Not in the mood for a full evening of opera? Want a taster of high-quality production with insider insights and the chance to meet some of the performers and production team? Well, Divas & Scholars might just have what you are looking for……
A bit of context goes a long way……
Let’s be honest: Opera is divisive. For those of us less familiar, the thought of sitting through a 2.5-hour full-blown production brings on either a nervous sweat or an immediate cloak of sleepiness. The visual image of grandees sipping champagne in penguin suits is of a bygone age. Today, Opera is searching for its next generation of audiences. Provoking interest and encouraging new entrants, there has been a complete re-drawing of the operatic landscape. New, more contemporary formats are being developed, which has created the advent of bespoke events which combine a lighter and more sociable dimension.
Divas & Scholars is the project of the charming opera entrepreneur, Lucy Woodruff. Lucy began her D&S journey by creating opera soirees in the comfort of her London home. Her project rapidly evolved into the more structured ‘Certificate of Opera’ program in 2016: a custom-built series of twelve sessions, run over six months. I had the pleasure of meeting Lucy at this series, and her enthusiasm for new entrants has always been a disarmingly pleasant experience.
Over time, Lucy has cultivated a small community of opera devotees, supplemented by a steady flow of aficionados, attracted by evenings of high-quality bespoke entertainment.
What to expect……
Using her extensive connections in the opera industry, Lucy brings together an eclectic group of guest speakers and performers (singers, production, and critics), into a single evening’s worth of entertainment. This series of three events is billed as a precursor to The Grange Festival; a summer opera festival which opens in early June.
The soiree was held on the top floor of The Club at The Ivy in Covent Garden, which is the private member’s section of the more famous restaurant. My dazzling navigation skills of London were once again on display, as an apparent five-minute journey took me fifteen minutes of intense scowling, constant re-orientating of my phone, and general confusion as I attempted to translate Google Maps landmarks into their physical counterparts. Ultimately, I succumbed to the good ‘old-fashioned technique of accosting an unsuspecting gent with his mouth full of an apparent ‘posh’ ploughman’s sandwich from Pret. An extended arm, a pointed finger, and I marched across the road towards my destination. So much for technology!
Unlike her previous series, which had a heavier focus on an educational format, these evenings are all about the opera stars. If you have ever wondered what it is like to get up-close-and-personal with the true backbone of opera productions, then this is an intimate way to gain that experience. Given that opera is not something that benefits from multiple presentations in the media and TV, this is an easy way to learn up close and personal.
Lucy has devised a format which is quite simple and focused entirely on the main event. Upon arrival, I was able to solicit a quick glass of liquid refreshment to lubricate the mind. After a maximum thirty minutes (assuming you arrive promptly at 6.30pm), guests are asked to take their seats. The space feels small, which makes for a more intimate setting, but can feel a little crowded.
After a brief introduction by Lucy herself, Michael Chance took over. Michael is an imposing figure in the opera world. Although he is now an established Artistic operatic director, he began his professional life as a well-known counter-tenor in operas, concerts and studio recording. As with all of these presentation-led evenings, the quality of the event is largely based on the lead-presenter. In Michael, Lucy chose an engaging figure.
The event is a mix of informal interview-style Q&A, between the lead-presenter and the other guests. It appeared deliberately un-scripted, which can make the flow feel a little bumpy at times, but ultimately provides a more conversational and relaxed style to sit and listen to. The other two guests were conductor Jean-Luc Trigaud, and lead soprano Na’ama Goldman. They may not have some of the natural presentation skills that Michael possesses, but they came across very well.
The discussion organically evolves around exchanging views on personal histories, production background, challenges, and techniques. The audience is treated to some interesting insights, with personal anecdotes, and discussion about Bizet’s score from the conductor’s point of view. Interwoven throughout this discourse are individual operatic set pieces. No one could have prepared me for the sight of Na’ama, singing live the wonderful opening sequence of Carmen (Google L’amour est un oiseau rebelle). Her powerful mezzo-soprano voice bounced off walls and delivered a beautiful aria fused with the gipsy seductress of Carmen herself. It was an absolute delight.
The essentials: prices and standards……
The price is very competitive at £45 per ticket per person, with the optional three-course dinner and wine at a further £78. A glass of wine at the bar will cost you about £10 per glass. A full bar is on offer, including Champagne by the glass. No food is available, so you would have to eat at the designated after-show dinner, or make your way to the many choices that Covent Garden has to offer.
There is little doubt that Lucy has crafted something with impeccable standards. If you are not familiar with the opera to be discussed, then it is worth doing some brief research. Familiarisation will make the evening much more fruitful, but you would certainly not have to have seen the production or know the speakers and singers to enjoy this type of event. It is a fun and stylish way to meet other opera devotees too.
At little over an hour, the evening is not a taxing after-work event. For opera newbies, it provides an informal way to see if you like what you hear, and for long-time opera devotees, it could be your chance to meet some of your stars and no doubt learn something new. Either way, The Cultural Aficionado would highly recommend this…..