Birmingham Arts festival helps efface memories of rioting

United KingdomUnited Kingdom   artsfest 2011: Birmingham City Centre, 10&11.9.2011 (GR)

How different Birmingham city centre looked this weekend in comparison with the media images portrayed during the looting last month. The ugly incidents that began in London switched to England’s second city on 8th Aug and left a bitter taste in the mouths of Midlanders. artsfest 2011 came to the rescue at the right time, its exuberance and cordiality doing much to dispel the aftermath of tension.

Billed by Birmingham City Council as the UK’s biggest free arts festival, number fourteen again had the statistics to justify this claim with 50 venues, 600 events and 3000 artists. There was an estimated attendance of 250,000, a balanced mix of all age and colour, generating a much-needed £2 million for the local economy. The flourishing arts scene was represented by music of all genres, dance from ballet to belly, theatre as diverse as Shakespeare and Kipling, plus visual arts on the railings, inside the Artspace marquee and at the Ikon gallery. Each art form provided admirable opportunities for hands-on workshops. Venues ranged from the grandeur of the Town Hall to the Yardbird Jazz Club and the pavements of New Street.

On the Sunday afternoon I caught up with the local opera scene, although with three consecutive half-hour shows switching between the different venues of the Birmingham Museum and  the Conservatoire, and back again, was far from effortless. First up was Midland Opera who provided a portrait in Gallery 33 of how their next production proposed to combine two works into one. Not a must-see for the purist perhaps, particularly when the operas are from different composers – Gounod’s Faust and Puccini’s Suor Angelica. The commonality they use to link the two stories is one of salvation:  Marguerite’s ascent to heaven after her sin of infanticide and the reunion of Sister Angelica with her lost son despite her mortal sin of suicide. Andrew Potter has synchronised the action to 1918 and the company (formed from Midland Music Makers) gave a foretaste. One scene depicted some soldiers in the trenches of World War I, overcome by gas conjured up apparently by Mephistopheles. The enthusiastic amateurs delivered some robust choruses including The Soldier’s Chorus from Faust and the opening nun’s ensemble from Suor Angelica. Jacqueline White gave us Marguerite’s Jewel Song and Ian McFarlane sang one of Valentin’s numbers. Four performances are scheduled for 19th – 22nd Oct at the Crescent Theatre.

It needed a brisk step to make it to the Recital Hall of the Conservatoire for my second artsfest piece of entertainment from Birmingham Opera Company. Their contribution featured professional opera singers Maureen Brathwaite and Joseph Guyton, accompanied on the piano by Sergey Rybin.  Both singers have appeared in past BOC productions by Graham Vick: soprano Brathwaite was in their 2010 version of Stravinsky’s The Wedding while tenor Guyton was Cassio in Othello from 2009. Brathwaite, a more mature and rounded performer since her role of Lily (the honeyman’s wife) in the groundbreaking 80’s Glyndebourne production of Porgy and Bess, showed great assurance, outstanding clarity and an even tone over a not inconsiderable range. She began with Dvorak’s Song to the Moon from Rusalka, before an exquisite Loretta’s Dream from Puccini’s La Rondine. Guyton gave us a couple of impressive arias from Tosca, again perhaps chosen for the occasion. A former Domingo Young Artist, this Czech is rapidly building up his repertoire with a powerful dramatic delivery. It is easy to imagine that he would not be out of place in a major house performing one of the leading Janáček tenor roles. The pair somewhat predictably finished with the love duet from La Bohème. The enthusiastic standing-room-only audience lapped them up. The next major staging by BOC has been commissioned by them: Life is a Dream with music by Jonathan Dove to a libretto by Alasdair Middleton, directed by founder Graham Vick. In closing the programme, Associate Artistic Director of BOC, Richard Willacy, announced that they had begun their usual search for volunteer actors and singers to join them bringing the creation to fruition.

My final experience centred on Operamus, another local amateur company, who spread the gospel of opera whilst providing a platform for aspiring students. Their half-hour spot looked back on the recent workshop of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (see review at Performing in the Round Room of theBirminghamMuseum the singers battled with considerable background noise, but to their credit all contributors came out on top. Daniella Varadi shone once again in her role as the Sorceress, well supported by her fellow witches.

Thank goodness artsfest 2011 was not a victim of local government cuts. Let’s hope next year does not suffer either!

Geoff Read