The Boys from Bohème: An Unexpected Opera Chat Show July 13, 2015
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.
Bromance: the theme of the evening
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.
Meet The Artist
Victor Sgarbi – Duke of Nottingham
Victor plays the baritone role of the Duke of Nottingham in Opera Seria’s upcoming concert performances of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. We asked Victor some questions about his career and his character. Read on to find out more about the baritone’s interesting background!
What has been the greatest thrill in your career thus far? Greatest challenge?
It is hard to pick just one moment up from so many great stories. I guess I feel the thrill of performing every time I step on stage and I think that every opera has its own different unique challenge. I will pick the one that according to my mother (believe me she is a wise person and very impartial) was the highlight of my career, but I also think it was the greatest thrill and challenge I faced so far. Singing the Stravinsky, Les Noces on several occasions in Brazil in 2003 was a heavy duty task, the pressure was huge as I was quite an unexperienced singer (only 3 years down the road) and I had to perform alongside my teacher at the time, in the quartet, ahead of the most prestigious professional choir in Latin America. The result was incredible, the thrill was terrific, the TV and radio broadcasting were frightening, but in the end everything went right. It is good to keep a record of those performances because I can reevaluate and learn how much my voice has developed since, specially because I was a young singer then( that is 10 years ago ). Everyone that has heard Stravisnky Les Noces once before appreciates the difficulty of the piece: melodically, rhythmically, technically, everything is slightly chaotic in an organised manner. Everything gets even scarier when the conductor has her reading glasses broken immediately before the start of one of the shows. She comments she will conduct the piece by memory. That was scary.
Do you have any favourites? Composer? Opera? Role? Venue?
My favourites , you will find them bizarre, but I do have a taste for early music and early Operas, as much as I also find some romantic ones amazing. My favourite composer is Handel with some magnificent work written and performed by some of my favourite singers (Joyce DiDonato and Cecilia Bartoli). In the broader field of Opera, I chose 2 works to be on first place in my top 10 : La Boheme and Pagliacci are unbeatable for me. My preferred role would be Figaro from Il Barbiere with its very fun music to sing and my top venue would be the Barbican. Even though it is not an opera house the music made there is just stunning. But right, I think I must talk about opera houses, my favourite ones are the Opera de Paris and theTeatro Municipal de Sao Paulo.
What are your thoughts about your character in Roberto Devereux?
The Duke is an interesting character. He has got a very complex nature and a strong sense of values. Having said that, in Roberto Devereux, the Duke and his integrity are heavily tested by unforeseen situations of betrayal from everyone around him. It is hard to keep the sanity on that kind of situation. If I were him, I would have gone crazy, and that is basically what happens to the Duke of Nottingham towards the end of the opera. His controversial decisions are a result of the pressure and dilemmas which he is up against. The drama of the opera relies on inflicting the characters to the most extreme situations and observe their reactions according to the time in history and rank (upbringing) they have. Values are tested and shaken. The very negative reactions of the Duke towards the end of the opera are as strong as his commitments in the positive way in the beginning. One would expect that a noble man like the Duke would be as forgiving as a saint, but that doesn't happen. At that time in history, the examples given by the Queen to whom the Duke is a faithful adviser also provoked reactions that transformed him completely. If you watch the movie “The Duchess” you will find many similar situations where conventions shape the lives of human beings. It was a hard period of time when power, strength and pride were values to be protected at any cost, and lives were the currency to be paid.
What do you look forward to the most in being part of Roberto Devereux?
I always look forward to the opening night when I can feed from the energy of the audience. I enjoy learning if my character makes the audience angry, sad or to love him, to hate him, etc. I want to hear that they had a wonderful time going to the opera above all other things. The time that led to the opening night, the rehearsal period, is when I can experiment, get to know my colleagues, make mistakes, elaborate better music lines and thoughts. The better the rehearsal period the more exciting is the opening night.
Victor's first solo appearance as a singer was in Carmina Burana for an audience of 2000 people, still as a student of Classical Singing at the Universidade Tom Jobim in Sao Paulo, Brazil. After living a successful career as a Dentist, Victor joined the internationally awarded professional choir OSESP (Brazil) in 2002.
In 2005, Victor had his debut in Opera, singing the role of Schaunard at the Teatro Sao Pedro, in Sao Paulo. He has subsequently taken several roles in Brazil and later in the UK, including: Malatesta in “Don Pasquale”, Figaro in “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” , Father Peter, in “Hansel and Gretel”; Mr Gobineau, in Menotti's “The Medium”; Maestro, in “Prima la Musica Poi le Parole” (Salieri) ; Schaunard, Marcello and Colline in "La Boheme"; Conte Almaviva in "The Marriage of Figaro"; Hymen, in Purcell's “The Fairy Queen”; Germont in Verdi's “La Traviata”; Belcore in "L'Elisir d'Amor"; Falstaff in Verdi's 'Falstaff ” .
He is described by critics as having a “restraint and truly well placed baritone voice” giving a “well developed performance and a convincing character” and “an opera singer to look
out for”. In 2011, after being awarded a scholarship he completed the Advanced Performers Opera Studio in London, where he studied with the most influential directors, coaches and singers in the UK.
