Adam Spreadbury-Maher and David Eaton talk to Rivka Jacobson

It was a sheer coincidence that the person seated next to me at the Trafalgar Studios 2 was no other than Adam Spreadbury-Maher, the director of the show – Opera Unfolds: Tosca and La Boheme. This is a double bill – two of Puccini’s popular operas are squeezed into 60 minutes performance each. I was keen to find out a great deal more about the challenges and the road to success Spreadbury-Maher and the musical director David Eaton achieved. The two are passionate about opera and keen to explore alternative modes of introducing opera to a wider public. The two have impressive track records in music and have proved they can live up to the challenge.

Adam Spreadbury-Maher is an award-winning director and producer. While Artistic Director of the King’s Head Theatre since 2010, he won Best Artistic Director in the Fringe Report Awards and in 2011, he was nominated for Best Director in the Off West-End Awards. His passion for opera begun in Australia, his place of birth. ‘My love for music began as a child, learning to play the flute, clarinet and violin’ he explains. Singing was his forte; he has a tenor voice. ‘Originally, I was trained at the Canberra School of Music in Australia, as an opera singer’. At the Sydney Opera House, he was exposed to ‘a wonderful plethora of operas. It was during this time that I came to see opera as an all-encompassing solution for theatre’. he explains. 

David Eaton, the musical director, started life as a pianist and organist working in lots of churches and then he went on to study at the Royal College of Music and trained as a pianist and a conductor. ‘I mostly work with opera, predominantly with Charles Court Opera and the King’s Head Theatre’. He’ll be conducting at Opera Holland Park later this year. ‘I also compose and arrange music’ Eaton is also a lyricist and translator ‘having written translations for the successful festival Grimeborn at the King’s Head Theatre, and many more’ If that is not enough, he also writes some brand-new operas’.

I asked the two a number of questions and the following is the Q & A transcript:

RJ: Do you think that currently, opera is the domain of a social elite?

ASM: Absolutely not. It’s hard to shake that reputation but so much has changed in the past ten years. I feel opera has been demystified, and has become a much more accessible part of our contemporary cultural landscape with lots of great work being done by larger companies and houses. However, I believe the most successful and accessible work is created when opera is placed into surprising and non-traditional spaces.

David Eaton: Opera is most definitely not the domain of the social elite. It’s no more expensive to go to the opera than it is to see a musical in the West End and often cheaper. The main problem that opera faces now is less an issue of accessibility but more having a wider appeal to draw in large audiences. Take Hamilton or Dear Evan Hansen which, due to their large following, people are willing to take a punt on and buy a ticket without probably even knowing much about the show or the story. That‘s where musical theatre has got it right, in creating shows they know will appeal to a modern audience. Opera hasn’t produced anything that has that same notion of universal appeal for over 150 years. That’s why we believe it’s the domain of a social elite but that is entirely untrue; it’s just that opera requires a certain amount of foreknowledge before you can really start to appreciate it. That’s what we’re trying to break down with Opera Undone, to make it more accessible and appealing. What we need to get rid of is this purism around opera, this myth that something that is universally popular is ‘cheap art’ – we don’t apply that to shows like Hamilton or to a Sondheim production so why would creating opera that has universal appeal be cheap art?

            RJ: You chose Puccini’s two most popular operas – Tosca and La Bohème – why these two and not some of his others? 

ASM: This first season of Opera Undone has been somewhat experimental, so we wanted to choose titles that people were familiar with to create a sense of familiarity within a brand-new concept – a life-raft of sorts! Also, Tosca and La bohème are incredibly durable pieces, in that I’ve found that their settings can be changed to make them more relevant and accessible, but their core themes are almost indestructible and can withstand radical reinterpretation.

DE: They are very popular pieces and a huge part of the operatic cannon that everyone knows. However, they are also a little outdated, which makes them ripe for finding new ways of interpreting them.

RJ: How difficult was it to edit and adapt these two operas to your wishes?

ASM: It’s a real challenge – I often describe it as getting the toothpaste back in the tube! But it is a sincere joy and passion of mine, to find the essence of the composition and delving further back, the story within the novels. We’ve aimed to preserve that dramaturgy in our new avant-garde vision.

DE: Puccini’s music almost lends itself to being cut, the way he moves through keys. There is huge chorus work in there which is easy to slim down and remove also.

RJ: The main musical and narrative challenges that you have addressed.

ASM: Portraying Mimi as a man was an interesting concept to work with and develop. Also in terms of narrative, I set out that I wanted only four characters in each opera. This meant reallocating lines which provided the opportunity to flesh out each character more. This proved beneficial as we also had to make substantial edits to get the score down to 60 minutes.

DE: Opera Undone has allowed us to really focus on the drama between the principal characters. It tends to be very intimate, close and psychological which lends itself very well to being placed in a smaller frame and space. Using this to build the shows has been a really interesting process.

RJ: Your next production – which opera, composer and reasons for your choice.

ASM: We are currently talking furiously about this! We’re thinking about potential thematic links that mean we could pair operas together across the centuries or take a well-known and much-loved work and layering it with a more modern or even totally new composition. We’re also open to having the work stand alone as they are the perfect length for festivals, schools, office visits and dinner parties to name a few!

DE: The really interesting thing about Opera Undone is being able to present two completely different halves in one evening. I would love to work with two strongly contrasting pieces to really show people the extremes of opera. For instance, Tristan and Isolde in one half and L’elisir d’amore in the other to show how similar stories can be treated in very different ways in opera. I’d also love to do some Rossini and Mozart.

RJ: What do you see as among your greatest achievements?

ASM: I’ve been at the King’s Head Theatre for nearly 10 years. Running the UK’s oldest and most notorious pub theatre without any regular funding has been a real challenge but also massively rewarding. I love my team, artists and audiences; it’s the most exciting place to be, at the forefront of the future of fringe theatre and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

DE: The issue is as soon as you make something, you immediately want to make it better and are looking for ways it can be improved, what new direction you can take it and how it can be more accessible. I’ve never really felt that I’ve reached my greatest achievement and it probably will never come as I’ll always see how it could be made better.

Photo credit: Ali Wright