Disrupting ritual with community opera

Bill Bankes-Jones

Ronald Samm and Anna Patalong in Pagliacci. Scottish Opera 2018. (Photo James Glossop, courtesy Scottish Opera)

The world over, opera audiences dress up to come together and scrutinise one another, in buildings designed to encourage this: to venerate the art and to flatter its audience. The public has to master and collude in all the arcane secrets of opera-going — When do I cough, when do I clap? Everything exists to enshrine and elevate these rituals for their very own sake.

It’s wonderful.

It’s wonderful to be admitted to this clique.

It’s also at the same time very excluding to those who are outside it.

In a 2014 report on research into opera superfans the authors conclude that:

‘Opera-going appears as social activity, not a private one. Even those opera-goers who went on their own and who had quite individual aesthetic responses to opera were very aware of the audience around them, and this co-presence was highly significant for the value of opera to them.[i]

The report sets out how these superfans want to talk about the audience more than any other aspect of opera, such as beautiful singing, character, narrative and truth, the new, combination of art forms, performer charisma, or affordability.

Now and again opera-makers toy with their audience’s self-absorption, gently disrupting the frame of reference or matrix. We talk of ‘breaking the fourth wall’, which is of course theatrical convention, not a real thing at all. It’s fairly common (and has been for a long time) for characters to enter through the auditorium, precisely in order to disrupt those boundaries. It is not that unusual for performers to associate with the audience in character.

None of these things however, have the force and power of the noisy latecomer, the unscripted ringing of a mobile phone, the woman I once saw vomiting from the circle of the Almeida Theatre onto the audience below, or the couple I remember noisily and conspicuously making love in the auditorium box of a West End theatre during a performance.

Likewise, when real life intervenes on stage in actual mishaps or accidents, it’s almost always more powerful than the performance as planned. The way in which opera is normally rehearsed and controlled – temporally, spatially and psychologically – makes this much rarer than, say, in pantomime, which is designed to encourage such interventions. But it also makes it all the more delicious when the singers have to salvage the situation, and all the more terrible when they can’t.

Ronald Samm and Anna Patalong in Pagliacci. Scottish Opera 2018. (Photo James Glossop, courtesy Scottish Opera)

In 2018, I was lucky to be entrusted with the full forces of the mighty Scottish Opera – soloists, orchestra, chorus, production staff, management, everyone – to make a large-scale production of Pagliacci with a huge additional community involvement of around 200 – all in a vast tent. The mere act of bringing everyone together was thrilling in itself, especially some very peculiar constituent groups, including 36 handbell ringers, a donkey, an array of catering companies, a professional bubble blower and a Punch and Judy professor…

It was a stroke of genius on the part of conductor Stuart Stratford to choose Pagliacci for this treatment because the narrative is all about a play within a play where real life intervenes, and everything is disrupted.

Of course in taking the performance out of the opera house to make it a promenade production, everything was already disrupted. We had to create a new set of rituals for the audience and cast alike. They arrived with no rules.

We had to make a world that could give context to the tale of visiting players and their performance. In the small print of the opera’s stage directions, we were told that the musicians and singers would arrive to round off the celebrations of a local festival. As luck would have it, we were performing with the community of Paisley (just outside Glasgow) not long after Paisley’s annual Sma’ Shot festival that commemorates the town’s industrial past. Art was imitating life.

Ronald Samm and Anna Patalong in Pagliacci. Scottish Opera 2018. (Photo James Glossop, courtesy Scottish Opera)

The show opens with a parade so we borrowed all the apparatus of the Sma’ Shot parade. One member of the chorus ran the festival’s games stall – so she did the same for our opera. We recreated the local community festival both with and for the local community. We brought in all kinds of ‘attractions’ that could just as easily have been part of any community’s ritual and celebrations. Even the catering made its way into the production when the jealous character of Tonio deliberately disrupted the play within the play by stealing a giant hot-dog mascot from the actual hot-dog stall and serving it to Columbina (Nedda) in place of the scripted chicken.

The one named character who was a local rather than a strolling player, Silvio, became yet another of the many Scottish Opera technicians dotted around the place doing various jobs, in branded t-shirts and headsets. He blended in brilliantly, so that when he sang, maybe 30 minutes into the opera, it was deeply shocking. And, within the story, the perfect disguise.

