Grimeborn: low budgets, crazy sets and singers almost on your knees – 15 years of Dalston Opera Festival


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n 2015, director Julia Burbach was challenged to stage Madama Butterfly, one of the most beloved operas of all time, on a budget of “something like” £500. He was due to perform as part of Grimeborn, an edgy opera festival that has become an annual fixture in east London.

Rather than proving limiting, the chance to play Grimeborn opened the opera to her. She created a world inspired by Japanese folk ghost stories, with a drawing in paper and chalk and some props rented from the National Theater. “It was a success and it went from there. I knew the festival had a very good reputation and was growing.

“I firmly believe that good art does not depend on big budgets,” adds Burbach. “With invention, thought and good creative teams, you can do a lot.”

This spirit of creativity, invention, quality work, all achieved with tiny budgets, has been the hallmark of Grimeborn, which this year celebrates its 15e anniversary since it opened at the Arcola Theater in Dalston in 2007.

Bass baritone Paul Carey Jones with director Julia Burbach in rehearsals for Siegfried

/ Alex Brenner

“Grimeborn provides a very important part of London’s summer opera season because it’s very different from other places,” says Burbach, personnel manager at the Royal Opera. “It’s a springboard for young directors, young creators, and even for those who are more established.”

The origins of the festival date back to when theater maker Mehmet Ergen received an invitation from Tom Morris, then artistic director of the Battersea Arts Centre, to be a producer for the BAC Opera Festival in the late 1990s. to do different kinds of things,” Ergen says, adding that he enjoyed working on repertoire from The Cradle Will Rock, a 1937 opera about steelworkers struggling to organize themselves, to Lost in the Stars, the final theatrical work by Kurt Weill. .

Ergen then founded the Arcola with Leyla Nazli at the turn of the century in a former textile factory in Dalston. He recalls the theater contributing to a musical evening hosted by Fr Niall Weir at the local St Barnabas Church on the corner of Arcola Street and Shacklewell Lane.

“It was quite difficult and there were still a lot of shootings and prostitutes near there,” he says, but the event went well. “It was a wonderful evening of songs and arias. The Arcola brought something musical. That night there was a Grimeborn joke – we knew we wanted to call it that.

Arcole Theater

A pun on Glyndebourne’s summer opera festival, known for its more elite awards, lawn picnics and dickie bows, it was a name which, according to one critic, “put warning of a security challenge to the opera”.

And that’s how Grimeborn was born in 2007. “We started our summer seasons,” says Ergen. “It was unpretentious, with everything on the same level. It’s that English eccentricity, like holding an umbrella in the rain at a barbecue – we were in a factory in Dalston, making everything from Monteverdi to Mozart.

New work and scratch nights are key elements of the festival, while classics are revised, reinvented and reimagined with fewer musicians, in scaled down versions. Exciting and experimental composers have a chance and young artists can rub shoulders with veterans. “It’s a different way of thinking about opera,” says Burbach. “You get scaled down in terms of orchestration, length, and characters. It’s scaled down in a lot of ways. That doesn’t necessarily make it less, it makes it different. Some people may prefer shorter work that highlights highlights different sides of the story.

Although in 2011 the Arcola moved to its current location in a former paint shop 10 minutes walk from the original site, the energy of Grimeborn remains the same. “We always had at least 10 to 15 plays, people getting the opera very cheaply,” Ergen says. “It was in Grimeborn that a lot of people said to me: ‘It’s the first time I’ve heard Italian airs, opera is wonderful.’ I know a lot of people only see opera at this level, when it’s cheap.

Mehmet Ergen and Leyla Nazli

/ Daniel Hambury/@stellapicsltd

This year’s festival opened last night with Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and in total presents 13 operas, including four new ones. Other productions include a reimagined Carmen set in a modern London supermarket and The Unraveling Fantasia of Miss H., a new composition based on the life of Mary Frances Heaton, “a Victorian woman imprisoned by a control-minded society”. .

Cervantes Theatre, a London company that performs Spanish and Latin American plays, will stage Black, el payaso, directed by Paula Paz. Paz had been to Grimeborn as an audience member and had worked on other editions of the event. “It’s a unique festival. The fact that it is a pocket opera in a smaller format is a great opportunity.

She particularly enjoys the intimacy of watching opera in a 200-seat hall, very different from the viewing experience at Covent Garden or the English National Opera. “You are immersed; you can almost touch the singers. There’s a closeness that almost brings out a different experience of the opera world and attracts a different audience,” she says.

Paz fondly remembers watching La Traviata when he was practically next to the singers. “It was a wonderful experience. It’s like you’re sitting where the action is. I would recommend it to anyone once in a lifetime as you rarely get the chance to listen to a tune as if you were sitting on the stage with the singers.

Paula Paz

/ Handout

These singers may be shocked, says Burbach. “Some people think, ‘Oh my God, the audience is really close.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, and if you’re not good and they fall asleep, you’ll see.’ So it’s actually very difficult, but it’s a great experience. You can really feel if you have them. That closeness is very special.

This year also marks the conclusion of the ambitious Ring Cycle, with a double program of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. It follows Das Rheingold at the Arcola in 2019, with Die Walküre last summer at Hackney Empire.

Burbach is conducting and that means the likely end of his work at the festival – “what am I going to do after the Ring Cycle?” – but she says, “It was very important to my growth as a director, and I wouldn’t be where I am now without it.”

Die Walkure at Hackney Empire, part of Grimeborn Festival 2021

/ Alex Brenner

Festivals like Grimeborn help demystify opera and bring it to a wider audience, she continues. “This whole issue of opera and elitism is a structural problem, not a content problem, and maybe it’s a public relations problem. Things I’ve done at Arcola and other places people of all ages have come and watched things that weren’t in the same language of their country and they weren’t fazed “, she says.

“I don’t think you have to be educated in opera to enjoy it. It’s about telling stories and if you tell the story well, everyone can benefit from it. You might not like baroque opera, but you might like Puccini. Opera is a very broad field and I think it just needs to be decluttered. There are good ones and bad ones, the ones you will like and the ones you don’t. It’s like musicals, you might not like The Lion King, but you might like Frozen.

She adds that for high-end opera, inevitably, cost is the biggest barrier to expanding audiences. “If things are cheaper, it’s easier to give things a chance. More people would go to Glyndebourne, Opera House and ENO if things were cheaper. Why wouldn’t they? People are generally up for things. You don’t have to like it and you’re not stupid if you don’t like it.

This is confirmed by the continued appetite for work at Grimeborn. “Audiences have grown so much that next year we’ll probably do at least eight to nine weeks instead of our usual five or six weeks,” Ergen said. “There are more audiences for opera than for many plays… With opera, there is nothing that does not receive an audience.”

Grimeborn lasts until September 10; arcolatheatre.com/grimeborn

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