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All a matter of scale for opera.

A whole opera is being put on specially for four free performances this weekend. Terry Grimley investigates.

Double trouble: Richard Halton and Margaret Preece in rehearsal.

Asoprano is warming up her voice to a piano accompaniment when a young man comes in and shoots himself dead. What's going on?

You won't have to wait long to find out in Stephen Oliver's tragicomic opera A Man of Feeling, which runs for just 20 minutes from beginning to end. Suffice to say that the soprano and the young man have a history which is laid bare in flashback.

Bearing a mysterious dedication to opera critic Rodney Milnes ("whose fault it is"), A Man of Feeling is one of a large number of miniature operas by Oliver. It was first performed in 1990, when the part of the young man was sung by baritone Oz Clarke, n ow better known as a television wine critic.

It is being staged specially for ArtsFest, Birmingham's new free arts festival, by City of Birmingham Touring Opera, which had a notable success with Oliver's Beauty and the Beast a few years ago. There are four performances today and tomorrow, including one in Centenary Square.

"We have nothing we've just performed or are just rehearsing, so (artistic director) Graham Vick said why didn't we do this?" Andrew Bennett, CBTO's administrator, explained.

"It's very funny, but it's also sufficiently demanding in some ways, with proper music and proper singing. So it is representative of CBTO - we're not doing a soft sell."

As for directing the piece, Graham Vick suggested simply recruiting two of the most intelligent singers around and letting them get on with it themselves. This flattering assignment fell on Richard Halton and Margaret Preece, who are joined by pianist Da ne Preece (no relation).

"It's been quite a new experience for them," Andrew Bennett said. "The first thing that threw them was when they asked what time we were starting rehearsals on Monday morning and I said 'That's up to you'."

"We were saying how hard it must be for people like Woody Allen who direct themselves, but we've been helping each other," Margaret Preece said.

"I've enjoyed going down to the costume stores, choosing bit and pieces. There will be a set, and it's sort of getting bigger and bigger by the day. The venues are three different spaces and Richard and I haven't worked in any of them before. There are n o technical resources to speak o and a very brief set-up time. The most interesting is going to be the one in the open air. I'm a little unsure about whether the audience is going to be coming and going during the performance."

Margaret, whose previous assignments have included the title role in The Cunning Little Vixen for English National Opera, Judith Weir's solo opera King Harald's Saga for Covent Garden Music Festival and Handel's Amadigi at the Opera Comique in Paris, was born in Solihull and still finds it a useful place to be based as a freelance performer.

How does she find The Man of Feeling as a piece to sing?

"It's a lovely piece, but it's tricky musically. We're doing it without a conductor so we have to give a surreptitious glance over to Dane, but he is part of the action and has to act himsel so we can't count on him!"

City of Birmingham Touring Opera presents A Man of Feeling today at Birmingham Repertory Theatre (1pm) and Stage 2, Centenary Square (7pm); tomorrow at Birmingham Repertory Theatre (2pm) and the CBSO Centre, Berkley Street (4pm).
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Sep 26, 1998
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