In late November I saw the world premiere of the contemporary opera Marnie at the London Coliseum. In addition to the dozen or so principals, I counted a chorus of 37 who appeared variously as office workers, funeral mourners and party guests. Plus 10 dancers who doubled as scene shifters, and four additional Marnie alter egos. That made an on-stage cast of over 60; add in the orchestra, the lighting engineers and the rest of the backstage crew, and it meant that well over 100 people were working to entertain you every night.
It was, as you might expect, a spectacular display. Perhaps it needed to be this way; composer Nico Muhly’s spiky score avoids the singers performing anything that might conceivably be construed as a tune, and those lavish production values help to maintain the audience’s interest. When the score is hard to follow, the constant movement of the set keeps you going: snooker tables, pubs and entire offices are wheeled on and off to set each scene.
But opera doesn’t need all these trappings, and it doesn’t need to cost upwards of £100 a ticket. Just across the river from the Coliseum, the complex underground network of spaces that forms Waterloo’s Vaults was this year host to Vixen, an outstanding modern-day production of Janacek’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen.
In this contemporary reworking, the woodland animal at the heart of the original story is now a homeless girl living, appropriately, under the arches beneath Waterloo Station. In a promenade performance the audience follows the cast from scene to scene, wearing cordless headphones to hear as a recorded orchestral soundtrack based on the original score is mixed with live performances from musicians who may be sitting right next to you, as well as the amplified voices of the singers who mingle with the crowd.
The setting, the exuberance and talent of the young cast and the freshness of the delivery made this opera more immediate, relevant and fresh than any I’ve seen before. The Coliseum and Royal Opera House may put on lavish spectacles, but the sheer raw energy and innovation of Vixen made it the most compelling and enjoyable opera I’ve ever seen.