Blog: In the name of opera

Ella Marchment, Artistic Director of Helios Collective, challenges AYT readers to re-assess the way they look at opera. 

“A Younger Theatre”…. avant-garde, culturally exhilarating, and innovative were the first three adjectives that sprung to mind when I thought about the name of this publication. So why am I here, championing the world of opera? Well, because the adjectives I associate with this website are the same adjectives I associate with its readers, and opera needs avant-garde, culturally exhilarating, and innovative people. In short, it needs YOU.

Ideally, I’d ask you each in person what opera means to you, but as I am restricted by the wall of the written word, I turn to our trusted friend Google. I type in ‘opera is…’, and autocomplete immediately suggests ‘opera is dead’. I try ‘Why opera?’ and this time I’m greeted with ‘Why are opera singers fat?’ which jolts me with the realisation that this is how opera is perceived by millions of people Googling around the world. I sigh, not because of the disappointment I feel at reading these stereotypical questions, but because I remember that a decade ago I might well have Googled similar questions of my own.

I am ashamed of that fact. Ashamed that I was so narrow-minded. Confused because I have no clear idea of why I thought in the way I did and disappointed to know that so many people think of opera as being a dead art form—especially when I know that it has so much to offer to so many people.

For me, opera is everything. It is painting. Drama. Someone performing circus skills onstage. A 200-piece orchestra. One musician playing. One voice singing. An epic narrative. Dance. Architecture and design. It involves all of the senses, and it appeals to all of our sensibilities. It confronts life’s greatest questions, moves us to the brink of emotional collapse, and sensationalises the mundane. It extends time, slows time, and eradicates time completely. It is experience, a way of life, and a sentient joy. As Shakespeare observed, all the world’s a stage, and there is no part of the world that cannot be reached and observed by the intoxicating world of opera.

Now, hopefully, you are re-examining what opera means to you, or you are at least prepared to look at it again…

I came to opera by chance, through a work-experience internship with Dorset Opera. I fell in love with the art form, and I now get out of bed every morning with a single-minded determination to show the world how transformative, engaging, moving, and entertaining opera can be. While we rightfully think of traditional theatre as being innovative and inspirational, opera has—I believe—the potential to take dramatic theatre to another level. Since I started to work in the industry ten years ago, I’ve created operas and performance installations for outdoor spaces, re-imagined existing works, turned traditional classical operas into rock pieces, commissioned new operas that confront social issues, created new operas that are total romps, written, staged, and sold-out several plarias (hybrid plays that feature opera arias), and pushed the boundaries of classical performance, all in a determination to challenge and change the way that opera is viewed by others: it doesn’t have to be what it has always been.

I founded Helios Collective in 2012, creating an artistic community based on interdisciplinary collaboration, unquestioning support, and unfettered creativity. This November, Helios Collective is running a series of developmental masterclasses in which three new opera commissions will be workshopped by leading industry professionals, with a final performance at Lilian Bayliss House on Friday, 25 November, supported by English National Opera. The three works that we have chosen this year are eclectic, diverse, and challengingly different. All of the masterclasses are open to the public, and everyone who attends a masterclass is welcome to share their thoughts, questions, and ideas during Q&A sessions. You never know, you might just fall in love with opera. And who knows where a new love might lead you.

Helios’ Formations masterclasses run from November 14-25.