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Building an Opera House in Cyberspace

Jun 27, 2008
Reaching out to new audiences is a challenge for all branches of the arts, but this challenge is all the greater when you're an opera company trying to keep an eighteenth century art form alive and well in the twenty first century.

The music, voices, and dramatic stories based in strong unchanging human emotions- have stood the test of time, but in this media stuffed, fast-paced, screen-age of computer games, high-octane entertainment and attention deficiency can you inject new life into an ancient art form to make it relevant to a whole new audience?

Where is the right space for opera amongst the explosion of easily accessible entertainment? How can opera reinvent itself for the hip-hop generation? How do you tackle the stigma of 'elitism' and create truly popular venues for performance?

These are questions and familiar to all modern opera companies, and one to which there is no easy answer.

Some companies reach out through schools and youth groups engaging youngsters in devising new ways of performing work. They hope that once the youths have discovered for themselves the transcendental power of this timeless music, it will be a huge force for good in their lives.

Others have taken opera out of the theatres and have collaborated with television production companies to create truly popular programmes like the Channel 4's ground breaking 'Operatunity' in 2004 or ITV's 'Britain's Got Talent'.

Their efforts have proven that, taken away from what is perceived by many in the UK as a rich man's club, opera still has true widespread appeal.

Following on from these televisual excursions Lovlisetta Giubblis and her associate Fanny Batta, both with successful careers as sopranos behind them, have gone a step further.

In 2007 the two women, both Continental Europeans now based in the UK, set about the task of building a new opera house; one whose repertoire would attract a new kind of spectator. One that would banish forever the idea that opera is a stuffy, exclusive, pompous entertainment with no relevance in modern society.

Ms Giubblis explains: "We spoke to a lot of young people around the UK and it was depressing to realize that for them opera was just some fat white people singing in a foreign language to an audience of pretentious, rich coffin-dodgers".

"We decided to do everything we could to change that perception."

The enterprising pair started by looking at what interested the young people who would never normally be drawn to opera, in the hope of bringing some old-fashioned culture to the social housing projects and run-down urban areas.

"We wanted to grab the 'ASBO generation' and persuade them to put down their knives, stop texting, pull back their hoods, turn off Snoop Dogg and tune in to Puccini", adds Mrs Batta.

"So We ran some focus groups based around some of the most accessible arias, and we realised pretty quickly that the answer lay in harnessing the power of the internet, and internet video, and of mobile phones. We needed to build our opera house in Cyberspace, then it would be in everybody's neighbourhood."

"Another thing we realized quite quickly was that no-one was going to watch a full blown opera on the small screen, so we needed to devise short versions of classic operas more suited to the medium. We wanted to keep the classic melodies, but we would have to create new stories more relevant to life in the ghetto."

"Language was also a huge barrier. The kids wanted to understand the what was been sung about. We were looking around for a librettist who could write for a youth audience. Someone who could speak with their voice."

The missing piece of the puzzle turned out to be Emiliano Fista, an Italian baritone, and librettist who had been working with young people from London's infamous Craig David Estate for several years.

Emiliano suffers from Tourette's Syndrome and had been forced to retire from singing, but he had thrown himself into writing. His work is multi-textured and manages to reach beyond traditional boundaries. His overt bigotry, profanity, deviant sexuality and obsession with chronic flatulence and are deeply offensive to almost all sections of society on many different levels. When he showed us his work we knew that it was dynamite. Emiliano also had the idea of calling the company 'Pervarotti'."

Thus was born the 'Gran Teatro Pervarotti', the World's first virtual opera house. The first five featured arias are from Fista's masterworks "Frigolletto" and "Don Gayovanni". All are performed with great exuberance by the feline puppet soprano Isabella Strapponi.

Another innovation: all featured songs are in the form of timeless messages which can also be personalized and sent via email and to mobile phones.

Ms Giubbli is hopeful: "I'm very proud of what we've achieved. Basically young people love their phones and they really get a kick out teasing one another and flirting. This can go from poking gentle fun at each other to outright bullying. This usually involves a level of obscenity often accompanied by violence. Hopefully by sending these clips of opera to one another we will manage to reduce the incidence of violence and maybe increase the incidence of singing!"

The proof will be in the pudding, but the site has already come to the attention of one prominent member of the operatic establishment, Dr Jonathan Willer, who described it as being like "The sound of angels farting."

You can decide for yourself by visiting their site - there is a seat ready for you and it's the best one in the house. Although be warned the show does contain pretty strong language and so it's not for those under 16!
About the Author
Maria Fuchs-Alcox is an actress, singer, film-maker and shameless hagiographer. She is currently working as a presenter and reviewer for wiredvideo.net - London's best video production company. Visit the "Gran Teatro Pervarotti: The Home of Rude Puppet Opera ".
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