I said I’d do a blog about the Offie finalists for 2019, so I will.
I had the concept for, translated, and directed one of the nominees for Best Opera Production - Don Jo! so I had a dog in the race. But also recognise that the other candidates included some really good shows (not that I saw all of them), and I’d have probably voted for some of them over my own given the chance.
So I’m both pleased and disappointed, sympathetic and vexed, approving and annoyed.
Pleased because, if a community production had won, that would have been an odd step. The Offie Awards offer a rare chance to honour Fringe opera, and fully-professional teams’ work does sit in a different space to community work. And maybe there should be a category Don Jo! could sit in. But it would be a very radical Offies if a show with so many untrained singers were able to match those with full professional casts.
Disappointed because the Fringe is exactly the right place for such radicalism. If opera is truly for everyone, then I still think there’s a strong case for us saying that it should be possible for it to be sung by anyone. Opera companies usually give their community groups new work written for them, and that’s weird if your aim is to get those communities into the main house. “Yes, you can come and do opera. But you’re not allowed to touch the best silverware, that’s for the proper singers.”
Sympathetic because HMS Pinafore, Partenope, and The Elixir of Love all did good versions of those operas. Nobody could say that they didn’t ‘do’ the opera properly. Whereas Don Jo! did cut corners, and rewrite music into modern styles to suit different singers, and give roles to new voice types, and play with ideas of gender and sexuality and generally mess around with the original text of the opera to create something new, exciting, and loosely based on Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Vexed because, well, Gilbert and Sullivan, Handel, and Donizetti are all really rather dead. There’s so much new opera on London’s fringe - whether at my own beloved Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival, or other Grimeborn shows, or throughout the year - and yet none of it is shortlisted for the ‘best’ opera? That seems odd. If opera is to be a living form, we must allow it to grow and change with the times, whether by radically reinventing classics, or relishing new works. Which isn’t a radical position in itself - the aforementioned festivals testify to that - but maybe in opera we are too willing to accept the same old show in new clothes as a modernisation and an innovation. We’ve done jeans productions, and productions that transplant an opera to a different time period that possibly illuminates the action and possibly is just a pretty aesthetic, and well-known operas in a fringey pub in fairly modern-flavoured English translation. They’re all good things (and I’d note that not all the finalists fit those descriptions by any means). But they’re not… new, in the way that the nominees for Best Play and Best Musical feel new.
Approving because Don Jo! was a mess. The reviews of Don Jo! were filled with, to quote Terry Pratchett, “vile accuracies”. It was a messy show, slamming together different bits and pieces in a way that lacked deep thought in places, and enough rehearsal time everywhere. Yes, that is arguably a part of a ‘queer’ aesthetic, a necessary part of including people without the time/wealth-resource to spend too long on a show, and in various ways a radicalism in itself. But I’m also very willing to approve of the Offies saying “that’s all well and good, but we aren’t the place for such things. Here, we expect tight and clear dramaturgy.” It was a valuable risk, but also a bit of a mess.
Annoyed because I’m sure there were better shows that were as innovative as Don Jo!, took equal or greater risks with their musical and dramatic choices, and weren’t even nominated or considered. Not because of the Offies themselves, but because Don Jo! being considered was due to the Arcola’s excellent PR team offering an invitation to the Offies. The other shows I did in 2019, and the other shows I was involved in at Tête à Tête, or that friends were involved in throughout the year - without such support, their teams didn’t have time to reach out to the Offies and make a nomination and also have time to create a great show.
This goes back to that long-standing idea that bubbles up at industry conferences - what if there was some central register of all the opera going on? Then maybe we could use it as a one-stop shop of what’s going on, and all the awards people could also see it and use it to know what to come to, making a more level playing field.
Maybe not. Anyway, that’s my pleased/disappointed sympathetic/vexed approving/annoyed take on the Offies. Which didn’t fit in a Tweet. Maybe it should have been put into a TL;DR:
“The show’s conceptual radicalism with messy execution stands at odds with it actually being a finalist, and I understand and am sympathetic to that, while also thinking that a Fringe award should have a space for such more than light-touch radicalism.”