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OperaUpClose and Personal

Mark Valencia talks to Robin Norton-Hale about Carmen, which opens at Soho Theatre this evening

Melanie Sanders (Mercedes); Lawrence Olsworth-Peter (Remandado); Anthony Flaum (Jose); Flora McIntosh (Carmen); Emily-Jane Thomas (Frasquita)
© Andreas Grieger

To paraphrase Bizet's heroine, OperaUpClose is a wilful bird that cannot be tamed. Ever since the nascent company first wowed the opera world with its Olivier Award winning La bohème at Kilburn's lamented Cock Tavern, a production WhatsOnStage described in 2010 as "opera with the gloves off", it has dared to travel roads untrodden.

Not everything OUC has tried since has worked as well, it must be said, and a lengthy residency at the King's Head Theatre seemed to cramp its flair rather than release it. Now, though, like Bizet's bird, it is flying free once more. A first-rate touring production of La traviata opened last summer at the Soho Theatre, and now here comes Carmen at the same venue to help fill opera's summer void.

The common factor in all of these projects is Robin Norton-Hale, the company's co-founder and artistic director. Her take on Mérimée's passionate tale promises a very modern sensibility.

"Carmen is murdered by her ex-partner. She has this in common with more than two women a week in England and Wales who are killed by a current or former partner. What she also has in common with these women is that she does not deserve to die."

Norton-Hale has adapted the libretto into contemporary English and Harry Blake, in keeping with OUC's compact aesthetic, has re-orchestrated Bizet's richly coloured score for woodwind, piano and string quartet.

It's by no means the first time Carmen has been pared back in this way, as anyone who saw Peter Brook's La Tragédie de Carmen will remember; but Norton-Hale's proposition is ripe for the 21st Century.

"There is no typical victim of domestic abuse, but there is a stereotypical one – a meek, easily browbeaten, isolated woman. Carmen does not fit this image. She is confident, bright, apparently unfettered, and has a strong support network. None of this protects her from what happens to her. She also mocks, criticises and challenges José and – worst of all perhaps – leaves him. Is this provocation to murder?"

Now that it's become an itinerant company, OperaUpClose has ambitious plans to expand its artistic horizons and develop an energetic outreach and touring programme. In addition to continuing to work with Soho Theatre, in 2015 there'll be shows at the Tricycle Theatre and elsewhere, as well as tours to venues including Salisbury Playhouse, Oxford Playhouse and the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry.

To underline its new intent, the company's next project will be an award-winning children's opera, Ulla's Odyssey, by New Zealand composer Anthony Young. Inspired by Homer's original, it includes live music and puppetry and plays on Sundays at King's Place throughout much of the autumn season.

Carmen is now playing at the Soho Theatre and runs until 19 September. Ulla's Odyssey opens at King's Place on 11 October. Previous OUC productions The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro and La traviata can be seen at various UK venues this autumn.