It is a strange truth of opera that, despite being a grand art on a massive scale, your experience as a spectator is peculiarly private and personal. Once the lights go down, you are plunged into a secret world, a tale told by the composer and librettist to you alone. Tosca sings to you; Violetta sparkles at you; Mimi dies across the room from you, and you cannot save her. With operas we love, it’s almost like spending an evening with a much-beloved and long-lost friend: remembering their foibles, celebrating their triumphs, mourning their passing, musing on the mark they left on our lives as we leave. But for all this immediate intimacy between us and the composer, our knowledge of the singer who brings us that story can be minimal – even non-existent. Occasionally, the way a singer interprets a character might seem to imply something about their own life (cf. Bryn Terfel’s wonderful philosopher-rockstar Wotan at the Royal Opera House Ring, 2012); but we can never be sure. After all, we came to spend the evening with Violetta, not with Miss X. Yet – without Miss X – there would be no Violetta. Violetta would be permanently, silently dead. It is strange that we can be so fascinated by one, and so ignorant of the other. This is the gap which Opera Naked seeks to bridge, with resounding success and moving candour.

We are welcomed into a dark, cabaret-like space underneath the smart new St James Theatre. The stage is dominated by a large grand piano. The cast enter in lab coats, placing an injured tenor on a chaise longe, and we realise we are in a hospital. As the music grows, the tenor miraculously recovers, pulls off his bandages, and bursts into The Prince’s aria from Dvorak’s Rusalka, “Vidino divna”. So far, so fabulous; but, once his aria (sung with a wonderfully rich tone by Alex Tsilogiannis, who endeared and excelled throughout) comes to a close, this tenor explains he was indeed hospitalised (after a car crash) early in his career. When he came to, at the forefront of his mind was this very Prince’s aria – in Czech – whole and perfect in his memory, while his body was bruised and broken.

This level of absolute devotion and dedication to opera in the face of financial disaster, parental disapproval, physical problems (nodules on the vocal chords) and even moral dilemmas (if your pregnancy conflicted with a career-crucial concert date, would you have an abortion?) is what gives this production its passionate, beating heart. Each singer tells their own story of how they came to opera in open, conversational style; the dramatic level is lifted and lightened by occasional, welcome and sometimes bawdy interjections from a professional comic (the brilliant Tony Harris, who clearly loved the material and ad-libbed with equal glee). It’s funny, moving and horrifying in equal measure.

The whole thing rolls along at a lick; moments of pathos are still given space, and the arias glow beautifully throughout the production, but it’s a fairly fast-paced evening which provokes thought and celebrates survival, rather than dwelling on despair. Sometimes, the energy on stage did threaten to overwhelm the structure of the piece; a recording of a series of interviews with other singers fell victim to this enthusiasm as it was skipped over in a rush of ad-libbing. But with something this fresh and raw, better too much gusto than cold and calculated reserve.

Nadine Mortimer-Smith (soprano) sang with fervour, feel and liquid reach; her talent emphatically justifies her tenacity in pursuing opera through a host of other musical (and non-musical) careers, the story of which she tells with heartfelt openness. Philip Spendley (bass) created real magic with Wolfram’s aria “Oh du, mein holder Abendster’n” from Wagner’s Tannhauser; Spendley and Mortimer-Smith together were later an electrifying Scarpia and Tosca respectively in Act Two. Ciara Hendrick (mezzo) quite simply had the most perfect voice for early opera I’ve yet heard: her performance of “Dopo notte” (from Handel’s Ariodante) was nothing short of exquisite, as was her later Monteverdi duet with Alex Tsilogiannis. The precision and power of her voice worked equally well in the seductive Carmen “Habanera”. Robert Bottriell was not only an exceptional pianist, who played deliciously, but also someone who really added to the stage ensemble as a dry, wittily comic presence in his own right. The whole company excelled in the ‘nightmare audition’ sequence, which was an absolute tour de force (and provoked gales of laughter).

Lynn Binstock is to be warmly congratulated on creating an original, special, fascinating opportunity for the opera audience to get to know opera singers: and to “love and admire them for their talent, industry and courage in taking on the incredible challenge of singing opera.” It is emotional; it is charming; and above all, it is relaxed, personal, great fun, moving, and will keep you thinking long after you leave.

Unexpected Opera - Opera Naked, at St. James TheatreCharlotte Valori reviews Unexpected Opera’s joyous Opera Naked, at the St James Theatre, Palace Street4