Thursday 22 February 2024

Cinderella in the gas works: Royal Birmingham Conservatoire's site-specific production of Massenet's opera

Jonathan Dove: The Enchanted Pig - Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, 2023 (Photo Greg Milner)
Jonathan Dove: The Enchanted Pig - Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, 2023 (Photo Greg Milner)

On Monday 29 February 2024, the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire debuts its Spring opera production, Massenet's Cendrillon at Gas Street Central in Birmingham. The production involves a collaboration between the London College of Fashion and the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire with a cast of students from the conservatoire's Vocal & Operatic Studies Department plus a team of student set-designers, language coaches, assistant directors, surtitle operators and so on. All directed by Matthew Eberhardt who has created a production set in the 1950s

The venue is a former gas works that originally supplied the gas to the lamps around the city and is now a church. The production will see the audience move through this interesting space.

The conservatoire does not have a specific postgraduate opera course and the performers will be undergraduate and masters vocal students, from the Vocal & Operatic Studies Department which has some 60 to 80 students. The head of department since 2017 is conductor Paul Wingfield. The lack of specific opera course means that undergraduates are able to gain stage experience, including principal roles where suitable, and in Cendrillon there are some 17 undergraduates in principal roles (the opera is double-cast).

There are usually three productions per year, staged scenes in November, a site-specific production in March and a concert performance in June. Previous productions have included Jonathan Dove's The Enchanted Pig (2023), Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen (2023), Charpentier's Les Arts Florissants and Offenbach's Mesdames de la Halles (2022), Stephen McNeff's Banished (2022), Mark-Anthony Turnage's Coraline (2021) and Jeremy Sams' Baroque pasticcio, The Enchanted Island (2020).

The conservatoire does not have it's own theatre, hence offering the students the added experience of working on a site specific production (Birmingham has a rich inheritance of this thanks to Graham Vick's work with Birmingham Opera Company) previous venues have included an old button factory, and a rave bingo venue in Digbeth – the Secret Space, whilst the Moseley Swimming Baths – an architectural wonder, is a possibility for the future.

Each project involves, of course, not just singers but orchestral musicians from the conservatoire, and student set designers (from Birmingham City University, of which the conservatoire is part), student assistant directors, student repetiteurs, student assistant conductors, student language coaches.

Since 2022, they have received funding from the Linbury Trust which has not only enabled the collaboration with the London College of Fashion but has enabled the department to extend its Learning & Participation work. 600 school children came to the Opera Scenes in November, and school children have also been involved in set design workshops for Cendrillon (their work will be displayed in the foyer) and there will be a children’s chorus for the Summer opera, Hansel and Gretel.

Cendrillon is at Gas Street Central from 29 February to 2 March, under 18s go free with a paying adult, full details from the conservatoire's website.

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