About two years ago Gwen Dobie, Catherine Robbin and I had lunch on a patio under a tree, sipping white wine and evaluating our production of Dido and Aeneas at York University. We were exhausted but happy after our initial collaboration, and keen to sink our teeth into something even bigger.
That’s when the idea was hatched to produce The Beggar’s Opera at York.
We open next week after a year of planning, designing and rehearsing. The production is high energy, imaginative, and a little off the wall. Gwen presents the opera as a “play within a play” set in a modern prison, with all the dramatic possibilities that presents. Our student designers have been challenged to create costumes, sets and lighting with materials they could find in a prison environment. The results are clever re-conceptions of 18th-century style using playing cards for vests, mops and rubber gloves for skirts, sardine cans for snuff boxes, and two stunning corsets, one made of plastic spoons, the other of dominoes!
I am so proud of the dedicated students who have toughed it out to bring this interdisciplinary monster to the stage. This project is a rare occasion for actors, musicians, dancers and designers to work, play, solve problems, perform and party together.
When John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera opened in 1728, at the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, it was an instant hit. The play satirized not only the political, social and economic issues of the day, but it also lampooned Handel’s Italian opera company, playing very successfully down the road at the Haymarket Theatre. Handel imported fabulously skilled singers from Italy, whose hot tempers occasional broke into un-choreographed fights on stage. (You’ll see a fair bit of that in our show, but the fights are all beautifully choreographed and safely executed by our actors after weeks of practice!)
Gay’s ingenious ballad opera spoke to a new audience, in a new way. Borrowing popular dance tunes and folk songs of the day, pairing them with his street-wise English text, Gay engaged his listeners directly. Many of these traditional folk tunes are still sung today, surviving as Christmas carols, like “Greensleeves” (sung by MacHeath in prison) and “What is this lovely fragrance” (the drinking song “Fill every glass.”) Gay also filched from Handel’s opera Rinaldo and Purcell’s masque The Fairy Queen. The overture is the only newly composed material, set by J.C. Pepusch in the style of a French overture, complete with a fugue on Lucy’s air “I’m like a skiff on the ocean tossed.”
Since the eighteenth century there have been many adaptations of Beggar’s Opera, notably the Three Penny Opera by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, Duke Ellington’s Beggar’s Holiday, new arrangements by Benjamin Britten, Arthur Bliss, and Canada’s own Healey Willan.
We find the themes of the play still very relevant today. “The lower sort of people have their vices as well as the rich, but the poor are always punished for them.” Torontonians know exactly what this means.
Perhaps Mayor Rob Ford will come to our show?
Tickets are available here:
Please come, and be prepared for a wild ride!