Lorne Jackson finds a Stravinsky opera taking shape in a harsh Jewellery Quarter warehouse.
I haven’t got a clue how I’m meant to get to the AE Harris building.
Which is why I’ve taken the smart option and hopped in a cab.
Unfortunately the taxi driver doesn’t have a clue how to get to the AE Harris building, either.
For a while we trundle down side streets and inch up dead ends with all the planning and purpose of a ballbearing let loose in a pinball machine.
Eventually the taxi driver breaks to a halt, twists round in his seat, then, with a note of triumph in his voice, like Stanley introducing himself to Dr Livingstone, declares: “Northland Street!”
“Um, no,” I answer, studying the information I printed from the Internet earlier that day. “It’s meant to be on Northwood Street. Northwood.”
The cabbie sighs, turns back to the wheel, and we set off, once more, into the pinball puzzle that is the back streets of Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.
Eventually we find Northwood Street, though still no glimpse of the near mythical AE Harris building.
I continue my quest on foot.
Inquiring in a shop, I’m met with a blank look from the girl behind the counter. It’s past six O’clock now, dark, and the empty road I’m pacing is overshadowed by gloomy Victorian warehouses.
The kind of place a mugging could take place. A dead-end road where the only way to stop yourself being manhandled and robbed is to be the one doing the manhandling and robbing.
Just then I hear a sound. A human voice, screaming.
No, not screaming. There’s tune beneath the tremor.
Which means I’m here at last – the AE Harris building. Yet another ancient warehouse, though at the moment it’s been turned into something else.
It’s the current home of the Birmingham Opera Company.
Opera is arguably the most lavish of the performing arts.
The stereotypical view of a night at the opera is when an audience of plump cheque books gets together to watch some chubby performers warble for a fat fee.
That has never been the Birmingham Opera Company’s way. Almost perversely, they seek out the least salubrious of locations.
They delve into the dingy. Create romance from rubble.
Introduce silky sounds to crude corners of the city that are normally so blank and bereft of culture that even wised-up taxi drivers lose their way attempting to find the location.
Since 2001, when the company was born out of the ashes of the City of Birmingham Touring Opera, they have presented Berg’s Votzek in a dilapidated warehouse on the edge of the Ladywood housing estate, Beethoven’s Fidelio in a big top pitched in Aston Park, near the Villa ground, and Bernstein’s Candide in an old car parts factory in Digbeth.
Now they have taken over the AE Harris building in the Jewellery Quarter, which is where I find members of the company preparing to rehears their latest production, Igor Stravinsky’s The Wedding.
The outside of the building may be a curious location for an opera, but what I’m confronted by inside is even stranger.
It’s a harsh husk of a building. The kind of echoing, moody space where 1980s movie cops got involved in fierce shoot-outs with Armani-suit wearing drug lords.
But instead of bags packed with Columbia’s finest, I spot a grand piano plonked on the cement floor. Next to it is a brazier. Functional furniture is scattered around in a careless looking way. Underneath office chairs are empty bottles of Grolsch.
So this is the set for an opera?
It is indeed, says the Birmingham Opera Company’s artistic director, Graham Vick.
He is excited to be working on the company’s latest production. A little bit scared, too.
“I can’t deny that I’m slightly terrified,” he chuckles. “You see, the way we work, everything is always still being created until the very last minute.”
One of the reason the company’s productions are always in a state of flux is that there is never a guarantee that all the performers will stick around for the final show.
That’s because the company prides itself on using a large number of amateurs, many of whom have never previously worked in opera.
In the latest production there are 160 performers, and only twelve are professionals. (Four soloists and eight in the chorus.)
In every show there are a few who dabble with the experience for a while, then disappear before the final performance.
“There will always be people arriving and then dropping out of the show until the very end,” Vick says with a shrug.
What excuses are given for opting out?
“It can be anything, really. One lad dropped out because his parents got him a surprise weekend holiday on the days that he was meant to be performing with us.
And, of course, he had no idea about it because it was a surprise present. I can’t remember where it was that he went, but it was a special treat.”
Was Vick annoyed that one of his performers chose to go on holiday rather than opt for the opera?
The question is dismissed with a shake of the head. “How could he not go?”
