The Opera Group is bringing operas by Shostakovich and Judith Weir to the West Midlands this month. The acclaimed company's Birmingham-born artistic director John Fulljames talks to Terry Grimley...
Strange though it may seem, the composer whose music reflects some of the darkest events of the 20th century, and who wrote a string quartet which has been described as a suicide note, also wrote one of the funniest operas in the history of music.
"It's one of the few operas you really belly-laugh at," says director John Fulljames of Shostakovich's The Nose.
The opera is based on Gogol's satirical story abut a man who wakes one day to find that his nose has taken off for a stroll round the town, and becomes involved in ever-more frantic adventures in trying to track it down.
Written when he was just 23, four years after the precocious First Symphony, The Nose reflects the short-lived early Soviet era of unbridled artistic experiment.
"I think it's very much influenced by the world of silent cinema, of Chaplin and Keaton," says Fulljames, whose production for his company The Opera Group was hailed by critics as "brilliantly inventive" and "nothing short of genius" when it was first staged in 2001.
"It's interesting that when Shostakovich wrote it he was keeping body and soul together by playing piano in a cinema. It's infused with a love of cinema and the theatre, but it's also the work of a young man who is willing to make brave experiments. In a way there are no rules. Nineteen-twenty-eight was the end of an era of great experiment, before Stalin cracked down.
"What I think you see in The Nose is a freedom to play with form which you don't see in [Shostakovich's later opera] The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. It wasn't performed between 1930 and 1974."
The opera has about 70 roles and a chorus. Nothing daunted, The Opera Group does it with a cast of nine, who perform all the roles between them.
"It's very much not grand opera," says Fulljames.
"Shostakovich wrote for a small orchestra but with ten percussionists. When the barber is arrested and is being interviewed by the chief
of police there's a three-minute interlude just for percussion. Varese wrote a piece for percussion in the 1930s that is regarded as seminal, but Shostakovich got there first. We've got ten players, so that's Shostakovich's original orchestra but with single strings, and everyone in the orchestra plays percussion."
There's a chance to see this acclaimed production at the Lichfield Garrick on Tuesday as part of the Lichfield Festival, but this is only the first of two offerings from The Opera Group, which is touring to the West Midlands this month.
The other, coming to Birmingham's Crescent Theatre on July 29, is a new version of Judith Weir's Blond Eckbert. First staged by English National Opera in 1993, it has been revised by the composer in a reduced version for this production.
"I looked at the score and thought it was a piece that was very intimate," says Fulljames.
"I suppose you could say it's a dark fairytale. It's like a round-the-fire ghost story. There are ten interludes based on a novella by Ludwig Tieck, a precursor of the Brothers Grimm. Tieck turns it into a literary form, playing with the storytelling tradition.
"That's something that Judith is very interested in. In Birmingham she did a series of pieces with the Indian storyteller, Vayu Naidu. In the first part of Blond Eckbert, Eckbert's wife Bertha is telling her life story, but we are not sure whether or not she is telling it as it really happened.
"What I think Judith has done very successfully is to combine the fairy story with a Hitchcock-like thriller."
Blonde Eckbert is a very short opera, running for just an hour, so on this tour it is preceded by two short fairytale settings - Really? by Judith Weir after The Brothers Grimm and Johann Peter Hebel, and Small Tales Tall Tales by Kenneth Hesketh after The Brothers Grimm.
These are exciting times for The Opera Group, which is riding a tide of critical enthusiasm and has recently become an associate company of the Young Vic.
Next up is a new commission from Jonathan Dove, a family show called The Enchanted Pig, which will open in London over Christmas and then tour.
"We have no plans to bring that to Birmingham, unfortunately," says John Fulljames. "But we also have a new piece by Edward Rushton [whose first opera Young Man With a Carnation brought the company early success], and we're very much hoping to bring that to Birmingham."
* The Opera Group presents The Nose at the Lichfield Garrick on Tuesday at 7.15pm (Box office: 01543 412121) and Blond Eckbert at the Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, on July 29 at 7.30pm (Box office: 0121 643 5858).