Most joyously of all, the opera chorus plays the role of the audience for the play within the play. By mingling them at all times with the paying audience, and placing the professionals among the community performers, among the cast, the layers of play within play within play became so complex, while making total sense, that everyone lost themselves in an intoxicating layering of worlds. The boundaries between soloist, chorister, supernumerary, front of house staff and audience member were broken down completely.

“A huge chorus of both amateur and professional singers were mingling with the audience throughout most of the production and it was genuinely thrilling for the singing and the action to break out all around you as you tried, generally unsuccessfully, to work out what might happen next.”

Kevin Holdsworth[ii]

Everybody was in the show and everybody was the show. Performers and audience became indistinguishable. When a passer-by’s dog ran into the tent during Silvio and Nedda’s duet the effect was to enhance the moment, not distract from it. What would have been a disaster in any other production just made things better and better.

Anna Patalong and Alasdair Elliott in Pagliacci. Scottish Opera 2018. (Photo James Glossop, courtesy Scottish Opera)

“My dog has no nose.”

“How does it smell?”


In his great 1964 book The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler sees jokes, science and art as creating by bringing two frames of reference or matrices together in different ways.

Here, as in most jokes, the hearer is led to expect a particular outcome to fit a particular narrative matrix. The punchline, however, disrupts the original matrix with a new one, hence the comedy. In the arts, matrices are juxtaposed to be observed and thus provoke. In the layered intricacies of an opera performance, this becomes more and more complex as more and more matrices are juxtaposed. Information comes to us through so many media in opera:

  • Lighting, design, words, acting, dramatic interaction, music, singing, instrumental playing, and so forth;
  • The mitigation of utterances by who is hearing them/who the utterer believes is hearing them/how mendacious or truthful the utterer might be, etc;
  • When the opera is set, when was it written, when it is being performed, who it is being performed for…

It’s basically bloody, fantastically complicated.

Benjamin Britten, ‘The Canticles’, performed by Streetwise Opera in Westminster Abbey (2002) (photos courtesy Streetwise Opera)

Community opera – in which professional and non-professional artists work together to create something neither could achieve independently – derives some of its capacity for renewal from this capacity to disrupt opera’s matrices, especially when they are expressed as rituals. Doing that in a park in Paisley was one joyous example. Another, and in some ways a more subversive experience, was directing The Canticles with homeless performers in Westminster Abbey, the royal church where English monarchs have been ritually crowned for centuries.

Benjamin Britten, ‘The Canticles’, performed by Streetwise Opera in Westminster Abbey (2002) (photos courtesy Streetwise Opera)

Matt Peacock, who conceived the idea that would launch Streetwise Opera in 2002, wanted to work with five homeless shelters to devise a world premiere staging for this semi-liturgical and very highbrow work by Benjamin Britten. It took long attrition on my part to open the way into the intensely ritualised space of Westminster Abbey. A peerless cast of professional singers and musicians worked with the performers of Streetwise Opera, for an audience that included a significant part of our actual parliament moving around the Abbey from piece to piece. This shared witnessing was a potent demonstration of how disrupting rituals can create new worlds.

There are two kinds of community opera. There is the deathly kind, which takes the rituals of the opera house and limply mimics them – community performers merely inserted into traditional productions, delivered in traditional ways. And there is the playful, disruptive pathway, where you seize the chance to make something entirely new, for performers, audience, participants, everyone, where together the company enters an extraordinary new world, and everyone involved is released from convention and able to appreciate and learn from each other fully.

When it works, the disruptive pathway has a power like nothing else.

Ronald Samm and Anna Patalong in Pagliacci. Scottish Opera 2018. (Photo James Glossop, courtesy Scottish Opera)

Two short videos about Scottish Opera’s Pagliacci

[i] Opera Audiences and Cultural Value: A Study of Audience Experience, Sinéad O’Neill, Joshua Edelman, and John Sloboda, Creativeworks London 2014

[ii] Review of Scottish Opera ‘Pagliacci’ by Kevin Holdsworth, Provost of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, 28 July 2018