massaging each other's egos and eyeing an MBE.
What pub opera means is that people who love opera - and the making of opera - have a chance to get out there and do what they love. Performers need to perform like fish need water and birds need air. It's not so much how "good" they are but how their enthusiasm communicates. The very act of performance helps performers grow and learn. Most of the people involved in OperaUpClose have to juggle their lives round so they can take part. But they do it because they care. That kind of committment I respect.
What OperaUpClose offers is a much grittier, experimental experience. Puccini's been adapted with a new, minimal orchestration (Danyal Dhondy) for piano, viola and oboe. No room for luscious wallowing, but what's left counts. The viola screams tension as Butterfly begins to realize she's been dumped. One player (Dhondy himself) but he has to be effective, and is. The melodies are less prominent, but this is hardly a drama about feelgood harmony.
The back room at The King's Head, Islington, sits less than 100, and the new text is in English. Diction wasn't a problem, but there were many in the audience following the libretto in the programme. Another thing about small scale opera. It reaches audiences who know nothing about opera at all. Personally I'd prefer a synopsis rather than libretto, so people listen and engage to the basic drama. The rest will follow.
Because pub opera is so low budget, the mind is concentrated on essentials. Instead, think things through from scratch. What's the opera about? How does it work, dramatically and musically? How can we use what resources we have in the best way?
Puccini's idea that geisha were bought like furnishings was more fantasy than reality. The Bangkok sex trade is only too real and destructive. Adam Spreadbury-Maher and his team of designers and producers have thought about the dynamics of exploitation. The transvestite angle is good. Making Butterfly a man emphasizes the delusional aspects of her personality. Even Puccini acknowledged that Butterfly was an obsessive who though the world should go her way. Ladyboys don't get that way by accident. This one (Laura Casey, Margaret Cooper, Mariya Krywaniuk) has a "history". Pinkerton's just the last straw. The idea fails, though, to make much sense of the rationale for the adoption, on which the denouement pivots. OTOH, Puccini wasn't realistic either - no way would an American couple bring back a non-white child in 1904. Not fair on the kid, either. A male Butterfly also makes Pinkerton (Stephen Anthony Brown, Mario Sofronio, Randy Nichol) even creepier. What does he really want the child for? Making him a pilot's a mistake - pilots don't stay away long and would get fired if their employers found out. Is London ready for Gary Glitter as Pinkerton? That would really be shocking, but apt.
Even if you pay £300 at the Royal Opera House, you might not get perfection. In any case, what you get connects to what you put in yourself. Notice how many people are involved. Three sets of primaries, lots of understudies as cover. Everyone chips in, multitasking. It's a co-operative learning process. Some of the singers had to learn a new skill - puppetry! This puppet's much simpler than Complicite's dog in A Dog's Heart but his hands are real hands. The singers aren't singing, but they're acting with their hands. It's moving, in every sense. That's why I enjoyed OperaUpClose. It's a continuing process of learning and developing. And that involves the audience too.
The production runs until 23 January.