One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed opera in the past is because of the lavish sets: an atmospheric street with looming shadows in Puccini’s La Boheme, or a never-ending treadmill of stone slabs in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Pop-Up opera can’t offer this, but in its place is energy and buckets of emotion. In this staging of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, you won’t see a lavish woodland wonderland, but you will see a lot of action taking place around a Hotpoint fridge.
Pop-Up opera describe themselves as ‘an innovative touring opera company which aims to broaden the appeal of opera and to challenge the way opera is performed’. As an expanding touring company they specialise in staging their work in unusual venues. This time it was the turn of the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. With stone floor and high ceilings, the performers need to work hard at enunciating, and Gretel, played by soprano Sofia Larsson, was a little lost.
This transgressive tale of two hungry children, performed in German, is paired with witty paraphrasing on the screen behind: ‘A treat? Could you be more specific?’ It was a little unsettling having the slides operated by a man with a laptop sat next to me, no matter. This is charming stuff. All of the cast are classically trained with impressive CVs. Hansel, a gutsy mezzo soprano played by Polly Leech, channelled her inner Kevin the Teenager but it was the mother down on her knees, pleading with God to feed her kids who stole the show.
With a tiny set to speak of, it helps to ramp up the energy, and there’s some terrific physical theatre. Like giant gingerbread men? Course you do! They dance in the hands of a witch in an apron, hungry eyes hidden behind thick-lensed wayfarer glasses. Witches come in all sorts of guises and so does opera.