I have to start this review with a confession: the more you go to Unexpected Opera shows, the harder it gets to remain objective about them. As I’ve now seen more than one, I’m afraid my judgement on these is probably compromised already. This very seldom happens to a critic – opera critics most of all, who necessarily retread the same ground, the same works, the same singers many times in a year, and such familiarity usually breeds extreme pickiness. But Unexpected Opera gives us not so much a show as a communal experience, in which we are thoroughly implicated, definitely participating, and even occasionally starring (one bashful audience member this evening was amazed to find herself suddenly on stage, her gelida manina in Rodolfo’s, as he sang out his undying love to her; the rest of us watched with a mixture of schadenfreude and warm appreciation of her predicament, conscious it might well have been any of us). So I can’t adopt my usual lofty tone, or pronounce my verdict with calm decision, because to be honest, I feel more part of this show than outside it. I can only try to explain to you what it’s like to go, and why I keep going back.
The Boys from Bohème is the third in Unexpected Opera’s series of opera chat shows, the others being Carmen Chatter and Traviata Tells All (still on my wishlist). The chat shows grew from Unexpected’s brilliant, genre-defying Opera Naked (my review here). Chat shows and opera don’t immediately strike you as natural bedfellows; that’s only the first element of what makes each evening so Unexpected. Each show is the brainchild of Lynn Binstock, who also directs, compères, creates the subtitles, cajoles her sponsors, and holds everything together with unaffected, zany charm.
We sit in cabaret-like clumps on small rows of seats, drinks in hand, around two sides of a simple stage with a grand piano to one side (played with flourish throughout the evening by Music Director Eda Seppar), in the bowels of the St James’s Theatre. Lynn, in ringmaster’s red tailcoat and top hat, welcomes us warmly, even picking out certain groups within the audience, a female acappella choir and a group of scientists (“What’s the collective noun for a bunch of scientists?” Cue various shyly witty guesses from the crowd, my favourite of which has to be “a nerding”). We even practice our different types of on-cue applause, just like a real chat show, before the official opening of proceedings: but the fourth wall is down from the start, and stays down. The imaginary parts of the evening, the acting of character and scene, happen within a live scenario which recalls the “directed reality” of shows like Made in Chelsea; it’s a disconcerting mood, but fun. Even when it doesn’t work (if one character or scene doesn’t quite come off, which can happen), it’s still fascinating for opera, usually the most dictatorial of all art forms, to be occupying this new, humbler, unexpected space.
The first half of the evening keeps us more in imaginative suspense than out. Tony LaScala is our host, played by comedian Tony Harris in a New York drawl: “I’m going to make you an opera you can’t refuse.” The puns keep on coming. LaScala interviews Rodolfo and Marcello in character, discussing how Puccini made them famous, what they have in common (the pursuit of women) and how they came to meet (an imaginative shaggy dog story which fittingly combines being evicted, being destitute and a drunken lads’ night out). Rodolfo and Marcello then morph into Nadir and Zurga from what LaScala calls Bizet’s “Poyle Fishers”, whose famously terrible libretto is hammed up hilariously in wooden dialogue with pantomime Indian accents; not very PC, but performed in a loving spirit. They are in turn interrupted by Lensky and Onegin from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (“or, as they call him in Peckham, Eugene One-Gin”); here Lensky talks alone of Onegin’s betrayal (in an excellent Russian accent), while Onegin appears for their duel duet. Each duo is accompanied by a couple of arias from their respective opera, the music weaving in and out of the conversation, very like a modern chat show.
But it’s after the interval that the heart of the show really shines: Tony Harris, as himself, interviews our two singers (lyrical Brazilian baritone Victor Sgarbi, and Purley-born tenor Daniel Joy) as themselves, talking about how they became an opera singer, and taking audience questions. Here Sgarbi and Joy still sing a couple of arias each, chosen personally from their own repertoire, while telling their stories with self-effacing openness. The myriad paths to opera – Sgarbi started out as a successful dentist and maxillofacial surgeon in Brazil, before selling everything he had to go to music college – are humbling and fascinating. As an audience member, it’s all too easy to forget the level of skill, struggle and dedication needed to succeed in the super-competitive, thoroughly unlucrative world of opera: did you know the arts budget for the city of Berlin (alone) is as big as the entire Arts budget for the whole UK? Without the near-insane and certainly near-insolvent gambles these people take with their lives, driven by their obstinate vocation, we would have no art to enjoy. These Chat Shows offer a crucial opportunity for us as audience to register and respect the sacrifices all opera singers make, and to make us more appreciative not just of their performances, but of their courageous dedication to performing. It’s this opportunity, to take a moment in conscious gratitude, to imagine the life-changing decisions that allowed me to see Puccini, Bizet and Tchaikovsky in this intimate setting, or to see any opera on any stage on any night, that keeps me coming back.
What Unexpected Opera are doing is, to me, almost more important than whether they do it well. While Opera Naked is polished and slick, The Boys from Bohème is still a bit rough around the edges: it doesn’t always flow, the acting burden on the singers is heavier than usual and they’re not always ready for that, and we had a few first night glitches. But “we” had them – by the end of the evening, we feel a collective sense of celebration and achievement, a shared sense of showbusiness survival.
Binstock’s fresh, unstuffy and truly original approach breaks down all barriers to opera: each Unexpected show is a masterclass in outreach and accessibility, though they are becoming so popular with regular operagoers that this evening’s audience contained only one true ‘opera virgin’ (“Who’s going to admit to it?”, asks Tony LaScala with irreverent charm). Where else can you find yourself singing along to “It Was an Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” – oh yes, we did – and “Toreador!” on the same night? No one expects it. That’s why it’s Unexpected Opera.