Bringing opera back to the people

This August the Copenhagen Opera Festival returns for its ninth year, and its first with internationally-acclaimed tenor Peter Lodahl at the helm. It is a festival determined to uncouple the genre from the formal etiquette of the opera house, moving it into the streets (and even canals) of Copenhagen, where it hopes passionate expression and sheer vocal skill will find a new audience

It is a common misconception that a night at the opera is musty with the clichés of black tie dress codes, formal decorum and shushing audiences. No matter how affordable the Royal Opera House makes its tickets, or how contemporary and experimental the stage direction gets, it can be difficult to attract new audiences because of the perception that opera is a ‘high art’ focused on antiquated characters in archaic stories – a frustrating oversimplification of a popular art form that was borne of comedy, passion and excess.

The Copenhagen Opera Festival is determined to reassert opera’s popular appeal by extracting it from the theatre and bringing it to the streets. A dominant characteristic of this year’s programme is intimacy, both in terms of content and staging – a quality that can often get lost in enormous auditoriums.

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Receiving its world premiere this year is Louise Alenius’ new chamber opera The Silent Zone, a piece that is set in the present day and showcases the genre as a powerful medium for contemporary storytelling. Though the story wrestles with an ancient motif of the incest taboo, it takes place in a modern family in which a father is trying desperately to reconcile with his children. The performance even challenges the opera medium itself – the two abused children are unable to communicate conventionally, with one resorting to drums and the other performing in falsetto.

The opera ‘Silent Zone’ is one of the festival’s standout performances. In the photo is Mona Alenius Kaniewski (left) and Kenneth Andersson. Photo: Mathias Bojesen

Another experimental piece is the ‘opera collage’ Il Letto (The Bed), by the British opera company Helios Collective. Two sopranos and a pianist use Giacomo Puccini’s music to express the passion and heartbreak of Puccini’s personal life, including the jealousy of his wife and ultimately the suicide of a young maid in his house. It’s a chance for those familiar with Puccini’s work to see his music through a new, biographical lens.

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The opera conflates Puccini’s fictional and biographical worlds, and challenges the theatrical convention that frowns upon looking too closely ‘behind the scenes’ of a performance. But this ability to view opera within its context is an important part of the festival – allowing opera lovers to learn more about the stories and the mechanics of the performances. A further example of this is the vocal masterclass that will be taking place during the festival on the stage outside Torvehallerne and at Sct. Andreas Church, where festivalgoers can eavesdrop on professional singers’ lessons with renowned voice teacher Gregory Lamar.

The Opera Festival is fun for the whole family. Photo: Mathias Boyesen

The festival is an unpretentious enterprise with a ‘more the merrier’ approach. One of the more traditional performances, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, a tragic love story in which western imperialism meets eastern mysticism, will be staged at Store Vega, appropriating the rock venue for the more acoustic exertions of Italian verismo. Even Copenhagen’s waterways will play host to musical performances, with the ‘operetta boat’, the stalwart of the festival, setting sail every day with a selection of lighter favourites.

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This is a festival that seeks to redraw the boundaries of a wild and exciting art form that often seems corseted by the misconceptions of those who have yet to experience it. The Opera Festival liberates the passion and the vocal mastery of opera performance from its darkened auditorium and instead fills waterways, nightclubs, boats and power plants with music, replacing bow ties and shushing with picnic blankets and the hum of the city. M

What to do at the Copenhagen Opera Festival

Be serenaded at NIMB Bar by Lonely House

Artistic Director Peter Lodahl recommends this performance for anyone new to the genre. He dubs it “an opera collage about loneliness, playing with the cliché of lonely men confiding in a bartender.” But rather than presenting it onstage, at a distance, the audience will also have a drink as they become guests at the same bar where the three professional opera singers mingle among them, performing music from the 20th century.

Get a glimpse behind the scenes at a ‘star shaping’ vocal masterclass

Gregory Lamar is one of the top voice teachers in the world, and during the festival he will be hosting public masterclasses for selected local singers where you can see how opera’s most important instrument is shaped and honed by an expert teacher.


Lakmé, the French romance, hasn’t been performed in its entirety in Denmark since the 19th century, but on Friday, August 4, it will be brought back to life by the Malmö Opera in a concert guest performance. The festival prides itself on unearthing hidden treasures, and this will be a great opportunity to experience the opera’s famous flower duet.

Highlights Concert

On the final Sunday of the festival, August 6, Peter Lodahl presents and celebrates the best of the fest in an outdoor concert on Ofelia Stage, overlooking the opera house itself. It will be a dramatic and engaging affair with performances by this year’s Young Opera Talent, Elsa Dreisig, the pop-up ‘bicycle opera’ Pagliacci, and many more.

Take a trip on the Operetta Boat

It’s impossible to draw up a to-do list without mentioning the Operetta Boat. Since the festival began, the Operetta Boat has sailed round the canals of Copenhagen with two sopranos and a pianist on board. Operetta is a lighter form of the genre with spoken dialogue – the European precursor to American musical theatre. It will be a collage-type performance, with some of operetta’s greatest hits tied together with the spoken word. The programme includes popular pieces from La belle Hélène, Landmandsliv, The Gypsy Baron, and Countess Maritza. Even the American classic, Oklahoma!, will be featured. And don’t fear the rain – if it starts to drizzle, the show will continue under one of the bridges!

Copenhagen Opera Festival


By Emily Tait

Emily Tait Editorial intern. After graduating with a degree in English literature from the University of Cambridge last summer, Emily now lives in Copenhagen.

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