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Opera in The Arch Cafe

Submitted by on May 14, 2013 – 4:31 pmNo Comment


Opera is intimidating.

Opera people are formidable and strange.

Opera singing demands vocal chords that have been forged in Valhalla and a lung capacity that could extinguish a modest forest fire with just one puff.

Opera requires specially reinforced buildings and a stage that can hold an entire castle (including moat) and two warring armies and still have room for a diamond encrusted barge and a chorus of evil dwarves.

Opera is the roaring cataract foaming over titanic rocks compared to which most other music is like unto a dripping tap in a tinny sink.

Opera goers ride to opera in coaches made of thousand year old oak trees from the family’s ancestral estate, pulled by six jet black geldings.

During interludes, opera goers eat caviar, quails eggs, and delicate slivers of the deep fried hide of a white rhino, from precious bone china brought to their personal opera box by the serving eunach.

Opera just isn’t very British.

That’s what I know for a fact about opera. I read it in the Yorkshire Post, it must be true.

If, like me, you are a bit of a pleb you probably harbour similar fantasies about opera, illusions that are hard to dispel as it’s more likely you’d swallow a pint of thumbtacks than ever willingly cross the threshold of an operatically inclined establishment. If, like me, you are a bit scared of all that funny singing and improbable costumery, you think you might possibly be willing to subject yourself to an aurally unaccustomed experience if – and only if – you came upon it quite by surprise in familiar surroundings. If, like me, you may reluctantly enjoy a bit of opera if all the operatic bits were taken out, then the Opera North event in The Arch Cafe last Saturday afternoon was just about as perfect as it gets.

The idea was simple. One singer, a handful of songs, and an accordionist. I have to admit I never associate that weirdest of instruments with opera – I think of the accordion as the duck-billed platypus of the musical world, comical, ungainly and oddly shaped, but endearing even though nobody quite knows what to make of it. There was none of the pomp and ceremony that goes with opera – the cafe stayed open and the tinkling of teacups and whispered ordering of panini and coffee and chocolate brownies provided the backdrop against which singer and accordion had to contend.

And it was utterly beautiful and completely magical. Obviously the singing and playing were brilliant – they were Opera North! – but what made it special was how both performers made themselves at home in the space. Conditions can’t have been easy. It was hot in there, sausages were frying, toast was toasting, coffee was perking and the regular punters were forking the last bit of cake from their plate – not, I imagine, the regular circumstances that opera stars can command. But when I was there the audience was riveted.

One lady in the corner beamed the whole half hour. My table companion – an old chap, a regular who had to dash off early to look after his poorly wife, he said (but stayed put until the end) – banged the table and “hoorayed” after every song. A young guy with a beard, an exorbitant beret, and an existentialist (lack of) expression, scribbled notes into his newspaper haughtily, but you could tell he was loving it. Two teenage lads in the corner, obviously here on sufferance with the parents, stole the occasional glance from behind hoodies, evidently interested (though whether their interest was solely for the music or more hormonally motivated is anyone’s guess.) And, best of all, a young girl on her mum’s knee (seven, maybe eight years old I’d guess) eating cake, paused with fork in mouth for a whole twenty seconds, completely rapt, whilst the singer belted out La Vie en Rose … then clapped her little heart out.

Just lovely.

Between each song the singer explained the context of the next tune. The whole thing lasted barely thirty minutes. I reckon they could have gone on for another hour and nobody would have protested. It didn’t feel at all like you expect opera to feel … it was genuinely enjoyable! And there was cake. Bloody good cake.

I don’t know how many people in The Arch were regulars and how many had come specially for the event. I only found out about it the day before, quite by accident. Great idea though, Opera North. Hope they’ll be doing more stuff like that. And good for The Arch Cafe and Age Uk Leeds for persuading them that it would be a good idea to take opera out of the opera house.

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