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.

A History of the Bellini: Italy in a Drink – by AHA alum Helena Roy

As summer fast approaches, (even in Britain it’s getting warmer!) and flocks of tourists depart to Italy for sun, sights and…the food, there is one drink that epitomises that Italian spirit: the Bellini.

A classic cocktail known the world over, it is one of Italy’s most popular drinks. Venetian through and through, it was invented between 1934 and 1948 by Giuseppe Cipriani – founder of the famed Harry’s Bar in Venice (which welcomed guests such as Ernest Hemingway and Humphrey Bogart). The story goes that its unique, sunset-pink colour reminded Cipriani of the shades in his favourite paintings by 15th-century Venetian artist… Giovanni Bellini. And so the drink was christened.

A Bellini

The creation went from a seasonal delight to a year-round favourite; from a secret of Venice to a globally-known cocktail. It first found its way to Harry’s Bar in New York, and eventually its popularity spread.

The concotion is a mix of prosecco and puréed white peaches. The original recipe has a small amount of raspberry or cherry juice added, to give it that subtle rose glow. The drink is the embodiment of Italian summers – fresh, sweet, sun-ripened peaches with dry, crisp prosecco.

Looking for evidence of Cipriani’s inspiration is not difficult. A colourful example might be the Sacra Conversazione (1505) in San Zaccaria, Venice; or perhaps The Agony in the Garden (1465), which hangs in our own National Gallery. Bellini shaped Venetian artistic tradition with his innovative use of rich colours – using sumptuous shades and jewel-like tones. The altarpiece of San Zaccaria robes the Madonna in deep pink and sapphire tones, and The Agony in the Garden shows the very sunset/sunrise tint that inspired the celebrated cocktail.

Sacra Conversazione (1505) in San Zaccaria, Venice
The Agony in the Garden (1465)

Nowadays there are several variations, designed to make best use of the available ingredients. Multitudes of fruit, and prosecco or champagne are used to create new mélanges. As a general rule of thumb, it’s best to use prosecco, not champagne. The latter is stronger and overpowers the delicate peach taste. You risk falling victim to adding more and more peach to find the flavour, resulting in an alcoholic fruit smoothie.

On many a menu will you find different bellinis: raspberry, passion fruit, pear, apple – even rhubarb was a recent find! But it is peach and prosecco that is the classic combination. True DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata) prosecco is made in the regions that surround Venice – Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia – and is the best base.

My own memory of the best bellini wasn’t at Harry’s Bar, but on the Punta della Dogana on a humid Venetian evening, having a picnic dinner with the AHA Northern Italy trip. At the risk of making this blog post redundant, it isn’t actually the drink that matters, but the company. The Bellini: best enjoyed at sunset, in summer, and in Italy.

AHA Northern Italy Trip - Bellinis at Sunset
AHA Northern Italy Trip - The View from the Punta della Dogana
AHA Northern Italy Trip - Evening on the Punta della Dogana

With thanks to artrenewal.org, nationalgallery.org.uk and redbookmag.com for pictures.

Happy Coincidence: A Summer Student’s AHA Journey

Originally, I was an English student:  I read lots and loved analysing books. Then last Christmas I became absorbed by my a-level art history course and began learning about artists’ lives, analysing paintings and studying critics. I was hooked.

I first heard of Art History Abroad through a tutoring agency which sent one of the AHA tutors to my house to guide me through my A Level and show me new ways of viewing art. We spent two whole days engrossed in Art History: pawing over the Impressionists, astounded by the 19th century and shocked by the controversial Dadaists. For me, however, there was something bigger in art history which I wanted to explore and which I was getting more of an inkling of the more I read, even though I was not studying it for my exams:  the Italian Renaissance.

Soon after the AHA tutor left and I immersed myself in exam preparation, I decided to apply for the Northern Italy Three Summer course and was awarded a discretionary scholarship. My main objective was to study the Italian Renaissance. I also wanted to be inspired and stretched before I started my Art History BA at York University.

Heslington Hall on the Campus of York University

As it happened, I met one of the Art History Lecturers at York at an open day there later in the summer and he, being a veteran AHA tutor himself, was really impressed that I was going on the course. He was even willing to drop my grade boundaries as a result! This really showed me in what esteem these AHA courses are held.

And I was not disappointed. This esteem was justified  throughout the two weeks in Venice, Florence and Rome.  The tutors’ knowledge amazed me: walking  around churches and galleries they knew every fine detail – even things I’m sure the artists would have forgotten themselves!  They were also happy to sit, sometimes  for twenty minutes  at a time,  answering my never-ending questions on the architecture and paintings which surrounded me.

The Group dressed up as gods and goddesses in Florence

And the art I saw on the trip really did blow my mind. It was so exciting seeing works up close, touching-distance away, compared to the glossy pages in a text book.  And of course,  being in such beautiful locations also helped.
As a group I think that we all got a taste of Italian culture in the evenings:  from dining in quaint pizzerias,  to experiencing the adventure of Florence’s meat houses, to sampling the night life at various night clubs and bars whilst drinking authentic Italian drinks of presseco and sprtiz aperol.

I would encourage anyone who wants to have an exciting, special summer to take part in an AHA trip: it really is an experience of a lifetime.

AHA Summer Course student, 2012

·         AHA offers an annual scholarship.  It is highly prized and valued at the cost of a summer course – £3,400.  It is awarded to the winner of an essay competition :  ‘Write 400 words on a work of art you love, followed by 400 words on a work of art you loath’.  Open to all, this competition requires no prior knowledge of art history, just a sense of enthusiasm and powerful views.

 

·         AHA also awards the odd bursary, entirely on a discretionary basis, to those we feel have a particular desire to study art history and who we feel will make the most of the opportunity.

 

·         Lastly, there are travel funds and awards available at many schools and from many funds.  AHA will happily match fund, to a limit of £200, those who have secured such funding.

 

Happy student! Thank you AR for your lovely letter

Thank you so much for an amazing time on the AHA trip to Italy.  I cannot tell you how much fun I had with you and the rest of the group over the two weeks.  I have learnt so much and it has made me love Art History even more. Having never been to Venice or Rome before and Florence only once for a day, exploring and learning about the history and works of art in each city was an incredible experience that I will never forget.  Thank you so much for the most amazing two weeks of my life.

Best wishes

AR

Florence: Ponte Vecchio