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OperaUpClose’s Eugene Onegin at the Arcola: ‘It’s a feminist story’

PUBLISHED: 15:15 06 December 2017 | UPDATED: 15:15 06 December 2017

OperaUpClose's Eugene Onegin at the Arcola Theatre

OperaUpClose's Eugene Onegin at the Arcola Theatre

Archant

Hackney resident and OperaUpClose artistic director Robin Norton-Hale talks about her feminist reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin

“There’s no need to have prior knowledge of opera or Eugene Onegin to enjoy this production,” says Robin Norton-Hale. “There’s no homework to do beforehand.”

It may be based on a nineteenth century Russian verse poem, but Eugene Onegin, which debuts at the Arcola from November 22, is “very relatable”, she promises. “It’s about the intensity of first love and the compromises you’re forced to make as you grow up.”

Norton-Hale, artistic director and co-founder of OperaUpClose (formerly attached to the King’s Head Theatre), made her name as an opera translator in 2011 with a new version of Puccini’s La Bohéme. “I decided that the existing translation was too archaic for the scale I needed – we were staging the opera in a 35-seat room above a pub – so I wrote my own version. The show took off, transferred to the West End, and won an Olivier Award.”

But Hackney resident Norton-Hale’s role extends beyond translation. “It’s more like transposition: transposing setting and period brings new qualities to opera and draws it into new discourses.” Her latest project, Eugene Onegin, recasts Tchaikovsky’s opera as a feminist narrative set in the 1960s.

“Our Onegin resembles Don Draper from Mad Men,” Norton Hale explains. “He’s a bit of a blank, resembling what other people want him to be and giving nothing away himself. Our reference for Tatyana was Carey Mulligan’s character in Lone Scherfig’s recent film, An Education.”

“Tatyana has always been characterised as a bookish young woman. By setting the opera in the sixties her character could pursue a writing career.” The crucial difference between the original opera and this new reimagining becomes Tatyana’s rejection of Onegin. No longer motivated by a sense of married duty or fear of social judgment, Norton-Hale’s ‘career girl’ understands that Onegin would restrict her: “It becomes a feminist story.”

To make this change, Norton-Hale removed the character of Tatyana’s husband, in an alteration she acknowledges might upset purists. “But before I stage anything I think it’s important to ask, ‘why am I telling this story now?’ There seem to be powerful justifications for telling this version of the story now.”

The artistic director’s motivation lies in a desire to maintain opera’s relevance and increase its accessibility.

“Transposition allows me to reduce cast size, making it possible to tour and stage productions at smaller venues like the Arcola.”

“As well as reaching more audiences, performing opera in this intimate way enables audiences to appreciate the sheer athleticism of creating operatic sound.”

OperaUpClose productions expose the sinews at work beneath the spectacle. In their recent production of The Magic Flute at Soho Theatre, spectators could make out the Queen of the Night’s stomach muscles, working to support the coloratura in her arias.

Because of the physical demands of this production, Eugene Onegin will run with two casts, starring Josephine Thorpe and Lucy Hall as Tatyana, Felix Kemp and Tom Stoddart as Onegin, and Anthony Flaum and Cliff Zamitt-Stevens as Lensky.

After Eugene Onegin, which commences a UK tour following its run at the Arcola, Norton-Hale’s next project will be a transposition of Maria Stuarda by Donizetti.

“It’s an Italian opera based on Schiller’s play about Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I,” she says. “I think it’s a very interesting story to tell now because of contemporary debates around national sovereignty and female political leadership.”

Eugene Onegin’s debut at the Arcola is also the East End debut for OperaUpClose.

“I’ve lived in Hackney for fourteen years, so I love the Arcola. They’ve been incredibly supportive, and likewise we’re giving away tickets to their youth company, so that more young people can get into opera. Hopefully it’ll be an ongoing partnership.”

Eugene Onegin runs until December 23. The Arcola Theatre, Ashwin Street, E8 3DL arcolatheare.com

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