Opera Down The Pub – Review: Kings Head Theatre – La Bohème

Every night until 8th October something fantastic is happening in the small theatre at the back of The Kings Head pub in Islington – Puccini’s La Bohème is being performed by a talented and switched-on cast who are bringing this enormous work to a new kind of audience on a totally new set of terms.

The intimacy of the Kings Head Theatre itself gives this production its particular intrigue, and indeed it has been developed and adapted by a resident creative team in conversation with the space. The libretto[1] has been radically but brilliantly reworked, stripping the cast back to the four key characters, Mimi and Ralph (i.e. Rodolfo in the original) and Mark (Marcello) and Musetta. This sharpens the focus on the ups and downs of these two toxic and intense relationships, involving the audience in their joys and conflicts with almost uncomfortable immediacy – for some gentlemen on the front row, quite literally!

The adapted storyline translates Puccini’s consumptive and delicate Mimi into a heroin addict whose initially casual habits lead to the fracturing of an otherwise loving relationship with Ralph and her dramatic and desperately undignified demise. This is the most central and focused of several comments on contemporary social issues, alongside pointed references to city pollution, London’s spiralling rents and ambivalent uses of social media. Usually such alterations personally make me squirm, but this version by King’s Head Artistic Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher and Becca Marriott, who plays Mimi in one of the two casts, makes for creasingly funny moments throughout the first half. In addition to the surface humour, which does occasionally border on the excessively silly, there are some excellent inward-facing tongue-in-cheek moments for those who know the original and the musical style of Puccini himself. The second half, which abandons the punning and swearing to go for the meat of the tragic storyline, is especially powerful.

The quality of the singing and musicianship is at the highest standard. Becca Marriott (Mimi) and Thomas Humphreys (Mark) particularly shone vocally – I’ll be watching their futures with interest. Meanwhile Matthew Kimble’s presentation of Ralph’s first act aria, equivalent to the iconic Che Gelida Manina (What cold hands!) was a moving emotional highlight. Although the diction is clear from all the cast members throughout I recommend purchasing a £3 programme to assist following the moments where, in duets and trios, characters sing simultaneously with different texts. I would advise, however, trying not to read ahead from what is being sung – I find it takes the edge of the humour or poignancy if you know what’s coming.

To be so physically close to music at this level is thrilling in itself[2]. At this range the soaring voices literally resound through your body and listening becomes a more entire experience. Every minute detail of the actors’ faces is clear to everybody. The reduction of the La Bohème score to piano and cello was effective and didn’t feel lacking in the context of this production.

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The King’s Head Theatre production of La Bohème is an excellent introduction to opera for those who have yet to experience it, and an exciting development in the shape and character of the craft. Madame Butterfly is coming up in the new year and previous productions at this location including Pagliacci, The Barber of Seville and The Elixir of Love, staged during the residency of the company OperaUpClose. The theatre at Kings Head is reliant on making £100 000 in addition to ticket sales annually, so if you would like the opportunity to go see a production in this style don’t dither about buying a ticket. At a running time of 1h 55min including interval this production is a perfect evening out, even on a weeknight. La Bohème at The King’s Head will challenge your perceptions of what Opera can and should be, whilst keeping you feeling alive through the strong presentation of Puccini’s masterful music.

 

[1] Text of the Opera, the ‘lyrics’ if you will.

[2] The proximity reminded me of the exhilarating experience of Multi-Story Orchestra in Peckham, where you’re so close to the orchestra at the front that the Violin bows poking your eyes out is a genuine risk. Do explore this exceptional project and annual music festival for similar experiences to the ones described at The Kings Head.

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A Note on the Last Night of the Proms 2016

 

Two years ago I wrote an article about the disjuncture between the iconic Last Night of the Proms and the fantastic series of concerts that precedes it. By sheer chance ( a friend asking about returns an hour after some new seats had been released ) I got hold of tickets for the Last Night of the Proms this year, and attended relishing the chance to test my points from 2014.

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In my original article I made two broad points. Firstly that The Last Night of the Proms was so unlike the rest of the Proms series in terms of content, [in]accessibility and structure that ‘The Last Night’ is as good as a misnomer. Secondly I expressed discomfort at the unquestioned, militaristic nationalism, which was part and parcel of Empire and British Colonial endeavours in the time it was first put together.

