The annual Blackheath Halls Community Opera is back with an exciting production of La belle Hélène on the 200th anniversary of Jacques Offenbach’s birth, writes Laura Burgoine…

The community opera project allows people of all ages and experience from Greenwich, Lewisham and beyond the opportunity to take part in a –quality, live music making experience alongside a professional cast of soloists and production teams.

Tenor Nicky Spence, who is the patron of Blackheath Halls Community Opera, says “we offer an opportunity for a diverse group of people to come and work towards an opera production every summer.”

“For me, it’s my second year as patron, and I’m always overwhelmed on the effect it has on everyone who gets involved. For some people it’s the social highlight of the year. We have 40 fantastically enthusiastic kids involved. Everyone inspires each other; the older generation is inspired by the younger people.”

The opera group engages a group of top drawer soloists for the summer. “It really gives them something different from the norm, at a grass roots level,” Nicky said. “It can be a bit poncy being an opera singer, wearing wigs and all but to actually remember the joy of singing and collaboration… Opera is one of the most collaborative art forms with dance, singing, a full orchestra. You have all these facets coming together to work together.”

He describes the experience of being in a community opera as “basically playing.” “It doesn’t really matter how qualified you are to do that, and it’s a fantastic way to spend the summer. Originally the Halls were built for community use, and it’s a fantastic resource.”

The atmosphere at Blackheath Halls is “really inclusive.” “It’s well managed and you’re coaxed into singing beautifully with the rest of the company. You can come in with no experience; we’re more interested in enthusiasm.”

In addition, the Blackheath Halls Presents concert series regularly bring international performers to south east London. “This gives an image into what the Halls was in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Radio 3 would record there because the acoustics are so perfect for a chamber recital.”

“I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm for opera becoming more accessible and lowering any barriers about class and access,” Nicky said. “Even though some of the operas were written 200 years ago, when people come and see that, they realise all the stories are accessible. I think that’s becoming more well known. People need to know it’s there.”

For the 200th anniversary of Jacques Offenbach’s birth, the opera group has selected La belle Hélène, which tells the tale of the abduction of the fair Helen by the Paris, Prince of Troy. He is aided and abetted by the wily high priest, Calchas, who outwits Helen’s much deceived husband, Menelaus, as well as an assortment of bumbling Greek heroes. The score includes some of Offenbach’s best-loved melodies.

“The 200th anniversary is a good punt to go for something and really give a glitter canon of an opera,” Nicky said. “It’s a French romp with the usual in one stall and out the other, mistaken identity, high kicks and frilly knickers.”

“The music’s fantastic. The singing is out of this world. The lead Ellie Larn one of the music scene’s hottest tickets, this is her role debut as Helene, and there’s some other familiar faces from the world of opera there as well. It’s a great opera for Blackheath Halls’ re-launch.”

La Belle Helene is in the Great Hall, Blackheath Halls, 23 Lee Road, SE3 9RQ, on July 16, 17, 19 at 7pm and July 21 at 2:30pm. Admission: £19/ £17 concession/£6 under 12s.