Grimeborn: tiny budgets, crazy settings and singers nearly in your lap – 15 years of Dalston’s opera festival – Evening Standard

East London’s more affordable answer to Glyndebourne has become a fixture in the opera summer season
n 2015, director Julia Burbach had the challenge of staging Madama Butterfly, one of the best-loved operas of all time, on a budget of “something like” £500. It was to play as part of Grimeborn, an edgy opera festival that has become an annual fixture in east London.
Rather than prove limiting, the chance to play Grimeborn opened the opera up for her. She created a world inspired by Japanese folkloric ghost stories, with a design in paper and chalk and a few props rented from the National Theatre. “It was a success and it went from there. I knew the festival had a really good standing, and it was growing.”
“I’m a big believer in good art is not dependent on big budgets,” Burbach adds. “With invention and thought and good creative teams, you can do a lot of things.”
That spirit of creativity, invention, quality work all done on miniscule budgets has been the hallmark of Grimeborn, which this year marks its 15th anniversary since opening at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston in 2007.
Bass baritone Paul Carey Jones with director Julia Burbach in rehersals for Siegfried
“Grimeborn provides a very important part of the London summer opera season because it’s very different to other places,” Burbach, a staff director at the Royal Opera, says. “It provides a springboard for young directors, young designers, and even for those who are more established.”
The seeds of the festival can be traced back to when theatremaker Mehmet Ergen received an invitation from Tom Morris, then artistic director of the Battersea Arts Centre, to be a producer on the BAC Opera Festival in the late 1990s. “The idea was just to do different kinds of things,” Ergen says, adding that he enjoyed working on the repertoire from The Cradle Will Rock, a 1937 opera about steelworkers struggling to organise, to Lost in the Stars, Kurt Weill’s final theatrical work.
Ergen then founded the Arcola with Leyla Nazli at the turn of the century in a former textile factory in Dalston. He remembers the theatre contributed to an evening of music organised by Father Niall Weir at local church St Barnabas on the corner of Arcola Street and Shacklewell Lane.
“It was quite rough and there was still a lot of shootings and prostitutes near there,” he says, but the event went down well. “It was a wonderful evening of songs and arias. The Arcola contributed something musical. On that night, there was a joke about Grimeborn – we knew we wanted to call it that.”
Arcola Theatre
A pun on the country house summer opera festival Glyndebourne, known for its more elite prices, picnics on the lawn and dickie bows, it was a name that, according to one reviewer, “warned of a challenge to operatic safety”.
And so Grimeborn was born in 2007. “We started our summer seasons,” Ergen says. “It was unpretentious, with everything on the same level. It’s that English eccentricity, like holding an umbrella in the rain at a barbecue – we were on a Dalston factory floor doing anything from Monteverdi to Mozart.”
New work and scratch nights are key parts of the festival, while classics are overhauled, reimagined and reengineered with fewer musicians, in cut-down versions. Exciting and experimental composers are given a chance and young artists can rub shoulders with veterans. “It’s a different way of thinking about opera,” Burbach says. “You are getting a reduced scale in terms of orchestration, length and characters. It’s reduced in many ways. That doesn’t necessarily make it less, it makes it different. Some people may prefer shorter work that highlights different strands of the story.”
Though in 2011, the Arcola moved to its current location in a former paint-manufacturing workshop 10 minutes’ walk from the original site, Grimeborn’s energy remains the same. “We’ve always had at least 10 to 15 pieces, with people getting opera very cheaply,” Ergen says. “It was at Grimeborn that many people said to me, ‘It’s the first time I’ve heard Italian arias, what a wonderful thing opera is.’ I know that many people only see opera at this level, when it’s cheap.”
Mehmet Ergen and Leyla Nazli
This year’s festival opened last night with Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and, in total, features 13 operas, four of which are new works. Other productions include a re-imagined Carmen set in a supermarket in modern-day London and The Unravelling Fantasia of Miss H., a new composition based on the life of Mary Frances Heaton, “a Victorian woman imprisoned by a society intent on control”.
Cervantes Theatre, a London company which puts on Spanish and Latin American plays, is to stage Black, el payaso, directed by Paula Paz. Paz had been to Grimeborn as an audience member and had worked on other editions of the event. “It’s a unique festival. The fact it’s smaller-format, pocket-sized opera is a great opportunity.”
She particularly enjoys the intimacy of watching opera in a 200-seat venue, very different to the viewing experience at Covent Garden or English National Opera. “You are immersed; you can almost touch the singers. There’s a closeness in it that almost brings out a different experience of the opera world, and attracts a different audience,” she says
Paz fondly remembers watching La Traviata while practically next to the singers. “It was a wonderful experience. It’s like you are sitting where the action is happening. I would recommend it to anyone once in a lifetime, as you rarely have the chance to listen to an aria as if you were sitting right there on the stage with the singers.”
Paula Paz
Those singers can be in for a shock, says Burbach. “Some think, ‘Oh my God the audience is really close.’ And I say, ‘Yes, and if you’re not good and they fall asleep, you will see.’ So it’s actually very challenging, but it’s a great experience. You can really feel if you have them. That proximity is very special.”
This year also marks the conclusion of the ambitious Ring Cycle, with a double bill of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. It follows Das Rheingold at the Arcola in 2019, with Die Walküre last summer at Hackney Empire.
Burbach is directing and it means the likely end of her work at the festival – “what am I going to do after the Ring Cycle?” – but she says, “It has been very important for my growth as a director, and I wouldn’t be where I am now without it.”
Die Walkure at the Hackney Empire, part of Grimeborn’s 2021 festival
Festivals like Grimeborn help demystify opera and bring it to a wider audience, she continues. “This whole issue with opera and elitism is a structural problem, not a content problem, and it’s may be a PR problem. Things I’ve done at the Arcola, and other places, people of all ages came and watched things not in the same languages of their country and they weren’t fazed,” she says.
“I’m not a believer that you have to be educated in opera to enjoy it. It’s about storytelling and if you tell the story well anyone can enjoy it. You may not like baroque opera but you might enjoy Puccini. Opera is a very wide field and I think you just have to declutter it. There are good ones and bad ones, ones you might like and ones you don’t. It’s like musicals, you may not like The Lion King but you might like Frozen.”
She adds that for opera at the high end, inevitably, the cost is the biggest barrier to widening the audiences. “If things are cheaper it’s easier to give things a chance. More people would go to Glyndebourne, the Opera House and the ENO if things were cheaper. Why wouldn’t they? People are usually up for things. You don’t have to like it and you’re not stupid if you don’t like it.”
This is borne out by the continued appetite for the work at Grimeborn. “The audiences grew so big that next year we’ll probably do at least eight to nine weeks rather than our usual five or six weeks,” Ergen says. “There’s more audience for opera than many plays… With the opera there’s nothing that doesn’t get an audience.”
Grimeborn runs until September 10;
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