Opera + Classical Music Features

Small and agile may be one way forward for opera companies: The Opera Story’s The Yellow Wallpaper

In the world of opera, small can be beautiful.

Readers will now be more than familiar with the seismic occurrences in the world of Arts Council funding for British opera companies – English National Opera’s grant has been cut entirely; funding for the Royal Opera House and Glyndebourne Touring Opera has been reduced. Against this, though, we can see increases in funding for smaller, more agile opera companies – English Touring Opera, for example, or Pegasus.

Is the wind, then, changing direction around what we can all (albeit secretly) admit is an art form that still carries heavy overtones of elitism? The funding decisions would seem to suggest that the ‘great opera institutions’ are now not necessarily the future, and that, if opera is to be truly accessible to all, we need to consider more enticements for those outside the traditional audience populations than performing works in English and a rather staid educational outreach programme.

The Opera Story is a charitable incorporated organisation and one of several smaller opera organisations that stand as good examples of how opera can reinvent itself for new generations, and can reach less obvious demographics. A short taster, this week, of their forthcoming production The Yellow Wallpaper, seemed the appropriate stimulus for a consideration of this relatively new kid on the opera block in the light of the current unease in the world of British opera.

Founded in 2015, The Opera Story made its critically acclaimed debut with Snow, a collaborative work by three young composers (Lewis Murphy, Lucie Treacher and Tom Floyd) and librettist JL Williams, retelling the Snow White story. The opera’s success was perhaps down to a number of factors that have served as a model for the organisation’s subsequent projects (that have included new takes on the stories of Goldilocks and Robin Hood). The productions are ‘of the now’ – by young composers and young artists singing in a contemporary idiom; they are crowdfunded via online channels (albeit with matched ACE funding); they take place in spaces not normally associated with operatic performance; Snow was performed in The Bussey Building (Peckham), an inner-city space that allows much more proximity with the audience; networking and publicity around the productions are heavily via social media.

“…the ‘great opera institutions’ are now not necessarily the future…”

This agility and responsiveness served the organisation well during the two ‘dark’ pandemic years, as they simply transferred their productions to suit a more online idiom, creating, in 2020, Episodes – a series of online short clips by 40 composers, librettists and performers that formed an operatic commentary on the world of Covid-19. 2021 saw the production of a work for young people, also online, that was effectively a musical augmentation of an illustrated children’s story Dewi in the Deep.

Once public gatherings resumed earlier this year, The Opera Story opened with a new production – Beauty and the Seven Beasts – at Brixton Jamm. Another collaborative work, this story of a woman looking for love via a dating app and ending up on date nights with each of the seven deadly sins also received good reviews.

Next year’s production will be The Yellow Wallpaper composed by Dani Howard and based on a story by feminist Victorian writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman about the ‘rest treatment’ prescribed to 19th century women suffering from postnatal depression. It will be premiered in Peckham in March next year, but there will also be performances at the Copenhagen Opera Festival in August (the piece’s director, Amy Lane is also the Director of the Copenhagen Festival).

Tuesday evening saw a brief preview of the forthcoming production, in the form of a song performed by mezzo-soprano Clare Presland and pianist Satoshi Kubo. The music is highly accessible – it has elements of minimalism about it, but there are touches of 19th century Romanticism and even jazz in there. musicOMH looks forward to reviewing the full work in March next year.

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Small and agile may be one way forward for opera companies: The Opera Story’s The Yellow Wallpaper
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