The following article was first published in the December 2016 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:
The British tradition of wandering minstrels and itinerant actors can be traced back for hundreds of years. Transporting that tradition into the 21st century is Opera Anywhere, a touring company bringing music and drama to venues across the country, from railway stations to stately homes. Now a registered charity, the group was formed in 2000 by married couple Mike and Vanessa Woodward. “We have a passion for making opera accessible”, Mike tells us. “Not just pricing but choosing venues where people can be comfortable and happy.”
It’s the intimacy of performing in smaller locations that particularly appeals to Opera Anywhere. They’ll happily put on a show anywhere within commuting distance of their Oxfordshire base. “We tend to leave early on the morning of the performance and will do a half-day rehearsal in the venue before the performance in the evening. It’s quite gruelling but it works.”
The set, the costumes and the performers all travel in two customised vans, sometimes with lighting equipment and a temporary stage as well. This lean yet practical style also applies to the company structure: Mike is the only full-time employee, his wife Vanessa works part-time and the board of trustees are all volunteers. Everyone else is freelance, contracted for a particular show. When the Opera Anywhere vans arrive in Lewes, they’ll bring ten professional singers and a ‘mini-orchestra’ of two musicians. Mike’s the stage manager and production manager, helped in his duties by a lighting designer and Vanessa, who manages the costumes.
They’re performing The Magic Flute at the moment. “From a musical point of view, I think it’s one of Mozart’s best-crafted operas”, says Mike. “The storyline is a magical tale that attracts all ages. There are some great tunes… and some great voice types on display.” There are also changes from Mozart’s original work. “We’ve got a fantastic English edition of the opera. This production is set in the 1950s with a kind-of Hollywood glamour theme. It’s been carefully edited to just over 2 hours long, so the story still makes sense but has a faster pace.”
Although the world-class Glyndebourne opera house is just up the road, Mike still expects Lewes to deliver the usual broad audience that his shows attract. “Sometimes you get people who have never seen an opera before; some people will come because it’s their particular favourite.” And there’s no rivalry between opera companies, either. “People in this industry don’t really see each other as competitive. We’re all here to celebrate this fantastic art form”.
But what makes opera so special? “I find the combination of music and drama to be the ultimate theatrical experience”, Mike explains. “It reaches a whole range of senses. It compels you to give it your complete concentration. You completely switch off from everything else that’s going on in your life for a couple of hours.”
The Magic Flute is performed at Lewes Little Theatre on Friday 30th December 2016 at 6pm. Tickets £20 from operaanywhere.com or telephone 0333 666 3366