Both of these points are of serious contemporary importance, both musically and politically. Inequality in the UK has been accelerating sharply since 1979 and economic recessions in recent years have exacerbated this effect[1]. Accessibility to cultural events and life-enriching opportunities is increasingly out of the reach of many, and tickets to the Last Night of the Proms are incredibly expensive. Our tickets were only £44, as they were returns with restricted view – however nearby seats were being sold at online on the day for over £700 each, and all other concert-goers my Prom buddy and I spoke to on the evening had paid well into the three-figure range for their tickets direct from the Royal Albert Hall. I therefore stand by the financial aspect of my point about inaccessibility – despite our fluke, the Last Night of the Proms is not open to the vast majority of people unless they have significant disposable income or are willing and able to Prom for the whole day[2].

The balance of new, British, straight-laced classical and world music was well tempered, with the opening piece well-pitched as an example of new music. It both pushed the boundaries of music today but remained within accessible bounds for non-academic music lovers, which reinforced the Proms’ encouragement of exploration of new music.

Most important was the atmosphere, although having a reputation for ‘upper-middle class tomfoolery’ that could be alienating for some, was on this occasion genuinely light-hearted and warm. I feel that there is an excessive sense of seriousness surrounding Western Classical music, and that contributes to many people’s sense that it is something ‘not for them’. Although it is important to be able to hear the music and not be excessively, unnecessarily disturbed, the Last Night had the atmosphere of a party that is lacking at other concerts, even at other Proms. Perhaps the other concerts in the series would benefit from short addresses from the conductor or other performers to increase the sense of connection between stage and audience and better introduce the work performed? Indeed some classical concerts do take this form, and many performers find the opportunity to address and welcome their audience an essential part of bringing them into their musical world. The sense of being relaxed around classical music is key to its future and central to the continuing development of cultural accessibility.

The nationalistic, neo-colonial tone of the second half received even more attention than ever before in this year of the EU Referendum. The dissemination of EU flags outside the event was seen as a controversial protest, and many feared clashes between In and Out factions. However as a musician I never doubted that the flags of the EU and Britain would be united at this event. It is a simple fact that all world-leading musical ensembles are international affairs –there must be so few exceptions I cannot even bring one to mind. Music has always been a thoroughly international endeavour as far back as the naturalisation of Handel in England and the exchange of composers between courts in the European Renaissance. Therefore even the musical traditions that inform nationalist works are not isolated. At a very banal level, Arne would never have been able to record Rule! Brittania without the use of the Italian notation system and the European advances in Baroque music that were ongoing at the time he was writing it.

I personally felt extremely uncomfortable during Rule! Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory, for the first time ever. I am aware that I am more actively politically involved than most people, but I used to really love and feel pride in those numbers at an earlier time in my life. In the context of pressing current affairs and social attitudes, it felt a little excessive to me. However most people enjoyed it thoroughly, and the diversity of flags waving dissipated any sense that this was necessarily a narrow-focused point being made. Conductor Sakari Oramo is to be congratulated on the gentle and uncontroversial tone in which he spoke of music’s inherent border-crossing universality.

A colleague of mine reflected that although the Nationalistic music at the end of the Last Night has deeply entrenched colonial connotations, unless we continue to perform and consider them new connotations and links will never be made with them. This thought gives me great hope. Music is, after all, the ultimate abstract representation. Interpretation of the performer and of every listener is all its essence. We can choose how and when to deploy certain pieces and work to loose them from past contexts, and make them into something meaningful for the new. However, I struggled for days to see how the words from Land of Hope and Glory (‘May her [Britain’s] bounds be wider set) could ever be entirely disentangled from the expansionist colonial programme to which they referred. Later I realised that ironically, if we take the words in today’s internationalist context, Land of Hope and Glory may after all be one of the strongest Remain sentiments expressible. If we can use the words to look beyond our shores, the words and music may be recast as a Liberal call for regional or global unity in “equal laws… by Freedom gained, by Truth maintained.”

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[1] Source: https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/how-has-inequality-changed

[2] In addition to gain access to the Last Night of the Proms concert-goers must present stubs of tickets from 5 earlier concerts in the series. Therefore queueing on the day for tickets (Promming) is effectively only open to Londoners or people who can afford to both attend Proms concerts and travel significant distances to do so.