The word ‘opera’ tends to prompt images of large scale extravaganzas, sweeping sets and a cast of hundreds. However, small can be beautiful – as Adrian Berendt and Joanna Mace, of Tunbridge Wells’ Matchbox Opera, reveal
HOW LONG HAS MATCHBOX OPERA BEEN AROUND?
Adrian (director): The group had its beginnings at least 20 years ago in something called Nevill Park Opera, which was run by a local doctor and he held rehearsals at his house. About 12 years ago, he decided not to do it any more and so Matchbox Opera was formed by a lot of the people who had been in Nevill Park Opera. It started in a very small way and we presented shows in venues like King Charles the Martyr church. Our first show, in 2002, was Rigoletto and we did it in a very low-cost way, but bit by bit we started to add to the professionalism with better costumes and lighting. A few years ago, when we did Tosca, we paid for professionals for the ﬁ rst time. Now we have about 20 members.
AND HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE GROUP TODAY?
Adrian: You could describe us as ‘pro/am’ with an emphasis on the ‘am’. The point of the company is to provide local singers with a chance to sing on stage in full-length operas. There’s no audition process, but if you really can’t sing or learn the lines, people who enjoy being part of it can always contribute to the chorus or by doing other things.
Joanna (box office manager): For young professional singers, it’s important for them to be able to say “I’ve sung Rigoletto” or whatever, albeit on a small scale, when they go to bigger companies. They’ve learned the music and the words, although we always sing in English, but we bring the opera very close to the audience. When you go to somewhere like Glyndebourne, you’re a long way away; even if you’re in the ﬁ rst row, you’ll have the orchestra between you and the stage. But churches are wonderful locations for us. If you take Tosca into a church and see the baddie die in the aisle in front of you, the whole audience is transfixed.
ARE INTIMATE VENUES LIKE CHURCHES SUITED TO OPERA?
Joanna: Definitely, churches are designed for the acoustics to be good. The intimacy of the performance makes up for us not being professionals and we try to have scenery that is minimal and portable.
Adrian: That’s another part of our USP – our shows are all about the singers’ performance, their singing and their ability to tell a story. Actually, having a lot of scenery and props can get in the way of that. The audience might have to use its imagination a bit, but that gives the performer huge freedom to actually deliver the story and connect with the audience. People really appreciate that. Scenery can be fantastic, but you can also lose that intimacy. When it comes to opera plots, a lot of them are frankly ridiculous, but with intimate shows you get to know the message behind the plot, which is often completely relevant to today.
There are certain operas we can’t do though, because we don’t have elephants or huge armies! It’s got to suit the location.
TELL US ABOUT THE MUSIC.
Joanna: This year we paid for a small band, to take pressure off the pianists. The pianists we have are top quality professionals and they get standing ovations at the end, because people realise how much they have to play. But it’s not really an orchestral thing – we did Rigoletto this year and in certain parts it’s important to have the flute and cello. So we were just trying to add more colour, rather than change the nature of what we were doing.
HOW IS MATCHBOX OPERA FUNDED?
Joanna: We’re funded by the singers themselves, by making subscriptions and donations; also by ticket sales. Then it’s just a question of raising awareness of Matchbox. We always manage the finances though; we’ve never ended a year on a minus. Adrian: The most difficult thing about not being a professional company is that we don’t have tons of support on the marketing side. But social media definitely makes the difference when it comes to people’s visibility and we’ve had lots of people approach us via that. Our musical director has devised a showcase for fundraising, called Opera in a Matchbox, which is for hire basically. We’ll go to places like restaurants and perform arias and so on. That’s gone down really well.
IS THERE A GOOD MARKET FOR OPERA IN TUNBRIDGE WELLS?
Adrian: There’s a definite demand among people who know about us and a latent market among those who don’t yet. I think that because of the nature of what we do, we offer a completely different experience to going to a professional opera in London. I would say we model ourselves on some of London’s smaller companies that go to small venues. People can buy a train fare to London, buy an expensive show ticket and not get home until midnight, when they could get 80 to 90 per cent of the experience at King Charles the Martyr.
HOW DO YOU HOPE THE FUTURE WILL PAN OUT FOR MATCHBOX OPERA?
Adrian: I think we’ll continue to work in churches. We’d like to expand the opera in a Matchbox venture and maybe find some other interesting venues; maybe even a flash mob. I think we’d really like to expand our membership, particularly with younger people, and to bring down the average age of our audience. The young people are really the key for me – so many of them come to opera and say: “I had no idea it would be like that”.
Joanna: The media is doing a great deal to make the big opera tunes well-known. If you can come to an opera you haven’t seen before and hear some songs that you know, you’re not going to be completely bemused by what you’re hearing.
This year, Matchbox Opera will be performing Bizet’s Carmen.
For more information visit www.matchboxopera.net