I have honestly just had one of the most glorious nights in a theatre I can remember. It was a Christmas gift from my in-laws – I had seen a mention that ENO run regular ‘Opera Undressed’ events, designed especially for opera virgins.
**And no, this is NOT a paid review – the tickets were paid for by my lovely Mother In Law. I just loved the whole thing SO much, I have to share it**
Now I know I’m not alone in a love for ClassicFM – but the problem with ClassicFM is that it makes you fall in love with the ‘best bits’. I can hum along to the Flower Duet, I can sing chunks of O Fortuna, and I can belt out One Fine Day loud and proud (when alone in my car with the windows up so I’m not inflicting it on anyone else) .
But in my brain these are beautiful bits of music. I have no context – no story, no visual to put with them.
And for the longest time I have wanted to see an actual opera (I blame Richard Gere to be fair) – but I held back. Because Opera’s a bit… much? I won’t follow it, or ‘get it’ or maybe even like it much. Will I?
And yet… Richard won’t get out of my head. “…People’s reaction to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic. They either love it or hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul.”
I so wanted to love it.
And then I saw that The English National Opera run special ‘Opera Undressed‘ nights for opera virgins. Carefully selected operas, perfect for first-timers, with pre-show talks to introduce you to what you’re going to see. They’ll basically hold your hand and guide you through.
Plus – it’s only £20 a seat (and there’s a free G&T afterwards, too).
So my lovely in-laws bought me two tickets for Christmas – and yesterday we headed to London to see The Merry Widow.
(Not really an opera, it’s an operetta – which means there’s talking as well as singing *proud face at opera knowledge*)
The Coliseum is stunningly beautiful – I think everyone loves the grandeur of an old theatre, but the Coliseum is really something else. It’s wonderful. And the welcome was casually warm and unfailingly sweet – I felt like I had met a new group of friends, with every member of staff kind, helpful, and eager to share ‘their’ theatre.
Before the show begins, everyone part of the OperaUndressed event is invited upstairs to the pre-show talk, where we listened to Mark Biggins (Chorus Master) and Andrew Shore (Baron Zeta) chat about the composer Lehár, the play’s story itself, and about opera generally.
They were funny, interesting… and reassuringly ordinary. Nothing highbrow and confusing so far. It was all weirdly comfortable and fun. Is opera supposed to be fun? Was I doing it wrong??
As we found our seats (you don’t book seats, you’re simply allotted tickets when you arrive – ours were fabulous, row E in the Dress Circle, bags of leg room and perfect view) I ran through the story again in my head. I knew the basic plot (ENO email it to you before the event so that you can familiarise yourself), but had quickly become confused by the names and simply hoped that all would become clear as I watched.
I was reassured by the fact that the ENO only performs in English, and also has surtitles above the stage so that you never need miss out on lyrics as you watch.
And then the music began… The swooping sound of the orchestra set the scene of the first party, and we were away
I was… entranced.
I sat for the full 2 1/2 hours with my eyes never leaving the stage, barely blinking as I took it all in – the sheer bloody brilliance of it all. The orchestra lifted and carried me, the costumes were oh-so glamorous, the lighting silently dramatic (the glitter ball scene made me actually “ooh!” aloud, and the end of Act 2 when the five lead characters stand in a line, each isolated by their own spotlight? Perfect.) – the entire experience was quite brilliant. In every sense.
I sort of expected to love the music – but the depth of the experience watching the drama unfold before me was astonishing. The gloriously fun joy of the evening simply makes me smile as I remember it – I honestly (stupidly) didn’t expect to feel so much.
I laughed a lot; I knew the Merry Widow is a comedy, but I had wondered if I might not get the jokes. Fear not, it’s really very funny, and the cast even more so. But I also held my breath (Danilo and Hanna’s dance at the end of the second act was breathtakingly, tinglingly romantic), and I felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck during Vilja’s song as Hanna sings high on her crescent moon, and off to the side of the stage Danilo arrives late, unseen by the party, standing silently in a single spotlight – a stillness which spoke so much.
It was… beautiful.
It was just as Mr Gere promised – I was swept along by the wonderful music, effortlessly carried through the evening and honestly dismayed when it drew to a close.
In addition to now being deeply in love with the Merry Widow, I’m very aware it’s an undemanding operetta – but it’s given me confidence, and I cannot wait to return and see another production – I already have two earmarked.
And THIS, I think, is why it’s so important for the ENO to be performing such a ‘trivial operetta’ as The Merry Widow. It’s not tricky, or demanding or intellectually taxing. It’s simply a few joy-filled hours which are lifting for the soul; not a single person in the audience (many of whom were clearly regular opera-goers) went away without a broad grin, or smarting palms from all the clapping. And for all of us Opera Virgins out there, it’s a welcoming hand through the wardrobe door into the Narnia world of opera – and I for one will always be grateful for that.
(Now if ENO would just make sure that La Traviata is on soon, I can do my full Julia Roberts…”In case I forget to tell you later, I had a really good time tonight”)
So, If you’ve ever considered opera, but thought it would be intimidating, uncomfortable or not for you – stop right now and head over to the ENO’s Opera Undressed page. It’s everything you need.
Plus I know for a fact that there are two more OperaUndressed nights for the Merry Widow; don’t hesitate, book book BOOK it (feel free to invite me a long as your +1 if you want your hand held, I’d come again in a heartbeat…).
Oh, and a last bonus – once you’ve popped your opera cherry with an Opera Undressed event, you’re in a fabulous members-only club – and for 12mths you gain a HUGE discount on any ticket for almost any production at the Coliseum. *heads to the booking page for the Magic Flute*
Oh, and if you’re looking for a hotel near London Coliseum, we can totally recommend the Kingsley in Holborn – it’s just a 12 minute walk (even in heels) and it’s fabulous, we loved it.