Victor performs at the major concert halls and theatres in Brazil, including: Sala Sao Paulo, Teatro Municipal de Sao Paulo, Memorial da America Latina, Teatro Sao Pedro, Teatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro, and in London's Albert Hall, Barbican, St James Piccadilly, St Martin-in-the-Fields and St John's Smyth Square.
Roberto Devereux is being toured in London and the North West of England. Tickets are still available for all shows.
31st August :: St Clement’s Chorlton, Manchester 6th September :: The Crypt, St Andrew’s Holborn, London 12th September :: The Lantern Theatre, Liverpool 13th September :: Preston Minster
For more details, or to book tickets, please visit the website:
Victor's first solo appearance as a singer was in Carmina Burana for an audience of 2000 people, still as a student of Classical Singing at the Universidade Tom Jobim in Sao Paulo, Brazil. After living a successful career as a Dentist, Victor joined the internationally awarded professional choir OSESP (Brazil) in 2002. In 2012, he celebrates his 10th anniversary as a professional singer, alternating works as an Operatic singer and as a chorister .
I In 2005, Victor had his debut in Opera, singing the role of Schaunard at the Teatro Sao Pedro, in Sao Paulo. He has subsequently taken several roles in Brazil and later in the UK, including: Figaro in “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” , Father Peter, in “Hansel and Gretel”; Mr Gobineau, in Menotti's “The Medium”; Maestro, in “Prima la Musica Poi le Parole” (Salieri) ; Schaunard and Marcello in "La Boheme"; Conte Almaviva in "The Marriage of Figaro"; Hymen, in Purcell's “The Fairy Queen”; Germont in Verdi's “La Traviata”; Belcore in "L'Elisir d'Amor"; Falstaff in Verdi's 'Falstaff” .
He is described by critics as having a “restraint and truly well placed baritone voice” giving a “well developed performance and a convincing character” and “an opera singer to look out for”. In 2011, after being awarded a scholarship he completed the Advanced Performers Opera Studio in London, where he studied with the most influential directors, coaches and singers in the UK.
Victor performs at the major concert halls and theatres in Brazil, including: Sala Sao Paulo, Teatro Municipal de Sao Paulo, Memorial da America Latina, Teatro Sao Pedro, Teatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro, and in London's Albert Hall, Barbican, St James Piccadilly, St Martin-in-the-Fields and St John's Smyth Square. Victor is currently part of the professional singers of the Philharmonia Chorus, London. His most recent work as Figaro with Pavilion Opera resulted in a series of contracts for 2013, playing Dr Malatesta also with Pavilion, in Don Pasquale, Papageno in Magic Flute and Amonasro in Aida.
2012 has been a very busy year so far. Falstaff was great fun, Hansel and Gretel and Figaro, from the Barber ... wow... another hardcore role! And now preparing for some more H&G and traveling with Philharmonia Chorus. Please hit the Twitter button if you would like to receive more updated information . 2013 is looking good too, with a secure contract with Pavilion Opera for Don Pasquale. All dream roles! Hope 2012 is giving you some great fun too and that you can enjoy one of my shows soon.
Falstaff is almost ready! After a successful series of performances of Hansel and Gretel with Opera at Home, under the wonderful direction of Jose Manuel Gandia and Alexia Mankovskaya, I am now fat , aging and broke. The action is happening around the year 1660 in Holland, and Falstaff will use his knightly name to try to arrange a lover to pay for his huge expenses in the tavern. The adaptation of the Shakespearian tale , was hugely successful and it is one of the last if not the last operas written be Giuseppe Verdi, in the format of Comedy. Actually funny enough, I have researched a lot about these 2 productions ( H&G and Falstaff) and discovered that they were both premiered abroad in Hamburg in 1894 and conducted by Mahler. So, it comes to my attention that even though they are works of completely different styles, they had some thing in them that sparkled the interest of Mahler to present them on the same season.
Well, my Falstaff, with Harrow Opera has a fabulous cast and brings promises of laughs and entertainment.
Last year I had the opportunity to teach Singing at Highbury Grove School, a Music Specialist School. This was a great experience that consolidated my coaching skills. I used my knowledge and my experience in teaching and conducting choirs to bring a professional approach to singing and performing. Those kids are great. I decided to keep some space in my diary dedicated to teaching and coaching. If you are interested in having a session, please get in touch. We will be able to work breathing, alexander technique, singing technique, projection, interpretaion, posture, acting for singers, repertoire and much more. I am sure everyone can benefit from the classical techniques for singing whatever level one is. Voice coaching will provide you with the tools you need to use the best of your voice in all occasions. Give it a try. I hope to see you soon. v
Happy 2011 everyone. As you can see, my new web site is almost ready. I am gathering useful information about me and my career . After years using myspace as a main contact tool I felt there was a need for a professional touch and a clear showcase of my work . That's right. I start 2011 welcoming my new agent Mair Rees-Davies with plenty to add to my career . Well, I actually started 2011 sunbathing in my hometown in Brazil, Santos and having a good rest. 2010 was a tough one. World crisis, and everything else you read on the news. Actually it was a great year for me. I had shows in Slovenia, Islamabad, France , Brazil , I played the long desired role of Count Almaviva with Co-opera-co, along with my 6th time of Schaunard ( which is always a pleasure playing ) among many other things. I am pretty sure 2011 will bring much more. I wish you all a wonderful 2011 full of joy and success.
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