By Nick Pelling

It is surely one of the most tired cliches about music that Opera is just for ‘toffs’ who like to dress up ‘posh’ and listen to fat people making overblown sounds. If you think like this, Barefoot Opera have news for you: Opera is
for everyone and can be sung by anyone. In October their production of Bloom Britannia will be a ‘People’s Opera,’ to be performed at St Mary in the Castle.

It is, in part, a darkly comic tale, told in song, of the exploits of the people in a seaside town – not unlike Hastings – seeking to win a regeneration grant. Again, not unlike Hastings, the people of the town prove to be somewhat unruly, lustful, unstable and gloriously anarchic – with a strong dose of surrealism thrown in. 

Young participants in rehearsal
CREDIT: Chris Parker

The piece has been composed by Orlando Gough and the lyricist Stephen Plaice. Gough specialises in fusing different musical genres: Jazz, Pop, Folk and even that thing called Opera. What makes the performance the anthesis of a Glyndebourne snooze is that it employs large numbers of ‘ordinary’ local people alongside a small number of professional musicians and performers. Many of the professionals are also local, such as Bev Lee Harling. The mix is likely to be extraordinary, but it is also an incredible challenge to bring together.

The artistic director, Jenny Miller, describes the process of staggering rehearsals for around 100 individuals as “dizzyingly complex”, like orchestrating the coming together of “a vast jigsaw puzzle”. But she is very upbeat about the energy and passion that people bring to the creative process, and the way that energy radiates across the group. The cast includes both young and old and people from all walks of life. Numerous local community organisations are involved: the Seaview Project, Eggtooth, Arts on Prescription among others. Also involved are the Project Art Works collective who are working on the costumes, set and props.

(Left) Director Polly Graham with young participants in rehearsal; (right) Bloom Britannia participants in rehearsal CREDIT: Chris Parker

It might be thought that singing in public, for those with no experience, would be daunting or even frightening, but it seems that almost all those involved talk of the way singing with others is a deeply uplifting experience. As one performer puts it, you get “a feeling of being really connected to other people.” Almost the perfect antidote to Covid.   

Soprano Abigail Kelly in rehearsal at SMIC
CREDIT: Chris Parker

The production has had an extraordinarily long gestation, largely due to Lockdown.  But now, after three years of fits and starts, all seems primed for the production to hit the St Mary space.  The first full-cast run through will be on 14th October. That is only eight days before the opening night! Adrenalin levels are likely to spiral, which should make for a thrilling performance.   

Apparently, in the eighteenth century the operatic tradition was entwined with popular culture, and they fed off each other: when popular street ballads might be picked up by composers and inserted into Operas. Barefoot Opera are surely pulling the tradition back towards its roots. If you are still not sure about it, why not take the advice of one of the older members of the cast – and now a born again minstrel – and just “suck it and see”.

Tickets range from £5 to £25.00 and they are available from www.barefootopera.com


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