Ahead of their performance at Millfield Theatre on Wednesday 1st February, Arts Columnist Jonathan Lovett speaks to The Opera Boys...
Spend ten minutes in the company of Michael Storrs and Richard Colvin and any prejudices you might have that opera is an elitist art form vanish as quickly as the Phantom in his opera house.
The two singers are so good-humoured and down to earth and speak passionately about opera being accessible for everyone.
“You should absolutely make it accessible,” said Michael. “And try and get more people through the doors so they can enjoy it because it’s the most beautiful music. Sometimes it just needs to be shown in a slightly more relaxed way which doesn’t take away the quality at all. When you hear the name, ‘Opera Boys’ you would expect a lot of classical and operatic music. And you do get all of that but you also get four guys having fun. We always have something unexpected going on…usually from Rich…”
“Yeah, we did a show once where I nearly put on a dress,” explained Richard, laughing. “We had a debate on stage over whether or not I should be allowed to put on a dress if I really wanted to. The show overran by about 15 minutes but it was a lot of fun! Unlike perhaps some other classical acts we are as entertaining and we are accomplished. The singing is great and the music is undeniably beautiful, but we are also a very entertaining bunch of guys.”
They certainly are. Over our 50-minute long chat I can rarely remember laughing so much in an interview. As you would probably have gathered the Opera Boys are no ordinary group of classical singers. Performing a winning combination of opera standards, classically arranged pop songs and even film scores the ‘boys’ have been seen all over the world in a bewildering variety of countries, venues and cruise ships. But it’s not just the more mainstream, populist programme that has seen fans return again and again…it’s the jokey interaction in-between songs which must surely go a long way to defusing any audience member’s concerns that the evening ahead of them will be too highbrow.
On stage there are four of them in total but it does feel like I have the funniest two in front of me today as the banter includes: Richard’s numerous impressions of famous folk (he does a great Ethel Merman), to Michael’s Eurovision exploits (more of later) to all of them being upstaged by one troublesome bar stool…
“Once we got a lady up on stage because it was her birthday and we dragged on a stool for her to sit on,” explained Richard, laughing. “But the stool was broken so every time we let her go she would slowly revolve! (All of us are now laughing) So we kept turning her back around again…but the moment we let her go she would revolve around again. And eventually a stage hand ran on and hid behind the stool and… (with difficulty)…and had to crouch down and hold the stool in place (Michael is now crying with laughter) …and as we started talking he would angle her towards whoever was speaking! The singing wasn’t great because we were all in tears!”
All of these anecdotes; all of the jokes and good-natured humour would count for little, however, if the boys didn’t possess a depth of talent that qualifies the group’s claim of boasting, ‘The UK’s finest classically trained tenors.’
Scottish-born Richard trained at the Royal Academy of Music and was the lead in the musical The Hired Man on Broadway. Michael went to the Utrecht Conservatoire (he’s half Dutch) then the Royal Academy and then…Eurovision! In an unexpected development he represented Belgium in last year’s finals finishing a very respectable fourth.
“A friend of mine from the Academy went to Belgium and became a vocal coach on their version of The Voice,” he said, explaining how a Dutch/Australian came to represent Belgium. “He called up a few of his mates to perform a song, Rhythm Inside, and it turned into the best four weeks of my life! It was a bonkers thing to be a part of but the final was one of the best live concerts I have ever been to.”
“I’ve been sending my CV to every European capital for the last six months and I still haven’t heard anything back!” added Richard. “Perhaps I’ll try the Federated States of Micronesia because they have about 600 islands so surely one of them would want me to represent them!”
Three years ago both of them received a call from fellow singer Robert Cherry who was putting together a group…and the rest, as they say, is history.
“When he was putting together the group Rob decided to call people he knew which, to be honest, is usually the best way to do it,” said Michael. “Because then you at least know that you’ve got people who are dependable and who enjoy each other’s company. It’s not just about someone who is talented, it’s about getting on with each other, and that’s part of the show – four guys who get on and have a good laugh together.”
And there are never any arguments, no fallings out?
“Obviously when Michael get an audition for ‘the tall, good-looking one’ I phone my agent and ask a few questions!” said Richard, laughing. “But then my agent goes, ‘Richard? You know we really like you…? You’re five foot seven…that’s all I’m saying!’”
Now looking forward to their second major tour the Opera Boys will shortly be heading into the rehearsal studio and the results can be seen at the Millfield Arts Centre at the start of February. Without spoiling the surprise too much I wondered what would be in store for the music-lovers of north London?
“We’ve got a couple of new songs that we might be bringing in for the tour,” said Richard. “And we haven’t sang Caruso in a long time so we might put that in.”
“There are a few immediately recognizable songs that people will know and love and expect us to sing like the big, Italian numbers such as Nessun Dorma,” said Michael. “And then we have some really interesting takes on songs, particularly film music. People might recognise the melody but not necessarily where it’s from.”
And, in a final, thoughtful touch, audience-members will be able to tell the boys exactly what they thought of the show as they leave the venue.
“We always finish the show and run around at great speed to the front of the house to stand by the door and say, ‘Goodbye’”, said Michael.
“That’s how it used to be in the days of variety and music hall,” added Richard. “When Laurel and Hardy finished playing a London venue there are reports of them running around to the exit to say farewell to everyone.”
“It’s personable and there’s no reason not to,” said Michael. “We don’t have any airs or graces or feelings of being elusive artists. For us it’s lovely to meet the public as well.”