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Cleopatra in the wings, ETO takes opera to people

By Michael Roddy

MALVERN, England (Reuters) - Ken Allcock, 66, had never seen an opera and his wife Eileen hadn't been in about 50 years, but both were enchanted by Handel's "Tolomeo," brought to their hometown of Malvern by English Touring Opera.

"It's very easy to listen to," Eileen Allcock, a retired teacher, remarked after the first act of the dark, 1728 opus by the German-born Baroque composer George Friedrich Handel.

One of his more obscure works, "Tolomeo" is set in Cyprus and is all about lust, feuding, despair and treachery among the Egyptian royal family -- with the ghost of a lady named Cleopatra lurking in the background.

"I'm surprised it isn't more popular...though it is a bit depressing," Ken Allcock, who worked for 30 years in construction before becoming a community disputes counselor and who also helps out with the local scouts, said.

Handel spent most of his life in England and wrote more than 40 operas, plus a tuneful ditty called "The Messiah" that has had more performances, especially around Christmas, than that most popular of modern musicals, "Phantom of the Opera."

The link between Handel and "Phantom" is not far-fetched since Handel has been described as the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day -- an immensely prolific composer who turned out hit after hit, be it opera, oratorio or music for special occasions.

His "Zadok the Priest," written for the coronation of George II in 1727, has been played at every coronation since and, in a reworked version, has become the theme music for UEFA soccer.

Handel was a one-man Tin Pan Alley, a tunesmith, and what worked in the mid-1700s still works today.

This was clear from the audience reaction to the ETO's recent tour, winding up this week, of five Handel operas, performed five nights in a row, at cities and towns that would otherwise rarely or never have live opera by professionals within walking distance of home.

MAKING OPERA "ORDINARY"

Some performances were sold out and the ticket sales were the best for any operas the ETO, which has an annual budget of 1.5 million pounds ($2.52 million), some 60 percent from Britain's Arts Council, has toured in the past five years, the company's press officer Jim Follett said.

"What we should do is make sure that opera is regarded as ordinary, it is not elite," said an obviously pleased James Conway, the ETO's general director, whose decision it was to mount the Handelian equivalent of Wagner's "Ring Cycle."

Nor did Conway, who has staged operas in places as far flung as rural Ireland and West Bengal, worry that audiences, even people new to opera or not up on their Handel, would be bored.

"When you're thinking of people coming to see five in a row you want to make sure you've got taut and tight drama and that every damn thing they sing is fantastic," Conway, 53, a native of Quebec, told Reuters in an interview in the bustling lobby of the Malvern Theatres.

The complex serves as a social center for the English Midlands town, where 19th-century composer Edward Elgar's frequent visits are commemorated by a statue of him, as well as a venue for everything from opera to ABBA tribute bands.

If nothing else, Handel is full of great tunes and human drama -- or the way Conway sees it, human psychology, 200 years before Freud.

"Handel is a profound psychologist... he has a profound understanding of different people's minds and how one's childhood can influence one's behavior," he said.

"I think it's unlikely that artists have not anticipated everything that Freud said in their work -- artists usually do anticipate scientists or philosophers."

Conway's production of "Tolomeo" played up its dark side. The singers were in modern dress and the stage was stripped to pretty much nothing but a pier with a shadowy space underneath.

The singers -- and there are only five -- inhabited separate spaces on stage, which Conway said was in keeping with Handel's score that provides characteristic music for each singer -- and perhaps is a precursor of Wagner's leitmotifs.

And what is it like for singers in a touring production, where audiences might not be as sophisticated as the opera buffs who go night after night to Covent Garden, and can remember when Callas sang it better than whoever is singing it tonight?

They weren't worried -- they figured Handel had done the heavy lifting for them, 250 years ago.

"It is such difficult material in some ways, and so intense, but the way he's written it is amazing, it takes all the drama and enhances it and drives it forward," said James Laing, 31, a countertenor singing the role of Tolomeo's brother, Alessandro.

"It's rich and luscious and full of life and fabulous," added Rachel Nicholls, 34, singing the role of Elisa, whose love for Tolomeo is thwarted but who learns a lesson about life.

"I think Handel is a great thing for people to get sucked into it right away."

(The ETO tour of Handel operas continues through Saturday, November 21 at the Cambridge Arts Theater in Cambridge)

(Writing by Michael Roddy, Editing by Paul Casciato)

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