Magazine article Scandinavian Review

Claes Fellbom and the Birth of the Swedish Folk Opera

Magazine article Scandinavian Review

Claes Fellbom and the Birth of the Swedish Folk Opera

Article excerpt

Alternative Opera

Claes Fellbom founded the Swedish Folk Opera with the intention of removing opera from the ivory tower of the elitists. He has succeeded, and in so doing has built up a remarkable musical institution and a special public who has learned to love opera through the Folk Opera's innovative productions.

It began in 1976 as an upstart operation founded by Fellbom and his wife, Kerstin Nerbe, the company's musical director and chief conductor. Fellbom recalls:

There were three basic reasons why we started the Swedish Folk Opera and why we continue it. First, we saw that many people were being trained but weren't able to get jobs after completing their education because there was only the Royal Opera. Second, I was interested in whether there were ways to experiment with and develop the art form a bit. As a member of the audience, I saw that the art form wasn't really being exploited. Not too many experiments were underway, such as placing the orchestra in a less conventional setting to get the singers closer to the audience, thereby creating clarity and presence.

Finally, I felt there was a large potential audience who didn't want to go to the Royal Opera, who resisted the social aspect of the Royal Theater, but still had a need for this kind of music. This has proven itself to be true.

Fellbom calls his opera company "something of a Wunderkind," which is how the man himself has been described. "I started with everything very early," he says with a modest laugh. "I made films; at the age of 18 won first prize in a professional competition for a short film. I won another prize at 19 and another first prize at 21. So I got off to a very quick start."

He studied music while going to school. "In fact, I financed some of the earliest films through music. I was a jazz musician, but to earn money, I played rock and roll. I toured with the big stars and made a lot of money."

It was his family, however, who influenced him the most. As the youngest son of three children, I always had to keep up with the others. I think that influenced me to make films at such an early age.

My mother was a painter and an amateur opera singer. She didn't actually perform, but she sang all the arias all the time. So I was raised with that. That's why working with opera was a coming-home of sorts. I knew much of the music already and had the repertoire in the back of my mind. Finding a Home

Fellbom recalls the genesis of the Folk Opera. "I was given the opportunity-by coincidence-to direct a scene from Don Carlos for the opera school in Stockholm. My future wife was the piano accompanist for the rehearsals."

After their first experience of working together, Fellbom and Nerbe decided to commit themselves to the development of an on-going company, and the Folk Opera was born. Since that day Fellbom has done nothing else but opera. Coincidentally, the couple's son, Linus, was born nine months later.

"We started out as a touring company," Fellbom explains. "Then in 1980, we acquired our own theater, a very small cinema with 170 seats. We outgrew that and, in 1984, we moved to our current theater, which is also an old cinema but much bigger."

The renovation of the cinema, built in 1927, was completed with funds provided by sponsors and foundations, with the Folk Opera providing one million Swedish crowns itself.

The building has the kind of grandeur typical of movie palaces of that period, evident in the foyer's high marbled walls and in the cafe that is part of the complex. But it is clearly a grandeur of the proletariat, appropriate to the Folk Opera's goals, not the regal splendor that one finds at the Royal Opera.

In the 600-seat auditorium, the balcony soars toward the midnight blue ceiling. The walls have been stripped of the original decoration. In this former movie house the viewer is confronted with the element that is the theater's biggest drawback as well as one of its sources of inspiration: The stage itself is hardly a stage, but more like a platform, designed at a time when a movie house was a movie house, and the Royal Opera was the only game in town. …

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