Opera – Not just for snobs?

The founding organisers of Opera Holloway are on a mission to sell opera as art form not just for the elite, but for everyone. Difficult and not helped by the fact that two of the founding members have job titles like musical director (Lewis Gaston) or artistic director (Chris Moon-Little), whilst the  third’s job title is in French (Laurie O’Brien – ‘Repetiteur’).

Opera Holloway is an independent organisation run  snce 2009 by students of Royal Holloway but, like this newspaper, not affilitated to either the university or the Student Union (“too much hassle” says Chris). Next month OH is staging its second full opera, Hänsel and Gretel , in the Windsor Auditorium, following on from the success of their first opera, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, staged in the same venue in June. Hansel and Gretel tells the famous Brothers Grimm tale of two young siblings who get lost in the woods, ‘rescued’ by a wicked witch and lured into her gingerbread home. The opera  is intended as the first of a season of fairy tale operas, continuing with Massenet’s Cinderella in June 2012.

Chris translated the libretto (that’s posh for “the words”) into English himself, as “it’s important for new opera goers to understand what’s going on.” In fact, Chris explained that ‘translation’ is not entirely accurate, as he updates the libretto to make it more contemporary – so in Figaro one singer sang a line about burning her bra, not in the original Beaumarchais play, I fancy. Nor do I think it likely that Beaumarchais featured references to Austin Powers or Rambo, as Chris did. In any case, it was a sucessful strategy, one critic saying that the libretto “would make Da Ponte chuckle in his grave”  (having forgotten to ask Chris and Lewis, I had to look that up – Lorenzo Da Ponte  wrote the original librettos to most of Mozart’s operas).

OH are doing a pretty decent job of making opera more accessible.  As well as the updating and translating librettos, OH also have other tricks for improving accessibility – ticket prices are a fraction of what you would normally expect to pay for what is reckoned to be very professional staging; giving and performing at concert recitals; and leading several opera workshops at schools.

OH also offer opportunities for performers. Opera singers usually do not start performing until they are in their thirties, so one of the aims of OH is to work with inexperienced singers and train them to be able to perform full operas at a much earlier age. This also has the advantage of younger singers being able to play characters that are much closer to their own ages than is usual for opera. OK, so the singers playing Hänsel and Gretel (Elspeth Marrow and Hilary Cronin) are still going to be a little old for their parts but the gap wil be less than in previous productions of this piece. Moreover, schoolchildren, from the Marist School in Ascot (a suspiciously posh public school sounding name, but in fact a Catholic girls school), will form part of the cast of this production, in the chorus.

In June, OH was awarded the Waitrose Music Matters grant and hopes to set up an after school club with the funds. Earlier in the year, Sir Alec Reed awarded OH the top prize in the RHUL Entrepreneurs Competition, enabling Opera Holloway to establish itself as a sustainable business enterprise.

Having previously raised around £2000 for the charity Brainwave, OH decided to target their fundraising activities elsewhere with Hänsel and Gretel. Performances will be raising money for international charity Save the Children, with the performance on Saturday 10 December being a dedicated charity gala.

Oh, and the ‘Repetiteur’   is the person who coaches singers and plays the piano during rehearsals.

Opera Holloway are staging Hänsel and Gretel by Englebert Humperdinck (not the 60s pop singer, but the 19th century opera composer!), and libretto by Chris Moon-Little, in the Windsor Auditorium at 7.30pm on Friday 9 and Saturday 10 December. The opera is directed by Chris and musically directed by Lewis Gaston. Tickets are free for Royal Holloway students on the door. For others, ticket prices are £13 (adults), £9 (concessions) and £5 (children) available from OperaHolloway –email: operaholloway@gmail.com,  or phone 07792 240698. Opera Holloway also have a website: www.operaholloway.co.uk.

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