Tell your friends you’re going to the opera and you’ll be met with some strange reactions. Some might laugh, some might wrinkle their nose as if they’ve caught a whiff of a foul smell, some may even worry for your sanity. This is because there is a tendency to be a little afraid of opera, and understandably so. It is a 500 year old tradition and usually performed in a foreign language. It is perceived as the type of highbrow entertainment reserved only for those among us distantly related to the Queen, those of us with a penchant for fair trade hat making or people with children named Horatio, Beatrice and Balsamic. In reality, opera is an exhilarating, emotional and often heartbreaking affair and plot lines tend to follow dysfunctional families, star crossed lovers, depression and suicide – all of which can be viewed as Shakespearean or Eastenders-ian, depending on your viewpoint (or how much you want to show off.)
Preston Opera did its bit last weekend to put those assumptions aside. Friday night was the first night of their two-night showcase of ‘opera classics’, specifically put together to appeal to opera fans, while simultaneously remaining accessible enough to anyone who fancies giving it ago for the first time. It’s a strategy, which for the most part works. Barrie White (no, not that one) conducts are renditions of numbers that may not necessarily have been presumed to have their origins in opera; such as Wagner’s Bridal March from Lohengrin, a song which everyone will undoubtedly recognise. A particular highlight of the evening, which takes place in the beautiful St. John’s Minster among candle lit tables and free glasses of wine, is Bizet’s Toreador Song from Carmen – another instantly recognisable number. It is expertly and charismatically performed by Andrew Lamb who channels the confident aggression of the bullfighter with tremendous ease. He stomps on the draughty church’s stone floor, pitch perfectly exclaiming his bull fighting successes in that exaggerated opera boomuntil even Preston’s dreary December has no defence but to yield to Spanish commandeering. If it wasn’t for that draught, you would believe you were in Seville.
Other highlights include Louise Geatch’s heartfelt aria QuandoM’en Vo from Puccini’s La Bohème, Maya Dibley and Julie Walker’s playful, endearing Tap, Tap, Tap from Englebert Humperdinck’s (no, not that one) Hansel and Gretel. Rochelle Hart performs Ebben? Ne AndroLontana from Catalani’s La Wally with such emotional depth and accuracy that it is difficult to believe she is part of an amateur group. Her voice soars and depreciates delicately but powerfully, making the most of the high ceilinged acoustics in St. John’s Minster. It’s a mesmerising performance that will leave opera fans and sceptics alike spellbound.
For all these quality performances, it seems a shame that the performers are backed by just a single piano. Much of opera’s ability to pull on its audiences emotions is cultivated by the presence of a full orchestra. If that could have been replicated here, in such a spectacular setting, the results would have been superb. Opera also relies on tragic narratives to punch your emotions right in their tear stained face, and of course, they are missing here to a degree, as the audience only witnesses brief windows into the plot. However, Preston Opera members are convincing actors and for those who do not know the story lines, second conductor Colin Beeson fills in the gaps, providing a brief synopsis before each piece – ideal for newcomers.
Don’t listen to your friends and their wrinkled noses, give opera a go – I guarantee you’ll be humming Mozart all week.
Written by Katie Siobhán Mercer for The Two Hats
Follow Kate on Twitter @Kate_S_Mercer