The BBC football commentator John Motson was once asked what his job's routine involved. He replied that on top of the Premier League games which he covered weekly he would also make a point of visiting lower and non-league fixtures at least once a week, to keep abreast of the grass roots, maintain some perspective and maybe even see some rough diamond of talent emerge.
Motson's work sprang to mind as I attended an evening of opera scenes at the adult education institution Morley College in South London last night. The evening consisted in an evening's contiguous performance of eight opera extracts. The simple musical and stage arrangement - piano and conductor, lit stage with a pair of tables and chairs - is no doubt a function of Morley's modest resources, but also representative of the focus on the essentials that put acting, movement and, of course, singing as a priority in presenting an operatic scenario.
The 19th century repertoire in question is not to be undertaken lightly. Even with the pared-down accompaniment, played with conspicuous musical restraint by Kelvin Lim (with Philip Headlam conducting), the gestures the music and its drama demand can often be grand, taking in considerable amplitude of techincal and emotional range. This was certainly the case in the section of Verdi's Luisa Miller, Thomas' Hamlet and the closing stretch of Verdi's Don Carlo (the Act 4 'Justitia' ensemble), and of course in the selected extract of Meyerbeer's La Prophete, (Grand Opera in name). For these, particularly, the emphasis was in moving fleuntly through the blocking that director Joe Austin had prepared, maintaining an unfussy staging without collapsing into a static concert delivery.
For the other extracts - two delightful outtakes of Verdi's Falstaff, a duet from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore and a sparkling trio from Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict - the linking conceit of the space representing a cafe lifted and framed the discursive basis of these ensemble scenes. When not involved in a scene, singers also took on acting roles to supplement the drama (or in one case to supplement an indisposed singer from the 'pit' - pragmatism being the first and most important lesson in theatre!). Costumes and props were kept to a minimum, no doubt provided by the performers as appropriate but comfortable for performing.
The outcome was a very sure and entertaining evening, the emphasis properly being on the work and its drama. And yes, there was some impressive singing. Away from the big houses or other well-trailed professional productions one can often feel cut off from this essential part of the operatic experience. It was nice to re-connect with some of that in this situation.