Contemporary take on opera is taken to
the extreme

PUBLISHED: 12:32 16 August 2011

cosi fan tutte

cosi fan tutte

Archant

»The world these days is full of pint-sized opera companies - but not many advertise themselves with photographs of Plácido Domingo in their brochures.

Sadly, it has to be said that Domingo doesn’t actually appear in Oyster Opera’s shows so you won’t catch him in their new Così Fan Tutte playing next week at Jacksons Lane arts centre in Highgate. But the company can claim that he’s sung with them – after a fashion.

“When we’re not doing stage shows,” explains Oyster’s founding director Fiona Oliver-Smith, “we do commercial bookings for things like private parties, corporate events and we were flown out to Qatar to sing at a dinner for Domingo.”

It doesn’t sound like the most comfortable of jobs, performing standard opera to the leading living opera star who’s done it all himself and at the highest level. But, as Oliver-Smith says, “he was very gracious.” So gracious, in fact, that he stood up and joined in, hence the photo-opportunity.

But Oyster’s bookings take them into even stranger territory. There was an Irish billionare who wanted a private performance of Don Giovanni with plugs for his company’s products and Donna Anna making her entrance on a quad bike. And it’s not uncommon for the person paying the bill to ask for a cameo role.

Blood-soaked dress

“We do what people ask us,” says Oliver-Smith, “although we do try to talk them out of things that won’t work – like entertaining a celebration dinner party with the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor, blood-soaked wedding dress and all.

“I said it was wonderful that they wanted to mark the occasion with opera – but maybe Lucia wasn’t the best choice.”

Besides the dinner parties and the quad bikes, Oyster does street opera, which, as Oliver-Smith admits, can be confrontational.

“I was spat at once, dressed as a snow queen in Woolwich town centre – but that was an extreme reaction. More often people are just surprised by the volume of sound we make. They look for the mics and are amazed we don’t have any.”

All this extra-mural work helps underwrite the costs of Oyster’s stage projects like the Così coming up in Highgate and, as Oliver-Smith insists, it’s good training for across-the-footlights communication. “I tend to use the same singers across the whole range of Oyster’s work because the experience of doing the street theatre or the corporate events is so powerful. You really learn to handle an audience, to be more responsive and immediate and it makes a difference.”

For the Highgate Così, difference is the word.

“We’re a test case,” says Oliver-Smith. “Jacksons Lane haven’t staged any opera before and they specifically wanted something that would be contemporary, accessible and appeal to a younger audience. So we’ve made some adaptations.”

With a new singing translation into English by the stage director Fraser Grant, the false-identity plot has been tweaked to turn around internet dating and there’s a starring role for an onstage Jacuzzi somewhere in the narrative. It sounds extravagant but, as he says, “we save on costumes”.

For a final twist, it plays with multiple choice endings: happy and sad. “We do them both,” says Grant, “and let the audience decide which they prefer.”

Democracy arrives in opera. How contemporary can you get?

n Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte plays at Jacksons Lane in Archway Road, Highgate, on August 19, 23, 26 at 8pm and August 21 at 3pm. Booking on 020-8341 4421.

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