Ahead of The Burning Question's opening on the 15 Feb, we caught up with the composer & producer, Edward Lambert, to explore the genre, themes & development of the operatic comedy.
What makes opera special?
Get an opera singer or two. Take them into a class of school children. The youngsters will be gob-smacked. It never fails: the sound of an operatic voice! When the first notes are sung, the children will gasp audibly. Jaws open, eyes pop out. Wow! The sound of these voices when you hear them close up!
More often than not nowadays, we hear singers through speakers or headphones. But the voices of opera singers in the flesh aren’t amplified in any way - they’re completely natural and it takes years to develop them.
That’s at the heart of what opera is all about: the voice. To state the obvious: opera is sung! That plants it firmly in the world of fantasy, as opera, by definition, can bear no resemblance to reality. Even if the human dilemmas are life-like - think of The Marriage of Figaro or La Boheme - the drama is played out in song.
Opera is elitist, isn't it?
Naturally, the greatest voices grace our large opera houses; and the greatest of those sail effortlessly over the orchestra into the vast spaces beyond. Combined with the spectacle that wealthy opera companies can produce, the effect is unforgettable. Yet everything appears, and sounds, far away.
But London now has a vibrant operatic fringe presenting intimate versions of operas that bring this enchanting world closer to new audiences. These productions are more accessible in all sorts of ways, not least in terms of cost. King's Head Theatre played an important part in this movement, becoming known for a time as London's small opera house. To hear and see fine singers close-up rather than on a distant stage is a more inclusive experience. In this way, opera reaches places it otherwise wouldn't.
Jenny Weston, a movement director for innumerable large-scale productions says, “Having worked on and attended large arena-type opera productions where the audience are merely spectators, the added joy of working on a more intimate up-close opera is exciting - where the audience can almost be part of the action and directly experience the energy created in the performance space.”
What about new operas?
Compared to the real thing, however, these reduced versions are a pale shadow of the original works whose grandeur was designed to intoxicate and overwhelm the senses. But what if operas weren't so grand to begin with? What if they were designed from the ground up to be performed in a small space?
As a composer, creating new stuff is naturally what interests me most and I believe new, small-scale, sustainable work has to be the way forward if opera is not to remain in a museum.
And The Burning Question?
With my group, The Music Troupe, I've been producing and performing such pieces for nearly ten years now. (We're by no means alone). Our latest piece is a comedy on the subject of life and death. It's unreal, it's absurd - but such is the nature of opera that it can succeed in fantasy worlds better than any other art form.
Norman Welch, an American living in London, got the idea for The Burning Question in 2019 when it was reported that the Pope had got stuck in a lift. Back in the U.S., Norman had been a rock music journalist. Obsessed with the Sex Pistols, he came to opera when their manager, Malcolm McLaren, issued the album "Fans" which contained hip-hop versions of famous arias. For both Norman and myself, we had a Eureka! moment in 1987 with the launch of John Adam's ground-breaking "Nixon in China", which showed us how opera could be modern, relevant - and also melodic.
In developing The Burning Question, Norman was fascinated by the fact that a major spiritual leader had to be rescued by a humble firefighter. I saw the lift as transport to heaven: its occupant stranded between heaven and hell in a Dantesque dilemma, a divine comedy taking place in the heart of a religious establishment, and in the country of opera's origin, too.
We turned everything upside down: the firefighter becomes an 'arsonist' whose job is to instigate the cleansing fire of purgatory. We also made our pope female. Only after we'd finished it did we learn that in medieval times there had been rumours of a female pope - some say she was English - whose sex was discovered when she gave birth. (Poor woman, she was then summarily executed).
Opera's a variety show!
So opera is good at having everything thrown at it. You can come at it from lots of different directions: opera is a genre that's infinitely variable and, simply, great fun.
That goes for the music too. Benjamin Britten once said that to write a good opera you had to write lots of different kinds of music. Nothing matters except the need to underscore the drama and express it in song.
And so we come back to where we started: opera shows off the power and beauty of the human voice and its unique ability to communicate the emotions of the heart through sound. Little wonder that it first sprung to life in Italy and in The Burning Question we pay homage to that heritage.
The Italian mezzo-soprano Arlene Belli, as The Pope in The Burning Question. "My mum told me not to be an archaeologist because of the awful conditions outside; my dad said he'd disinherit me if I became an architect like him. Meanwhile I was singing along to a recording of Maria Callas in The Barber of Seville while they watched TV. I later graduated in political science - but here I am now creating the role of a lesbian pope. It's funny what life throws at you!"