Cosi Fan Cheapo

"Heavens what mayhem, heavens what crowds/ One at a time, for pity's sake!"

Thus bellows Figaro, the bustling barber of Seville, bon vivant, matchmaker and general factotum - quite the busiest man in town.

Whether he remains as busy as London's summer opera season progresses is uncertain. For this production of Rossini's great farce is being staged by a new troupe, Savoy Opera, with a bold mission: Stage classic favorites at affordable prices to entice a new breed of audience to the opera.

It's a risky plan. Opera has long been the most expensive of the performing arts - sumptuous, superior, and labor-intensive - and usually relies on subsidies and steep ticket prices to survive.

Now the masterminds behind Savoy Opera are threatening a mini-revolution with their pledge to bring opera to the masses by stripping out the pomp, the opulence, and the cost. A threepenny opera, if you like.

"We think we are doing something different," says Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen, producer of Savoy Opera who, along with impresario Raymond Gubbay, got the project off the ground in April.

"We have a theatre that has wonderful acoustics," he adds. "We hope to change the way opera is presented in London."

But the venture - London's first new opera house in almost 40 years - has stirred controversy.

Admirers note that it is operating entirely without the government subsidies that keep the West End's two class acts - the Royal Opera House and the English National Opera (ENO) - afloat. They say the competitive ticket pricing - as cheap as £10 ($18 dollars) for some seats - means that this most enigmatic of art forms might finally find a wider audience. And they say it could provide a model that might work in cities such as Paris and New York.

But critics argue that the Savoy is peddling mediocre fare, with young, unproven singers, spare sets, and an uneven orchestra. They say it will steal audiences - particularly tourists - away from worthier productions at ENO and dupe people into believing they are seeing the real thing.

"It's a good idea - the more opera the better," says John Allison, editor of Opera Magazine. "There is probably room for it in the market. "But what's been put on so far is not up to the standard of the ENO," he adds. "The direction in the 'Barber of Seville' is underwhelming, the orchestral playing isn't that great, the casting is mixed."

The problem with opera is it costs so much to stage. Big venues need big voices, and big voices command formidable fees - and don't take kindly to performing too often. So theaters must adopt the repertory system, with several productions on at one time, adding to the cost. The vast majority of opera houses the world over are subsidized.

For Sir Stephen, the cozy 1,100-seater Savoy Theatre offered an alternative. "We have an intimate theater, the size that most of the opera writers wrote for, that a younger voice, a less mature voice, will be able to fill," he says. "And you can get at least two younger performers for less than a Pavarotti.... The lack of stars enables us to perform eight times a week."

To the uninitiated, this is fine. The Savoy production may be modernist, spare, and star-less - a bit like a cross between a Brecht-Weill musical and a kitchen-sink drama - but it is entertaining and accessible, a perfect venue for the opera neophyte.

Whether it will actually pull in many newcomers remains to be seen. Early audiences have been rather mainstream, full of suited and gowned opera buffs who could probably list their Top 10 favorite arias.

One newcomer in the crowd said: "This could be a hit with the tourist market, people who just want to walk into an opera without planning too far ahead. But I think most people will understand that it's not the real thing."

Could it work elsewhere - an entirely unsubsidized opera outfit taking on giants like the Met in New York or the Opéra National de Paris?

"If we are successful, it might be replicable in New York or elsewhere, but only in a city in which there is a critical mass of theatergoing people," says Sir Stephen. "The minimum rates for performers are much higher in New York than they are here, so I don't know if it's potentially workable."

Much will depend on whether Savoy succeeds. Sir Stephen says the theater must be more than half full to break even. That may be difficult if a full-blown price war breaks out in the West End. The Royal Opera House earlier this month hit back with an offer of a limited number of seats for £10 - a formidable discount on the £175 top price.

But experts say that cheaper seats will not necessarily open up opera to the masses. Ian Kearns, an occasional opera goer who is associate director of London's Institute for Public Policy Research think tank, says that the majority of people shun opera not because of cost but because it has no "cultural reach" into their lives.

"Research on why people don't attend things like opera, particularly people from lower income groups suggest it's not cost. It's lack of awareness, lack of interest," he says. "This is what you need to counter."

"People from outside London are simply not going to pay for a bus or train ticket and then line up for a ticket they are not sure they will get, and then have to leave before the final curtain to get home again anyway."

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