Vick’s nonchalant attitude to his performers’ level of commitment may seem strange.
But it’s an essential ingredient in the mixture that makes Birmingham Opera Company special.
They are committed to nurturing raw, sometimes wayward, talent.
“The nature of the company is that it’s quite free flow,” says Vick. “If we want to welcome people to try out what we do, then they have to be able to pass through it on their own terms.
“I don’t want to stop them walking out the door, for what ever reason they’ve got.
“If they’re not enjoying it, then of course I don’t want to force them to stay.
“However, if they are enjoying it, but they’ve got other pressures, I have to understand that everybody’s got lives.
“So sometimes they can’t quite commit as much as they’d hoped at first.
“But we try and make all that work, though it can be slightly terrifying, as it’s quite a free form way of rehearsal.
“But in the end, I’ve got to say that a lot of the people who are in this simply couldn’t sustain the traditional theatrical disciplines.
“That’s why I’ll never say to anybody, ‘If you’re not prepared to come on time and attend every rehearsal then you’re out.’ They just wouldn’t do it, if that was the case. As long as everyone wants to be here I can make a show”
There may be problems in using a cast largely made up of opera virgins, but bringing in new talent has many positives.
“They bring freshness, enthusiasm, the experience of their own lives,” says Vick.
“It’s all about contrasts. The people who work on our operas couldn’t be less homogenous. So getting a chemistry between such extremes is very exciting.”
As the cast members begin to stream in for rehearsals I get to see exactly what Vick is talking about.
This is a group who perfectly represent the vibrancy and range of Birmingham society.
Old, young. Black, white.
Middle class chappies with wafty hair and Colin Firth body language. Urban kids with hip-hop hustle in their hip-hop hips.
The group are now doing warm-up exercises. Loud music belches from a stereo. And it’s not classical.
Instead, a heavy soul beat ripples to the rafters. If this is opera, then James Brown must be Pavarotti’s twin brother.
Everyone takes part in the warm-up, including Vick. The assistant choreographer, who is leading the exercise commands everybody to “shake ya batty!”
(For those not familiar with street argot, she is telling them to wiggle their posteriors.)
Just when I think things couldn’t get any stranger, the rehearsal gets going in earnest.
The Wedding – which has both words and music by Stravinsky – is a half hour piece.
The Birmingham Opera Company describe it on their website as a “screaming, shrieking, flat out masterpiece”. Originally written as a ballet for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in 1923, Stravinsky drew on Russian traditions, though there is also a Jazz age snap and sassyness to the work.
The piece involves a mass marriage of 112 brides getting hitched to 112 grooms.
The run-up to the wedding blends boozy debauchery and the sadness of the young men and women when they realise they must loosen the links with their beloved parents.
Vick takes the cast through their paces, and the glimpse I see of the performance makes me realise that this will be more of a 60s style ‘happening’ than any traditional operatic piece.
The male cast members simulate a wild night out.
They thrust their pelvises against the brick wall, mime sexual acts and urination.
Meanwhile, the brides demurely pace through the various open plan rooms of the warehouse.
In the middle of it all is Vick, shouting, encouraging.
The mild mannered director has morphed into Cecil B DeMille with a Cecil B Demegaphone of a voice.
When the work is finally ready, the audience will be able to walk from room to room, mingling with performers. It promises to be some show, where every rule and convention of traditional opera will be gleefully dispensed with.
“That’s why we work in buildings like this,” says Vick.
“Big, smart buildings put too many people off coming to the opera.
“Lots of people don’t necessarily feel comfortable in fancy theatres.
“They think opera has a set of rules that must be applied, and they don’t necessarily know the rules.
“But we break free from all that convention, so the audience don’t have to deal with all the old baggage.
“Instead, they can come here and just get blown away by the fabulous music and amazing storytelling.
“That’s the heart and soul of opera – what it’s really all about.”
* The Birmingham Opera Company perform The Wedding by Igor Stravinsky at the AE Harris Building, 150 Northwood Street, Birmingham on Friday 19 November 8.30pm, Saturday 20 November 7.30pm & 9pm and Sunday 21st November 4pm & 5.30pm. For more information www.birminghamopera.org.uk