Opera's other ring

Opera at the big houses is a circus with acts that include £10million donations, vanity productions and shuffle maestros. My photo above was taken last night at an opera as far away from £170 ticket prices as you can get, but it was still a circus.

Great Yarmouth Hippodrome is one of the oldest surviving circus buildings in Europe still used for circus performances. The survival of the remarkable building, which dates from 1904, is almost certainly due to the circular arena, or ring, which very unusually doesn't have a stage. This meant it was unsuitable for conversion into a theatre or cinema, and the structure has survived for more than a century virtually unchanged, although the original audience capacity of three thousand has been reduced to today's Health and Safety friendly nine hudred.

The historic photo below, showing the interior, is the first of two kindly supplied by the current owner Peter Jay, and was taken soon after the Hippodrome was opened. One of the remarkable features of the building is the water feature created when the floor of the circus ring sinks and is flooded with 60,000 gallons of water. The feature is still in regular use, but not for last night's opera!

When the Hippodrome was opened Great Yarmouth was a fashionable seaside resort, and the second historic photo below shows the circus building in its heyday. In the hundred years since then the town's fortunes have declined, with the collapse of both the tourist industry and commercial fishing leaving the area economically blighted, a stark contrast to fashionable Aldeburgh which is just 25 miles to the south.

Today Yarmouth is a bleak place dominated by amusement arcades, fast-food joints, and cheap hotels for migrant workers. The Hippodrome's front lot has been sold as a slot arcade, but, by a miracle, the building remains intact behind it, and is still a working circus due to the heroic efforts of former rock star Peter Jay who now owns and actively manages it (does anyone out there remember Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers?). For details of circus performances follow this link.

Norfolk and Norwich Festival took the inspired decision to bring opera to the Hippodrome in 2007 for the first time ever, with Armonico Consort Touring Opera bringing their much praised production of Purcell's Fairy Queen for just one night. Bringing an innovative production to a new venue in a town that never sees live opera is what music festivals are all about. This adventurous approach simply underlines how the BBC, and other corporations, have hijacked the word 'festival' to give credibility to events such as the BBC Proms that are now little more than cynical exercises in massmarket entertainment and commercialism.

Purcell's Fairy Queen is a musical fantasy (or 'semi-opera') based on the ideas and characters in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Designer Thomas Guthrie took his inspiration for the Armonico Consort production from the 19th century painter of Shakespearian fantasies Richard Dadd. The artist established a reputation in that extraordinary genre, the Victorian fairy painting. But he changed career direction when he was committed to a mental institution in 1843 after killing his father. In echoes of Vincent Van Gogh, an enlightened doctor in Bedlam encouraged Dadd to paint without commercial constraints , and the results inspired last night's production which, as my photos show, was set in an old-style mental hospital.

The production used comedy, music, song, dance, puppetry and circus skill, but was also musically completely authentic and extremely well sung. What an evening! - live music-making of the highest order, imaginative staging that gave real meaning to those tired words 'music theatre', an inspired choice of venue, and a vision from the Norfolk and Norwich Festival that redefined inclusiveness. But above all an evening that challenged our preconceptions of what opera is, what a music festival is, and even what we are. Here are director Thomas Guthrie's wise words:

For me both Dadd and Fairy Queen represent the need for marriage within us all, whether we are actually 'married' at all, or even inclined to it. The marriage in the Fairy Queen is a union not between characters we have come to know and feel for, as it is in Midsummer Night's Dream, but at a deeper level a marriage of mind and heart, of heaven and earth, fairy and mortal, lost and found, inward feeling and the outward expression of that feeling. It concerns us all because we are in a relationship with ourselves as well as with the world around us. A marriage that none of us can escape.

Now read about how another artist was encouraged to paint by an enlightened doctor
Three production photos taken by Pliable at Hippodrome performance on May 9 2007 using available light with Casio EX-Z120 digital camera. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Garth Trinkl said…
Pliable, this post cheered me enormously on a too-soon-humid, storm-threatening Washington noon. A wonderful post -- insight after insight; wonderful picture after wonderful picture.

Regarding 'visionary' artist Richard Dadd, the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco (Legion of Honor) has on extended loan a Richard Dadd Shakespearean fantasy from the collection of the distinguished American composer and music patron Gordon (Peter)Getty. [It is in the room next to the huge "The Russian Bride's Attire" by Konstantin Egorovich Makovsky.]

Mr. Getty responded so strongly to the need for marriage, cited in the quote at the end of your post, that he, apparently, 'married' twice and maintained dual, well-separated families in special neighborhoods of both Los Angeles and San Francisco (one family of sons and one family of daughters).
Civic Center said…
I'd like to echo garth. That was a wonderful description of a performance.

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