Opera Society’s performance of Bach’s Coffee Cantata was one of the many pleasant revelations of this year’s On The Rocks. In a way, it felt like looking through a keyhole: not only did it explore the renowned composer’s lesser-known comic side, it also took several steps down on the scale for a more personal audience experience. What better place to perform a comic opera about coffee other than a café? There was great potential in enhancing the absurdity of Coffee Cantata by creating physical proximity between characters and viewers, and the society’s choice fell on Bibi’s.
The concept of putting on an opera in Bibi’s initially sounded like a plan one would reserve for their bucket list. Credit should go to musical director Sean Heath, who played the harpsichord in the café, and his mini-orchestra, who successfully brought the sound and feel of high-brow 18th century Europe to a small isolated location in town. They were Chris Harraghy and Francis Newman on violin, Imogen Wilkinson on viola, Zoe Mack-Smith on cello and Will Tamblyn on flute. The half of Bibi’s closer to the bar was separated for them, and the mere sight of an orchestra in the café was joyful enough to enhance the fun in Coffee Cantata.
The comic opera depicts the seemingly constant quarrel between Schlendrian and his daughter Liesgen, who has developed an addiction to the caffeinated beverage and refuses to cut down on its consumption. Schlendrian, quite ineffective in parenting, struggles with his methods of restricting his daughter, eventually settling on preventing her from getting married. Catherine Hooper and Oliver Linehan took on the lead roles, while George Appleyard narrated.
Regardless of intentions, Linehan’s dark green button-front cardigan and Hooper’s bright yellow jumper contributed significantly to their characterisation. In Schlendrian’s case, it worked as visual emphasis on his “uselessness”, reminding viewers of single middle-aged dad stereotypes, which Linehan himself portrayed hilariously with looks of disappointment and confusion. While both superb at singing and impressive in their vocal range, Hooper undeniably dominated the “stage” both with her confident arias and with the barely noticeable mannerisms she attributed to Liesgen. This aspect was certainly a highlight of Coffee Cantata, as many of her shrugs, eye-rolls and gazes in the distance would have been lost in a wider theatrical space. With such proximity to the performers, the characters’ physicality was just as much at the fore of the show as their vocals.
The only aspect in which the opera left some to desire was the use of space. Hooper and Linehan both walked through the small stage area in Bibi’s to merge with the audience, but there was not much movement they could do other than a straight line between the café’s middle and exit. If the society were to produce similar interactive projects in the future, it would be interesting to see it happen in a wider area. Overall, this did not affect the quality of the show.
Opera Society remain exciting and full of surprises, and The Saint highly recommends that you keep an eye out for their events in the future.