Something Really Dangerous

I Capuleti e i Montecchi by Vincenzo Bellini, Popup Opera, The Spire, Brighton, 30th April, 7pm.

So much is spoken about the state of the housing market as the ultimate indicator of the current state of social and financial inequality, lovingly expressed in every real estate window, photos of the heist that the older generation is inflicting on the younger.

But if you really want to get a good look at inequality in action then opera with a capital O is your metaphor.

Go to the Royal Opera House: in the foyer, expensive perfume, designer frocks, on the stage, amazing sets, moving floors, every toy money can buy; go to Popup Opera in Brighton: a decaying old church, a slight mouldy smell, fluorescent lights lying in the ground, plastic chairs.

Where would I rather be?

And Bellini? Associated in my mind at least with tricksy runs in the highest notes, the kind of thing that Joan Sutherland was good at, needing big sets and big dresses and big choruses to make it at all palatable. Beautiful yes, but let's just stream it. You can choose from Joyce DiDonato playing Romeo (a 'trouser role') or Anna Netrebko as Juliette, though sadly not together. Opera is full of of such arcane detail. You don't know who Roberto Abbado is? You poor, sad thing.

Why have the rich colonised opera? I suspect a lot of them sleep through it. It's a good place for a nap, your secretary can't get hold of you. And if you go to Glyndebourne your grandchildren are forced to wear something decent for once in their lives.

Such audiences are literally dying. An excess of wealth is as corrosive to opera as it is to housing; its purpose is distorted, corrupted, undermined.

Opera has a purpose? You have to be joking. Isn't that why the rich like it? Looks and sounds good but is completely useless, like a Lamborghini?

Granted, the purpose can be hard to discern when it's disguised under layers of luxury, put as far away as possible beyond an orchestra pit full of more and more musicians, but opera is the greatest expression of dramatic art so far invented. The rich have corrupted, defiled, perverted, debauched and distorted it, made it expensively and artificially useless, precisely because of its power. They know something really dangerous when they see it.

Bellini's Romeo and Juliette isn't from Shakespeare but from an Italian play written early in the 19th Century, only a decade or so before this adaptation. The pair are already in love, are older than the Shakespearean lovers, more worldly and very much involved in the violent interactions between the families.

Vincenzo Bellini was born in Catania, Sicily. For this opera of feuding families he recycled some of the music from an earlier, unsuccessful opera, Zaira, based on a play by Voltaire, in which the heroine, a Christian, is in love with the Muslim Sultan of Jerusalem. A theme for today perhaps, but Bellini had only six weeks to write something new so settled on a theme which it's a safe bet he knew from his homeland, organised crime.

For much of the action, either one or other of Romeo or Juliette is a captive in some insalubrious cellar of the palace of Juliette's father. The actual setting, a decaying church, coincidentally built not long after the opera was composed, is a perfect setting. It's freezing and the floor is actually stone.

How hard can Popup Opera have made this for themselves?

There is an orchestra of one, on electric piano. No chorus; those bits are swiftly passed over by a couple of lines of text, projected on a wall, as part of the English captions. The opera is performed in Italian.

Love in a cold climate. In Italian. Isn't this kind of thing meant to be entertaining?

Then they started singing. And all doubts disappeared.

At a simple, visceral level, hearing opera singing close up is a wonderful experience. That is real.

That the singing, the music, the commitment of the performers, the situation, rather than the setting, was also real, made the performance work in a wholly unexpected way.

Opera is usually a byword for fake, culture as lie, music masquerading as drama, a Fabergé egg created just to be expensive and exclusive.

This production made clear that for Bellini, the subject mattered. He made something beautiful and moving from violence and ugliness.

Popup Opera is a genuine re-imagining of what opera can and should be.

Paul Corcoran