Every time I go to watch an opera, I’m struck by what an astonishing thing it is. It takes all the excitement of live theatre and dials everything up a notch by using music to take us more deeply inside the minds of the characters on stage, allowing both us and the performers to stop time and dive deeply into the greatest human emotional experiences. And on top of that, not only are the performers probing deeply into the soul, they’re also doing mind-blowing things with their voices to make that happen.
It’s a tragedy that too often, this is all hidden behind the myths that have been built up around opera about it being exclusive and expensive. It’s true that it’s an eye-wateringly expensive thing to put on: as well as the usual theatrical production costs of staging, costumes, and scenery, you also need a cast and orchestra of highly trained musicians, along with musical support staff such as language coaches, rehearsal pianists, and vocal coaches. But somehow, by some miracle, we the audience don’t have to bear anything like the full costs of production: if you can afford tickets to the theatre, to football, to ballet, to musicals or to live pop shows then opera tickets will be within your budget too. English Touring Opera’s shows at the Gala Theatre are less than £30, and forget the silly clichés about audiences quaffing champagne and wearing black-tie: you can wear (and drink!) whatever you like.
If you’ve never been to an opera before, English Touring Opera’s twice-yearly trips to Durham’s Gala Theatre are a great place to start. They’re here again next weekend (18–19 October) with two very different pieces – one by Mozart and one by the radical German composer Kurt Weill – and both have had excellent reviews from the London opening. The full title of Mozart’s first opera is Die Entführung aus dem Serail (‘The Abduction from the Seraglio’) but ETO have shortened it to simply The Seraglio. It’s got Mozart’s trademark opera recipe of passion, wit and charm, with an exotic setting thrown in that ETO will probably make the most of – their costumes and sets are always a delight. The plot combines comedy and romance, with plenty to say about women standing up to men who try to dominate them. And if you’re worried about following what’s going on, they’re singing it in English, and with surtitles too to help things along. The Seraglio isn’t as well-known as Mozart’s later operas, which is also to ETO’s credit: whilst some opera companies churn out the reliable hits, ETO are not afraid to bring unusual works to life and, even better, they share them with the whole country.
ETO’s second night takes us to the dark and seductive world of German cabaret with Kurt Weill’s The Silver lake. It’s not technically a full opera, as it contains quite a bit of spoken dialogue: ETO are doing this in English, and keeping the sung elements in German (with surtitles). Like Weill’s better known collaborations with the dramatist Bertold Brecht, its theme is social justice and no class or political leaning is safe from his biting satire. An edgy sexual energy throbs through the music and there are some fabulously slinky trumpet solos: it feels dangerous just listening to it, and I’m hugely looking forward to seeing it – definitely my top pick out of all of this autumn’s offerings.
Durham’s university opera group, Durham Opera Ensemble are also worth seeing: they usually do a production of opera scenes and extracts in the autumn term, a full opera at the Gala in February, and a lighter, smaller-scale production in the summer. They haven’t announced dates yet, but I’ve seen notices on their social media to say that they’re planning a triple bill of one-act 20th century operas, by Barber, Bernstein and Britten, which sounds interesting: I’ll bring you more details when I get them.
As a footnote, if you want to explore more opera, at the new Odeon cinema in Durham you can watch live opera broadcasts from the Royal Opera House, with popcorn, reclining seats and definitely no need to wear a bow-tie. The Odeon’s website is a bit of a mess to navigate around, so just for you, I’ve added them as listings in my events guide – full list here.