Sheffield art gallery is offbeat setting for opera

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Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield city centre is the unusual setting for performances of the opera La Boheme starting next week.

The venue, on the top floor of the Central Library on Surrey Street, is the choice of Opera on Location, a Sheffield-based production company run by Gareth Lloyd and Kathryn Gasic.

Puccini's classic opera, La Boh�me, which is being staged at the Graves Gallery by Opera on Location later this month. Andrea Tweedale, Chloe Saywell, Gareth Lloyd, Aiden Edwards and Matthew Palmer

Puccini's classic opera, La Boh�me, which is being staged at the Graves Gallery by Opera on Location later this month. Andrea Tweedale, Chloe Saywell, Gareth Lloyd, Aiden Edwards and Matthew Palmer

Gareth said: “We knew we wanted to do it in an artistic place and it’s such an amazing space, full of really great art and with really amazing acoustics. It’s fabulous to act and sing here.

“It was our first choice so we’re really happy. It’s a good location for everyone to get to.”

Kathryn added: “It’s the first time an opera has been performed here, which is something very exciting. They’ve had burlesque events before!”

La Bohème tells the story of Rodolfo, a highly-educated poet from a wealthy family who has been disinherited and is squatting with three artistic friends in a once grand stately home, now slowly crumbling around him. A brief, passionate affair with a mysterious woman, Mimi, ends in tragedy in this enduring tale of love and loss.

Gareth said: “We’ve updated it and the production is set in the modern day. The opera was quite famously turned into the musical, Rent, but we’re not changing any of the music or story.

“The four main characters have fallen from grace and they’re squatting in this grand place because it’s what they’re used to.

“There’s a lot of pretence and they’ve also fallen into drug use and alcoholism. Some of the female characters have prostituted themselves.”

Gareth said: “We’re staying as close to the original as possible, which is particularly important for me as I play Rodolfo. He’s often played as a fop and he’s often a weak but sympathetic character.”

When director Louise Pymer looked at the libretto for the opera, she realised that Rodolfo actually had a bit of a temper.

Gareth said: “We’ve really brought that out. It’s been challenging to learn that rather than the typical romantic lead. He’s got an edge to him which is really exciting.”

Kathryn is a project co-ordinator for Sheffield-based Music in the Round, organising classical music events.

She and Gareth met as music students at the University of Sheffield, both graduating in 2009, and know most of their cast from those days.

They include Andrea Tweedale, who plays Mimi, Chloe Saywell (Musetta) and Matthew Palmer (Schaunard). All are well-known local singers much in demand.

Opera on Location was formed following a sell-out production of the Benjamin Britten opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year at the Winter Garden. It was part of the city’s year-long centenary festival celebration of the composer, called A Boy Was Born.

Kathryn said: “It was amazing, really great” and it inspired them to do more.

The duo don’t believe opera should be daunting for any audience. Gareth said: “La Boheme is full of good tunes that people will recognise. It’s sung in English so it will be almost like watching a modern-day musical.”

Kathryn added: “It’s not just singing for no reason. All the scenes are sung through so it sounds more conversational. The performers don’t just sing the same thing over and over again, as in other operas.”

Gareth continued: “We love the style and passion that comes with the music. Opera means “the works” and composers wanted to put plays and symphonies together. That’s why the stories tended to be big Greek tragedies.

“They created this thing called opera and it just keeps growing. There’s modern ones now about Anna Nicole Smith and Jerry Springer.

“Opera can be just about real people and their lives.”

The performance will feel very intimate as there will only be 60 people in the audience. The show starts in one gallery and then halfway through a scene the whole audience will move with the singers into a second gallery that represents the city streets.

Gareth said: “The audience should feel really close to the characters and part of the action.”

The performers are singing the whole opera with a cast of six principals and a chorus of five. The chorus has been kept small because the sound of a bigger group would be too overwhelming in the space.

Gareth, who is from Chesterfield, intended to play saxophone at university but became involved in opera productions and moved over to singing.

He graduated in 2009 and has performed with Sheffield City Opera and Sheffield Steel Opera.

Kathryn was an oboeist when she arrived but realised that she prefers the buzz of bringing a production together to the buzz of performing herself. She also teaches harp privately.

So what would their dream production be? Gareth said: “I’d love to do a 1930s version of Tosca in a casino where Scarpia is a Mob boss!”

La Boheme is at the Graves on August 20-3, 26-7 and 29-30.

Tickets are on sale from http://sivtickets.com/event/labohemegravesgallery, by calling 0114 223 3777 or in person from the City Hall Box Office.

n Go to www.thestar.co.uk to see a video chat with Kathryn and Gareth and to see the singers performing in the gallery.