In the Domain of the Demon Barber
Where better to present Sweeney Todd than in a hidden, dank, and brick-lined remnant of Dickensian London? The Union Theatre in Southwark is a remarkable space, and the resident company's winter 2008 production of Sondheim's grisly masterpiece was perfectly chilling. Unidentifiable and quite genuine two-hundred-year-old stains on the blackened brick walls only added to the visual impact, and the lean-to, ad hoc architecture of this studio theater was a fine complement to the production. The space itself is tiny and manages to feel completely unlike a theater, suggesting instead the oppressive atmosphere of a Victorian industrial workshop. Surely I was not the only one in the audience to feel a distinct, prickling unease when the candlelit, white-faced performers paced up and down on all sides, digging into the semitone harmonies while making ghoulish faces over Sweeney's peculiar lusts. Even with the best performers in the world, the opulent auditorium at Covent Garden could never provide such a raw, primal experience.
This article examines the opportunities afforded by unconventional performance spaces and suggests that opera as an art form has much to gain by changing old habits and embracing new opportunities. Opera has developed hand in hand with large theaters, and many aspects of the operatic idiom—the operatic voice, the large orchestra, not to mention the lavish spectacle—can appear to great advantage in the typical large venue. But what is lost in these cavernous spaces? What kinds of intimacy and immediacy are swallowed up or diluted in the grand opera house? In asking these questions, I seek not simply to endorse smaller houses, but to reconsider the relationship between opera and its performing environment. Peter Brook famously begins his book The Empty Space with the phrase "I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage."1 For Brook, an act of theater is born when one person walks across this empty space while another watches. And as Gay [End Page 284] McAuley reminds us, "some forms of performance, like busking and street theater, have a performance space but no theater space."2 Might it be possible to consider opera in these terms, shifting the focus away from its theater spaces and toward its performance spaces? Focusing on some recent trends in operatic production in the UK and Ireland, I argue that this is precisely what is happening. While several of the major companies are seeking new spaces to complement their primary venues, an increasing number of smaller organizations are presenting opera in unusual places. Their work suggests something of the rich potential when opera gets out of the house.
An Archconservative Art?
The predominance of the proscenium theater in opera production since the first public opera houses in late seventeenth-century Venice has restricted the development of opera performance styles in a way that is unparalleled in spoken theater (always much freer to move outside the theater building). Although the architecture of opera houses has undergone fundamental changes over the last 350 years or so, the proscenium arch has reigned more or less supreme. The endurance of the arch is due at least in part to the possibilities it enables, and while it is true that certain theatrical effects are easier to achieve in a proscenium theater than elsewhere, there are also significant limitations. Theater architect Jean-Guy Lecat conducts an experiment with his students in all proscenium theaters that they visit. He walks from the front to the back of the stage and asks them, as they sit throughout the auditorium, to note when his presence is lost. Lecat reports that the students always stop him a few meters behind the proscenium. "The proscenium arch," he writes, "is like a threshold, everything behind it looks far away."3 To confirm Lecat's observation, one need only think of the vivacity (and risk) created by an audience's comparatively greater involvement in, for example, a circus or street performance. As a further illustration, one might consider two performance genres in which...