Anyone who has spent the night at the theatre will be familiar with that laugh: the very particular loud guffaw to show the someone has got the joke, whether it is truly funny or not.
But the “theatre laugh” is to be a thing of the past at English National Opera, it appears, under plans to send in the clowns.
ENO’s new artistic director Daniel Kramer has announced he is to commission a specialist in physical comedy to direct a new production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe.
Cal McCrystal, an award-winning director, has worked as a clown choreographer for Cirque du Soleil, as director for Gifford’s Circus and as “physical comedy director” for the National Theatre’s hit One Man, Two Guvnors. He has also worked in Hollywood, on films including Spiderman 2.
Speaking via video at the launch of ENO’s new season at the London Coliseum , McCrystal admitted he hated the typical opera response to attempted comedy, doing an impression of a false laugh.
“I’m never happy when people go to the theatre and the opera, and you hear them going ‘ ah ha ha’,” he said. “I hate that kind of laugh.
“I don’t want people to come and give a little laugh to show they got the joke, I want them to bang their heads on the seat in front with laughter.
“The best laughs come from watching people being really stupid, and from surprise. If you surprise people, you get those big laughs coming from the physical comedy.”
His version of Iolanthe, he said, would be a “playground for mischief”, with rumours of remote controlled pheasants being trialled for the stage.
Kramer said of the Gilbert and Sullivan commission: “I’m so happy because after many years of seeing his work at the circus and at Cirque du Soleil, One Man, Two Guvnors, I was able to get Cal McCrystal to direct it.
“He is an absolute genius at comedy. It should tickle audiences left right and centre, and create a daring evening.”
I don’t want people to come and give a little laugh to show they got the joke
Cal McCrystal, director
Iolanthe, he added, was intended to be the first of many operettas to be staged at ENO over the coming years. Other new commissions for the 2017-18 season include productions of Aida, The Barber of Seville, Rodelinda, La traviata, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Marriage of Figaro, Satyagraha and a world premiere of Nico Muhly’s new opera Marnie.
Speaking at the season launch, ENO’s new music director Martyn Brabbins also disclosed the company had employed coaches to work on opera singers’ diction, to ensure the words are heard by audiences.
Asked about singing in English and making sure lines are understood, he said: “We’re recruiting coaches right now to work on diction on each show.
“It’s a huge space in there, but it’s eminently possible,” he said. “But then again some singers are more predisposed to be able to do it than others.
“Some singers find it more challenging. It’s a difficult thing.
“This is something we’re very aware of and very keen to try and help.”
Kramer added he was considering ways to make surtitles more subtle, weaving them into productions in new ways to make them less dominant.
“Abroad, sometimes the sound is championed over the language in opera. But singing in English for an English culture, it’s extra important for us that the language is accessible.”