I have only attended an opera performance twice in my life. The first was at Covent Garden in the 70s, a rather good seat I managed to get for five pounds. The performance of Peter Grimes was somewhat spoilt by the man sitting behind me attempting to pick up the woman sitting next to me. I can’t remember if he succeeded or not. Nor can I remember much of the opera.
There were no such shenanigans at the second performance I attended a couple of Saturdays ago. I am not sure why it took me so long. I have listened to and enjoyed a lot of opera on radio and disc. I have even watched the Ingmar Bergman film of the Magic Flute, though I think I fell asleep halfway through.
But this performance was rather special. The production of the Bartered Bride was audio described and a first in Wellington. I have watched audio described movies and live theatre, but for some reason I was particularly excited about the opera. Perhaps it was the attraction of the touch tour beforehand, which lived up to my expectations completely.
The St James is a lovely old theatre. It has real atmosphere, the wonderful musty dusty evocative theatre smell, the dimensions of the ornate Victorian auditorium and the narrow dim wooden staircases and draped velvet curtains summoning up the ghosts of former productions in the empty auditorium. Going up onto the stage and looking out, up into the gods was a treat for those of us who could see enough to appreciate it. But the cast members who generously made themselves available in costume to talk to us, and the sets we could get close to and touch gave the whole performance an extra dimension of delight.
Getting up close and personal to the very realistic bear reminded me of the legendary children’s theatre in Christchurch, where I went every year as a child from the age of four until my teens. I used to be taken backstage to see the actors in costume. My enduring love of the theatre dates from those performances.
The whole opera experience was very friendly, very hands on. We were sent a Word copy of the programme in advance, an extra pleasure as I can never read them. Before the performance we were given an introduction from the audio describers, one of whom is a good friend. Their voices and the pace of audio description were appropriate, and their delivery was warm and with obvious enjoyment. The lively circus scene presented them with quite a challenge, which they met with aplomb.
The production was in English, which helped, but all the preliminaries and the audio description contributed to a memorable and very accessible experience. I feel encouraged to attempt a more challenging production should one be offered.
The only, very small criticisms are that some of the dialogue was hard to hear from our seats at the back of the stalls, and the ushers were a bit over-anxious, a minor fault which increasing interaction will overcome. The booking process might have been a bit clearer, and next time the production could be networked more in advance.
But these were very minor. After all it was a first for New Zealand Opera. It was good practice to include the audio description dates and information in the main publicity. That makes accessibility an everyday thing, which is just as it should be.
Thank you everyone from NBR New Zealand opera who was part of the action. Please do it again, soon.