An Evening at the Opera: Helena Roy attends London’s Open Screens…

It sometimes seems everything in London is gaining the prefix ‘pop-up’. Restaurants, cinemas, galleries and shops: you name it, and somewhere you can bet there is a temporary, compacted and quirky installation offering fleeting services.

Opera, however, was ahead of the curve. Pop-up screenings of Royal Opera House performances have been taking place for over twenty years across the UK. This summer, the ballet blockbuster Mayerling, Puccini’s La Rondine and Tosca all hit the big screen.

Ballet is a pretty popular spectacle, but opera has garnered a bit of a Marmite reputation. So the perfect way to see my first opera was to choose the iconic Tosca and watch it – G&T in hand, picnic at the ready – with friends, free of charge, in Trafalgar Square.

The fantastic thing about open screenings is how informal they are. As much as I love the Royal Opera House, it would have been hard to learn to appreciate opera in a stuffier,  more intimidating atmosphere. Outside, on a blistering hot day in Trafalgar Square, the ambiance was idyllic.

Everyone brought picnics, and laid out their blankets so we were packed into the Square like sardines. People were sharing food and opera trivia. Free and unticketed, everyone appreciated being there – a select few decided it was not to their taste and left before the final act, giving the remainder space to lie down and watch the tragic finale.

BP Open Screen in Trafalgar Square 2013

The sun set slowly – neatly imitating the chronology of the plot itself – but the evening was balmy, and with the National Gallery softly lit behind us and Nelson’s Column in front, the setting was as impressive and mighty as Rome was in Puccini’s masterpiece. In the first interval, one opera singer was whisked away from the stage of the Royal Opera House, fresh from his performance in the first act, to teach us the final verse of the superlative finale. Singing opera with the whole of Trafalgar Square – a man in priest’s vestments conducting us – felt surreal.

The view of the National Gallery during the performance

Tosca is brilliant. Its powerful story and intense emotion has all the Othello-esque drama Shakespeare can offer, combined with magnificent music. The backdrop of Rome in 1800 gives opportunities for ornate and splendid stage decoration: from a church filled with cardinals and priests, to a palace complete with winding golden railings.

Martina Serafin as Tosca, in the Royal Opera House's 2013 production

Blending passion, intrigue, murder, religion and revenge in one heady mix revolving around a love triangle, it is inescapably captivating. The eponymous star, beautiful soprano Tosca, is tragically torn between two men in a world of political intrigue, lust and love.

The finale of Act I of Tosca at the Royal Opera House

I would indubitably go and see Tosca again. But although I now know I like it, I still may not choose the Royal Opera House. The open screens were so enjoyable in the atmosphere and appreciation they created, that I would be sad to miss out.

Molière said ‘of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive.’ In terms of this experience, it was not expensive, but priceless nonetheless. Enjoying outstanding cultural talent with a myriad of strangers, where the only thing that got you there is enthusiasm and the willingness to lose some time by queueing early, is a uniting and unique experience.

With thanks to the Royal Opera House for photos.

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