If you’d asked me before tonight what I thought my first opera would look like, I would have probably guessed ball gowns and grand orchestras, not superhero costumes and a three piece band. However, Baseless Fabric Theatre’s production of Die Fledermaus at the Arcola Theatre proves to be the most charming introduction to opera, full of unpretentious laughs and masterful musicians.
Johann Strauss’ operetta is here shortened to just under an hour, with only four characters playing out the main storyline of the original piece, which centres on the revenge for a practical joke between two close friends. This production swaps bat costumes for Batman outfits, bringing the whole story into the present day.
I initially thought having operatic songs and heightened dialogue in an otherwise modern setting seemed misguided, but this in fact allows the company to create a truly modern opera. Instead of having the stylistic clash of naturalistic conversations and dramatic songs, they are able to take the theatrical flair from this nineteenth century piece and use it to create something which stays true to the operatic genre, whilst serving a twenty-first century audience.
With Joanna Turner acting as both director and librettist, there is a clear cohesion between the structure of the songs and the staging. These songs, which could fill a large theatre, don’t feel claustrophobic in this small studio as they are played directly to the audience. With each side being serenaded by a different character, attention can be held even in the most confusing of choruses.
Although there is only four characters, this really is a cast of seven: Leo Geyer on the bassoon, Henry Rankin on the violin and Ilona Suomalainen on the accordion inject just as much energy and character into this piece as their acting counterparts. The atmosphere that they create just as a trio is inexplicable; I can only assume it is a combination of skill and plentiful rehearsal. They set the tone for each new scene and remain as the narrating voice for the whole fifty minutes.
They are joined onstage by Claire Wild, Abigail Kelly, David Horton and James McOran-Campbell, who are able to layer their voices in such a way that each song doesn’t feel like a constant battle for the high note, but instead a harmonious marriage of four powerful voices. Great Shakespearean actors are often accredited for being able to make an unfamiliar form hit home with a wider audience, which is a skill that this ensemble share. The reaction from the audience is not polite laughter at a funny face or obviously comedic moment, it is loud, unanimous laughter at a script which can proudly call itself a comedy.
I think a key component of this production’s success is the company’s ability to take the best parts of a traditional opera, without clinging to the exact preservation of the style. Marina Hadjilouca’s set allows the piece to flow without the worry of being weighed down by unnecessary excess, which would feel wrong in a studio theatre such as this. The company has identified that for maximum effect, the audience’s attention needs to be held throughout and this can only be achieved with a simple set and costume, so that the focus can remain solely on the story and the music.
Alongside my other assumptions about the opera, I thought that such a production would end with restrained applause – wrong again. The ensemble is met with an audience stomping their feet and shouting for an encore, and I wish we’d got one.
Die Fledermaus played at the Arcola Theatre until 7 August, and is touring until 14 August. For more information and tickets, visit the Baseless Fabric website.