Forge hosts Opera that bares all
The Naked Opera is metaphorical, thankfully
Having recently sat through a radical new opera that involved a man who stripped off, smeared himself with dripping mud, then ran amok in worrying proximity to everyone (myself included) in the front row...it was with warning bells in my head that I learned about something called Naked Opera playing this month at the Forge, Camden Town. Getting up-close and dirty with bare flesh in the name of art can have its drawbacks.
But the nakedness in this case turns out to be metaphorical, a stripping bare of souls rather than bodies. Singers used to hiding who they are behind the characters they play in opera will, for once, expose themselves (in a manner of speaking) and tell their own stories.
You’ll hear what it’s like to be a singer: the occasional glamour, the more usual grime, and the persistent sheer hard graft. You’ll learn of the roundabout and sometimes bizarre routes that people take into a vocal career. And in between the confessionally first-person statements, you’ll hear them sing – numbers by Mozart, Wagner, Dvorak, Verdi that illustrate what they have to say.
The show has been put together by Lynn Binstock, a long-time staff director at ENO who interviewed dozens of young (and not so young) singers by way of research, and has put their words, verbatim, into the script – to sit alongside the experiences of the singers you actually see.
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There’s an ENO tenor, Paul Hopwood, who began life teaching English at Eton, got injured in a road accident, feared he’d never walk again, but ended up singing Magic Flute on stilts.
There’s a bass-baritone, Philip Spendley, who was working in a zoo at 18, joined a bank, but then discovered Wagner. A mezzo, Ciara Hendrick, who spent years struggling to struggling soprano before she realised she was pursuing the wrong voice-type. And a soprano, Nadine Mortimer-Smith, who was brought up on reggae, left school at 16, worked her way from secretary to trader in the City, and then with extraordinary tenacity wrote herself a business plan to get into opera.
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To hear these stories is to be reminded that the tiaras-and-champagne image of opera is far from the reality, and something that has only ever applied, if at all, to what happens front-of-house among the bankers in the Covent Garden stalls.
Go backstage and you find a very different world of people from all backgrounds, mostly modest. People brought up very often in a household without music, who discovered it by accident, and then worked night and day to turn the raw talent in their throat into a technically sophisticated instrument able to fill an auditorium (no microphone!) for several hours.
If nothing else, the whole thing is a quiet challenge to the assumptions of TV programmes like Pop Star to Opera Star and the pretence of alleged opera singers like Katharine Jenkins (who has never sung an opera in her life, and couldn’t if she tried) that so distort the truth of what it is to sing this kind of repertory.
It’s punishing, it’s tough, it asks for the determination, stamina and muscular athleticism of Olympic athletes. But it’s also an addiction. If you have to sing, you sing - and make the sacrifices willingly.
That’s more or less the message of this show which, as the posters promise, lays the lives of opera singers bare.
It’s at the Forge, Delancey Street, N1, October 8-9, 8pm. Full details and booking at Forgevenue.org/whats-on.