Opera For All With Heber Opera
by Jenny Letton and Michael Withers
Think about ‘opera’. Are you thinking about expensive tickets, tuxedos and gilded theatres? Now think about opera in your local Village Hall. Impossible? Not a bit of it!
Innovative local company Heber Opera has been bringing ‘grand’ opera into community spaces for two decades. Productions are always fully staged, sung in English and performed ‘in the round’. By bringing opera into Village Halls and churches the group has won over audiences in many places where it performs regularly and has a substantial mailing list of regular followers who have come to love this style of performance.
The true magic of an ‘in the round’ production is the involvement of both cast and audience in the performance partnership. With no barriers between audience and performers, the singers’ expressions are clear to see, and the power of the music envelops and involves everyone in the story being unfolded. As an audience member, you could find yourself holding a prop, the person next to you might burst into song and become part of the action, someone may be sitting at your feet, or be singing right in front or behind you. Expect the unexpected in a Heber Opera production!
So why isn’t more opera performed in the round? Heber Opera’s Musical Director Michael Withers explains: “Because it’s hard! You need soloists and chorus who understand this performing style and who will commit 100%.” Heber Opera uses local soloists, trained voices used to coping with having the audience on all sides.
Heber Opera has found that the rewards of this approach are huge. With the audience so close to the drama and emotion they are carried along with every twist and turn of the plot. Audience members have commented that they have never previously understood the plots in such detail. The quality of performance has regularly been praised by audiences – on one occasion an audience member said he had seen the very same opera at a London opera house a few weeks before (costing a lot of money) but for him Heber’s production was much better!
Heber Opera hasn’t always performed in the round. When Roger Clow formed Heber Opera in 1989, it was with the idea of presenting some of the many English operas that have, for various reasons, been neglected. In the early days, most of the performances fell into this category, but as the company grew Heber Opera began to explore its own interpretations of the more mainstream repertoire. Since the start, Michael Withers has trained the chorus and soloists as well as adapting and revising the orchestrations for chamber ensembles more suited to the style of performance and venue spaces.
The very first production was The Rape of Lucretia, performed at the now defunct Gardner Arts Centre in 1989. The next few productions were also played on traditional stages, but in 1995 Heber stepped out from behind the proscenium arch and produced its first show in what has now become its trademark style – performance ‘in the round’.
Once established, the in the round style liberated Heber Opera from performing in theatres, opening the way to staging opera in different sorts of venues. Nowadays, Heber Opera tends to favour using village halls like Uckfield, Hurstpierpoint and Steyning (to name but a few) and churches such as St Peter’s in Henfield and St George’s, Kemp Town, but has also done its share of outdoor events.
Over the 25 years of Heber’s existence, the cast has got used to coping with some ‘interesting’ performance challenges: The Beggars Opera was performed in pouring rain – the audiences had umbrellas, the orchestra was under cover but the cast just got wet! When performing Otello in Lewis the question arose of how can we get Otello to arrive by ship when we’re performing in a castle on a hill? And finally, sometimes the challenges of different venues cause hilarity, for example when choosing the wrong door means spending the rest of the act in a cupboard!
Heber Opera is a self-funding group that believes opera should be open to all and not an inaccessible art form in another language. In spite of opera’s reputation as a ‘difficult’ or ‘elitist’ art form, nothing could be further from the truth, and a Heber Opera performance will dispel that myth at a stroke. An opera is, after all, only musical theatre, and its stories of love, jealousy, magic and tragedy are not far different from today’s West End productions.
Alongside bringing opera into the community, Heber Opera is proud to offer talented musicians and singers the opportunity to take part in operas generally considered too ambitious for most groups.
Heber Opera’s Spring 2016 production is The Pearl Fishers by Georges Bizet. The most famous aria from this opera is the duet, sung by Nadir and Zurga, a musical theme that is echoed throughout the show. With Musical Director Michael Withers, and Dorothy Withers directing the action, Heber Opera is performing this musical gem in May.
Photos: Chrissie Berridge.