Carmen, drunk? Opera goes to the pub

Mark Fleischmann in 2008 play The Collector

Mark Fleischmann in 2008 play The Collector

“What would Carmen look like on her day off? What would it be like watching opera singers pretending to be really drunk and fighting with each other?”

Mark Fleischmann thinks he has the answer. The London-born performer, whose career has taken him from the stand-up in Edinburgh to a hyena suit for the Lion King musical and a regular turn as a baddie on the BBC drama Being Human, wants to take opera out of “lavish theatres and dusty church halls” and bring it into the great British pub.

“I’ve always run comedy club nights in pubs, and one day after a few whiskies a friend and I came up with the idea of putting opera, pub and comedy together and seeing what would happen.”

From that spark, Fleischmann, 38, developed the character of a Romanian ringmaster called Sirus Ludovico, a comedy figure with the ability to pluck opera’s great and good out into the real world.

“He came from nowhere,” Mark explains, adding that the night is mostly unscripted. “I come on stage with my best cod Romanian accent and do bit of stand up, then ‘take the opera singers prisoner’ and make them work for me.”

Fleischman says his show, which will be on at Purim and then regularly at Cottons in Exmouth market, is a chance for opera to go a bit mental. He wants to give audiences the opportunity to listen to a classical aria, performed by a professional opera singer, in an environment more like that of a traditional variety show.

“In the old days you’d go out and there would be a bit of everything, good food and wine, a house band and singer, a magician, maybe even a burlesque dancer,” he says. “In Britain there are so many pubs and they are these very interesting old artistic spaces. Most of them have got a piano, and that’s all you need.”

Cabaret type shows, he points out, are enjoying something of a renaissance in Britain at the moment. And it’s that kind of entertainment, rather than opera, he is passionate about.

In fact, he whispers, until about a year ago he couldn’t stand it.

“I found it elitist and quite dull,” he admits. “All those epic emotions – I’m going to kill myself and so on. What about ‘I feel slightly upset today’?”

Has he been converted, now that he’s working with opera singers? “I’m a complete populist, I like Carmen, La Traviata, Madam Butterfly – all the good car commercials,” says Mark. “I’m still not the kind of person who would go and see a full length opera, but I appreciate the beauty of it.

“When you see opera sung live it’s quite something.”

Mark, who grew up in Hampstead Garden Suburb and describes himself as “stereotypical north London Jew-ish”, says comedy will always be his true love.

But he says he finds the pub-stand up formula, which exploded in the mid 1990s, rather stagnant now.

“I came to this as a reaction to that. The best comedians are people like Larry David, the ones that go extremely far and it may not work, but it may be incredible.

“What I’m interested in is pushing boundaries, and in people experiencing something in a different way.”

His aim, though, is not to bring opera to the masses. “Art will always be elitist,” he says. “TV and film will always win out.”

That said, his next project is a residency at the National Theatre, in the cast of the Cherry Orchard. “It is very highbrow” Mark says. “And you’re never going to be in a situation where you get the kids on the street or the man down the pub saying ‘I’m going to the National to watch a bit of Chekhov’.

“That’s never going to happen. But at the end of the day you can do anything with anything.

“It’s just a question of how you stage it.”

'Purim Cabaret' is on March 17 at The Enterprise, London NW3. Book at jcclondon.org.uk or call the JCC on 020 7431 9866

    Last updated: 2:28pm, March 11 2011