Review of audio-described WNO’s La Boheme at the Birmingham Hippodrome on the evening of Friday 15 June
For me Puccini’s opera La Boheme is a particular favourite, and judging by the fact that there were very good audiences at the Birmingham Hippodrome for each of the 3 performances during Welsh National Opera’s latest week in Birmingham, I suspect that it is the operatic favourite of many others too. For the third of these 3 consecutive performances, WNO had arranged for audio-description to be provided for blind and partially sighted patrons, and our audio-described experience on Friday 15 June, began when we were met by Margaret Spittles (one of Sightlines’ audio-describers) and Michelle Keahan (one of the theatre’s front of house team) in the foyer for the 5.45 pm touch tour. Strictly speaking, perhaps I should point out that, for those of us who had digested the pre-show notes already - available in advance either online and/or on CD by request -our audio-description experience had in fact started earlier in the week, and it was good to arrive in time for the touch tour equipped with some background information about the cast, costumes and set. It was to have learnt, for example that – directed by Annabel Arden – this latest WNO production was set in 1913, just before the outbreak of the so-called Great War – the last era when the unchallenged assumption was that men held the dominant role, both at home and in the work place, with women expected to be subservient.
On stage we were met by Stage Manager, Julia Carson-Sims who – along with Margaret and her describing colleague, Jonathan Nash – talked to us about the stylised settings, showed us props and described costumes. The same basic onstage space was used for all the locations and transformed by changes in background and lighting during the 4 acts (which lasted just over 2 hours). The back of the stage was covered with a plain backcloth onto which was projected misty views of Paris with expansive skies, changing colour according to the weather and time of day. We were escorted onto a wooden platform (5x4 metres and 10 cm high) in the centre of the stage which was surrounded by a smooth surface covered with an image of silver-grey cobbles. Three tall mirrored panels forming the side walls and reflecting images on the stage, were at each side of the set, and these panels pivoted to provide entrances and exits.
During our informative touch tour we were able to explore the impoverished garret, where in Act 1 we would be meeting the 4 students and their neighbour, the poverty stricken seamstress Mimi. The room was sparsely furnished with a makeshift low table made from recycled pieces of rough wood on which stood a single candle in a plain holder. A battered metal coal box stood next to the table, but as the students could not afford to buy coal this was usually used as a stool. We were also shown a small bust of the Venus di Milo with a red cardinal’s berretta somewhat irreverently placed on her head at a rather jaunty angle, along with a waist high metal wood burner, providing the only heat for the small flat. Beyond this we were able to inspect the artist’s wooden easel holding his half-finished picture of Moses parting the Red Sea, painted in loud colours, and taking pride of place in the centre of the room was a leather armchair which had clearly seen better days, covered with a patchwork quilt and with a brown fur stole with its sharp rodent fur face, draped over the back of it.
Following our leisurely, illuminating touch tour during which we, visually impaired patrons, were privileged to hear from Julia, a great deal about the preparation for this production, we were given our headsets by the describers and theatre staff, in time for us to take our seats to listen to a ‘live’ reprise of the very useful introductory notes, 15 minutes before curtain-up. It was interesting to learn, for instance, that as we were waiting for the opera to begin, the stage was concealed by a black screen on which was a drawing of the Paris skyline, picked out in white. Opening like the lens of a camera or the iris of an eye, in the centre in a diamond shape before revealing the whole stage.
During the actual performance both Margaret and Jonathan made every effort to ensure that their informative description of the visual onstage action did not in any way conflict with the music and beautiful arias sung by, amongst others, Anita Hartig (Mimi) and Alex Vicens (Rudolfo). Following this splendid performance the evening was rounded off with a fascinating post-show talk during which fellow patrons were able to question WNO’s Artistic Director, Manager, Bassoonist from the orchestra and also Alex Vicens himself (who joined us after a very quick shower!). I was also delighted that, quite unprompted, another of the visually impaired patrons present spoke so warmly about all the efforts that WNO go to ensure that we VIPs really do get the most out of their glorious productions – courtesy of audio-description.
For those unable on this occasion to have attended the audio described performance of this latest, really stunning, WNO production of La Boheme, there will be another chance to experience it at the Birmingham Hippodrome, on the Saturday evening of 10 November and details of how to book tickets, places on the touch tour and the indispensable, easy to use, headsets, can be obtained by ringing 0844 338 5000