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Opera for the common man: "La Boheme" in a pub

 Clare Presland (L), who plays the role of Musetta, performs in a production of La Boheme at the Cock Tavern Theatre in north London, December 10, 2009. REUTERS/Simon Newman - Reuters
Clare Presland (L), who plays the role of Musetta, performs in a production of La Boheme at the Cock Tavern Theatre in north London, December 10, 2009. REUTERS/Simon Newman
— image credit: Reuters

By Michael Roddy

LONDON, Dec 23 - (Reuters) - It takes guts to stage an opera in a working man's pub in an Irish part of London, but the Cock Tavern Theater Company's production of Puccini's "La Boheme," in English and updated for modern audiences, has audiences mesmerized.

A very brief interlude of pole dancing may have something to do with it.

That perhaps un-Pucciniesque touch, performed by the tease Musetta, comes in Act Two when the entire company of mostly young singers, getting a big break to tackle such challenging roles early in their careers, troops downstairs from the tiny theater above the pub, where most of the opera is staged, to do the famous Cafe Momus scene right there -- in the pub.

"They love it," Michael Darby, 62, a native of County Westmeath in Ireland, said of the reaction of the Cock Tavern's regulars.

That includes himself -- and after they got used to the nightly spectacle of an act of late 19th-century Italian opera, set in a French cafe, performed for the paying audience -- the other regulars and even the pool players in the back, if they ever care to look up from the table.

If they don't, they miss one of the most ingenious stagings of this scene ever devised.

The singers and pub patrons almost blend into one, the tavern noise adds the overtones that playing the score on an upright piano can't furnish, and the chorus dotted around the room does a bit of heckling which encourages pub patrons to join in, making it rowdy, boisterous and a huge artistic success.

Following rave reviews for the December opening, the 40-seat theater has often sold out and the run has been extended into February for a production which blows the cobwebs off Puccini's three-hanky melodrama and sets a new standard for bringing opera to the masses.

"I trained as an opera singer in Australia before I became an opera director, and it was always annoying to me how many barriers there are for people like the people who you see here," said Adam Spreadbury-Maher, 28, the theatre's artistic director.

"So I figured when I finally get my own theater, which happened 10 months ago, right, we need to put some opera on but do it in a way so people can actually sit down, enjoy it, have a pint and actually understand what's being said -- no surtitles -- and I hope that's what we've done here tonight."

"Mission accomplished" is the verdict from the audience, the regulars and possibly those pool players, if they ever do look.

That is in no small part due to the brisk, clever staging and a fresh, breezy translation and updating of the libretto by Robin Norton-Hale, the director for this production.

She grew up in the Kilburn neighborhood where the Cock Tavern is located and has peppered the libretto with references to it and much else that is up to date and trendy.

In one of their tiffs, the painter Marcello calls his vampy, gold-digging girlfriend Musetta a "chav" -- British slang for people with more money than brains and a taste for tacky bling.

Puccini's librettist didn't write that, but Norton-Hale, who at the age of 29 has a solid background in theater and opera directing, including productions with English Touring Opera, doesn't think she has stooped to conquer.

"Basically it's set very much in a place and time, Paris in the 19th century," she said.

"But I felt that the important thing is that we understand this group of young men and the way they live and to make it work for a modern audience I felt it had to be set now...in Kilburn, in a student flat like the ones just down the road."

She was referring to the theater set upstairs which serves as the garret-like flat shared by the young bohemians of Puccini's Paris -- and Norton-Hale's Kilburn.

NOT "DUMBING DOWN"

"I think it's not dumbing down to make it easy for the audience to recognize those characters, and as soon as the characters are real, the drama is real," she added.

As for the pole dancing -- which is so brief that if you take a swig on your Guinness you might miss it -- she takes only partial credit, saying it was mostly inspired by the pub's architecture -- and the two sopranos playing Musetta.

"I think I said, 'Oh, there's that column there so, you know, feel free to use it if you want' and then they added it, the Musettas," Norton-Hale laughed.

Throughout the production there are similar touches, some the ideas of the director, others bubbling up from the fertile minds of an inventive, talented and highly engaging young cast.

Charmian Bedford, 24, who sings Mimi, the charming but impoverished neighbor to the bohemian lad who falls in love with the writer Rodolfo and provides the opera with its inevitable tragic ending by dying of consumption, said she had talked to a lung surgeon to find out what the disease is like.

"You can still die of it now, if you don't get the antibiotics...and I went into depths about the physical aspects...you can't breathe and you're very weak," she said.

Equipped with that, Bedford "plans her journey" -- vocally -- so although she's singing long, lush phrases of Puccini's music almost right up to the end, she somehow gets the audience to suspend disbelief -- and pull out those hankies when she expires lying on a couch right in front of them.

"I thought it was totally wonderful," said Ann Moynihan, a veteran opera goer. "And I've seen it at Covent Garden."

As for Darby, he hasn't sprung for a ticket to watch the whole thing upstairs, even though some seats go for only 5 pounds ($8), but he has bought the opera -- on tape.

"I'm sticking them in my car, going the way to work."

(The Cock Tavern Theater Company production of "La Boheme" runs through February 20. www.cocktavernthreatre.com)

(Writing by Michael Roddy, Editing by Paul Casciato)

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