OperaUpClose are bringing their hugely acclaimed, 2011 Olivier Award-winning, new English version of Puccini’s La Bohème to Portsmouth.
La Bohème charts the ups and downs of a group of idealistic graduates as they bicker, party, try to make ends meet and follow their dreams. Aspiring novelist Rodolfo discovers a harsher reality when he falls for immigrant cleaner Mimi, while his best friend Marcello’s tempestuous relationship with his on-off girlfriend Musetta brings humour and fireworks to the stage.
Among its performers is Julian Debreuil who plays the role of the philosopher Colline.
The Portsmouth show marks something of a homecoming for Julian – he grew up in Leigh Park – and it will be the first time he has sung here as a professional.
‘I was interested in music from very early on and it kind of took me out of the area,’ he tells The Guide. ‘Because I had an interest in music and it was obvious I was good at it from a young age, my mum thought she would make use of that, and sent me to a specialist music school.
Julian won a scholarship which covered his fees for the full five years at secondary school.
‘I was incredibly lucky, otherwise I couldn’t have done that.’
‘I was a chorister in the Chichester Cathedral choir, so when you do that you go to the attached school. It was very strong musically and also academically.’
The bass singer has been a professional since graduating from music college in 2004.
OperaUpClose aims to make the art-form as accessible as possible, and Julian has been involved with them, playing Colline on and off for the past eight years.
‘I’m very familiar with this production and I’ve worked a lot for this company. We’ve done various theatre residencies, but it also goes on tour, and it’s great.
‘I’ve done other productions with other companies, but generally most companies don’t run shows for this long. This show has been very successful and it’s really opened opera up to new audiences and that’s the aim of the company.’
He’s also grown quite attached to the part of Colline: ‘It’s a lovely role to play – you get an incredibly beautiful aria towards the end, it’s one of the best operas ever written, the music never gets old.
And Julian admits it does have a perception problem, with it often being viewed as elitist.
‘It can be a difficult art-form to get into, but if it’s done in a way that’s accessible, then actually it’s not.
‘And this company does its utmost to make it accessible – like putting it in smaller spaces, so you’re right up close to the performers, not 30ft away like in an opera house. With this company, the audience is often sitting so close they feel part of the action, and they can feel the power of the singers’ voices, which makes it very thrilling.
‘And the closer you are the more convincing the acting has to be, which makes it very interesting for the audience, and it also helps them to feel what the characters are feeling – it’s hard to feel detached if you’re up close.’
They also sing it all in English.
OperaUpClose do all of their operas in English, and they’re fairly modern versions. It’s not in old English – it’s updated to a contemporary period, so the language is easily understood by anyone who comes and any potential barriers to enjoyment are removed. But the music is all still the same.
‘And it clearly works because performances are regularly sold out, they’re always busy and they’ve grown a lot over the years.’
He also believes that a lot of people just need to experience opera and they’ll be hooked. He gives his own family as an example.
‘For many people, they don’t have much experience of classical music or opera, so they think they won’t enjoy it, but I think most people enjoy music if they can experience it.
‘Like my brother, he’s very much into Japanese drum’n’bass, and I always thought I wouldn’t enjoy it, but when he plays me stuff, I realise it’s fantastic, it’s just very different to what I normally listen to.
’He came to his first opera about a year and a half ago. He didn’t know what to expect, he was coming to support me rather than to go to an opera, but he absolutely loved it.
‘It’s about people open to be things – you never know what’s going to happen.’
Julian’s family have all since moved out of the area, but he’s looking forward to playing on old home-turf.
‘I’ve not performed in any of the theatres here. I’ve done a few concerts in the area with choral societies and orchestras, but this will be my first time doing opera around here.
‘On one level it’s just me doing my job – we go all around the country. But on another level it is quite personal, because you always remember where you grew up, and it is nice to bring an art-form you love and people you enjoy working with back to that area.’
Once this tour is done Julian has got a busy diary with plenty of concerts, and a new opera, The Gardeners, by Robert Hugill making its debut at Conway Hall in London in June.
The modest singer adds: ‘I always think I’m very lucky – it’s a very competitive industry and I’m always amazed I have quite a lot of work because there’s a lot of very good singers - people who I think are much better than me.
‘I’m just thanking my lucky stars that people enjoy working with me.’
New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth
Thursday, April 25