Lee Mack, obscene chants and the opera that’s taking on football
“We practise around the house all the time. We’re driving the kids mad,” says Lee Longworth, a Blackburn Rovers fan and – as of late – an opera singer. Longworth and his wife Angela, both 53, are two of a 40-odd strong chorus of real-life football fans who will appear in Gods of the Game, a new opera that will run at Surrey’s Grange Park Opera in October. Their parts involve, among other things, singing well-known terrace chants to the tunes of famous arias. For example “Come off it referee, that was a penalty” is sung to the rousing swing of “La donna è mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto, and “Your team are awful, and God it shows” is set to “O sole mio” (the “Just one Cornetto” ad to most of us). Meanwhile, the extraordinary upper-register staccatos of the Queen of the Night aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute become, “You’re shi-i-i-i-it, And you know you are, You’re shi-i-i-i-it …”
For two weeks, earlier this month, the Longworths practised almost daily with fellow chorus members over Zoom or in person. Then, 10 days ago, the choir was filmed singing its parts, and these video clips will form an integral part of Gods of the Game, which will be shown prior to this November’s Fifa World Cup. The cast will include a non-singing turn by comedian Lee Mack as a John Motson-style commentator, and the whole thing will be filmed and broadcast by Sky Arts, which commissioned it. It all sounds like an innovative and noble endeavour to broaden opera’s appeal. Could opera, to borrow another football phrase, be coming home?
Wasfi Kani, the founder of Grange Park Opera, says the show is an attempt to bridge the gap between two distinct worlds. “People who don’t go to the opera have this kind of prejudice against it. And I suppose combining the two is an attempt to overcome the prejudice,” says Kani, who founded Grange Park in 1997 and moved it into a purpose-built opera house on the Surrey estate of the late Bamber Gascoigne in 2017.
People too readily assume opera is impenetrable, she adds. “But all you have to do is walk into a theatre, sit in the seat, and then feel things. There’s a narrative that’s acted in front of your eyes, there are always surtitles, and the fact that you’re feeling things communally is very similar to football.” She’s considering asking audience members to wear football shirts and scarves. “They might even sing along, you never know,” she says.
The story of Gods of the Game touches on serious issues. It’s about two childhood friends who have grown up to become captains of their country’s football teams – the men’s team and the women’s team. The pair front a bid for their country to host the next World Cup. But as the bidding process unfolds, they encounter corruption, bribery and skulduggery, all overseen – according to Grange Park’s background notes – by “the game’s charismatic and all-powerful president”. It sounds to me like the story of Sepp Blatter, the former Fifa president who was banned from football by the body in 2015 after a lengthy and complex corruption investigation.
Phil Porter, who wrote the words for the opera, is reluctant to draw such a direct comparison. “All I can say is that obviously recently, and going back a long way, football has had many allegations and stories that have come out to do with people being corrupt,” he says, adding that the Olympics has also been mired in corruption scandals. Still, Gods of the Game’s villain is called Victor Puzzo, Italian for “I stink”. The message is pretty clear.
Meanwhile, the “Gods” of the title refer to legends such as Maradona, Pelé and Messi who, in Porter’s tale, ascend to a sort of footballing Mount Olympus on retirement to watch over the game. Gods, power and corruption all feel very operatic, but there is comedy, too: Mack’s commentator will specialise in the strained metaphors and hyperbole beloved of football presenters. There’ll be a touch of Alan Partridge to the proceedings.
But capturing the freneticism of football on a stage will be no easy feat (the opera contains three matches). Director P J Harris, who has worked at the Royal Opera House, has been investigating ways of portraying football without relying on an unpredictable leather ball being booted about. “There are videos on YouTube of people playing football where they’ve edited out the ball, and it starts to look very choreographic and dance-like,” says Harris.
The link between the opera and the real world of football comes via the so-called “footy fan chorus”. Adverts published online invited football fans to submit videos of themselves singing the national anthem. Hundreds applied and just over 40 were selected. According to the fans’ teacher, Michael Betteridge, they immediately understood what it’s like to be in an opera chorus: after all, both groups are predisposed to displaying heightened emotions over a 90-minute period (Wagner operas and extra-time aside) with an interval in the middle. The main challenge, says Betteridge, has been teaching the chorus about the precision of delivery required of a professional opera singer. “We’ve already had people comment on how this was a kind of life-changing experience.”
Certainly, Lee and Angela Longworth have had a ball. They both sing in a community choir every week but have picked up new skills. “The choir we sing in isn’t an opera-style choir. So we’re learning different techniques, like using your diaphragm rather than straining your vocal cords,” says Lee.
Both Longworths work for the NHS. Angela says the singing has been a much-needed release. “It’s been a mad couple of weeks. It certainly takes your mind off the stress and strain of working in the NHS at the moment,” she says. They even took tenor Nicky Spence, who’s involved in the project, to his first match, at Blackburn Rovers. He loved it.
“I’m not sure what people do in an interval at the opera but it isn’t a pie and a pint, is it? It’s more fizz and something else. But we certainly had a pint with him at half-time,” Angela says.
For all their similarities, her comments hint at the different worlds that football and opera are seen to represent: while opera is widely viewed as an upper-class entertainment, football is still seen as predominantly a working-class pursuit. Lee says he has been “indifferent” to opera until now.
Kani wants Gods of the Game to attract all-comers, whatever their background. “I want it to show that we don’t all have to live in our little silos.” And is she a football fan herself? “Well, I admire their athleticism.” Has she ever been to a game? “I have, actually. I went to [Arsenal’s] Emirates Stadium. What I found more thrilling than the brilliant athleticism of those guys was the sight of 70,000 people wanting to do something together,” says Kani.
And this is the very aim of Gods of the Game. Its goal, if you’ll excuse the Motson-esque pun. To get people from different teams, from different tribes, to do something together. It’s an ambition that should be cheered to the rafters.
Gods of the Game is at Grange Park Opera, Surrey, between October 6 and 16 (visit grangeparkopera.co.uk). It will be broadcast on Sky Arts, Freeview and Now in November before the World Cup
Telegraph subscribers can take advantage of priority booking ahead of the general public for Grange Park Opera’s Gods of the Game. The priority booking window is open from today until Tuesday September 13. Click here for more information.