(Silent) Opera: La Boheme

As part of the Vault Festival, which transforms a series of interconnected tunnels underneath Waterloo Station into something theatrical and fabulous this month, I caught a packed production of La Boheme by Silent Opera with @Johnnyfoxlondon.

Like other companies, Silent Opera is about taking operatic masterpieces and adapting them into modern settings. What makes them unique is that they tap into the iPod generation and use headphones to place the performers and the music in real life and odd spaces. The former National Rail plans and drawings archive must fit the latter. With a mix of levels, false ceilings, grimy floors and porta-loos, it is a far cry from the Royal Opera.
After reluctantly parting with jackets, gloves and scarves (as the last time I was in the Old Vic Tunnels it was freezing and it was during the summer) we were given some lovely Sennheiser headphones. They were switched on and blasting with loud music. It was enough to make us want to do some mild head banging.


Head banging At Silent Opera from Paul in London on Vimeo.

We soon took our seats in a room that had an unmade bed, torn wall posters and dirty plates strewn about. I could have been in my flatmates room. Despite being encouraged, the audience was reluctant to sit amongst the performers until the room filled up and there was no other choice. Since the space was a little overfilled overfilled we ended up sharing a tight unmade bed with six others.

The opera soon begins and the action takes place right in front of you and all around. In this modern retelling of La Boheme, the action takes place in present day London and Rodolfo is a computer hacker. Mimi arrives at his door just as he is about to masturbate as she is looking for a match for her cigarette.

The music blasting through our ears recorded by the University of London Symphony Orchestra, does make you overlook some of the grittier elements of the story. Most of us have smiles on our faces as this inauspicious tale of love starts to blossom. It soon becomes clear that one of the best things about Silent Opera is that you can chose your own volume for your favourite arias. You can set the volume to quiet and just hear the voices or crank it up so that Musetta's waltz is a deafening belt.

In the second half of the opera the action is moved to outside a club where Musetta and Marcello are working in a tattoo parlour. Mimi is a success in fashion but not eating... She has anxiety and anorexia. In the final scene when they rush out to get drugs we know it is going to be the sort that Whitney would have approved of.

Of course it isn't always successful as even when the young performers are in tune there is microphone interference and static. Perhaps it is from when the performers are getting too close to each other, or there is a stray mobile phone still switched on in search for you a signal. At one point an ear pad fell off mine. They were handy drowning out the noise from the trains rumbling in and out of the station.

It is certainly an event to take part in and savour. Just make sure you familiarise yourself with the technology first. And go easy on the head banging. Performances run throughout February and the festival is a definite must-see for anyone looking for something a little bit different and a lot of fun...

Silent Boo: La Booheme (mp3)
Photo credit: Max Letek

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