This article by Tom Service appeared on Thursday, 11 June 2009 in The Guardian

In Brixton on Saturday, the Choir of London had an open rehearsal of their production of Puccini's opera La Bohème in the intimate surroundings of St Vincent's Community Centre (in the eaves of a church, as you can see from the photo; it seemed an appropriate setting for this tale of attic-based romance). It featured some brilliant young singers. Andrew Staples and Charmian Bedford, on the right, were outstanding as Puccini's ill-fated lovers, with Amy Carson (who starred in Kenneth Branagh's film of The Magic Flute) and Alex Ashworth as the loved-up Musetta and Marcello.

The impressive thing about the choir's production on Saturday was its lack of compromise, its commitment to musical quality. I was sitting next to tenor Allan Clayton, who played Tamino in the 2007 performance of The Magic Flute. He described the experience of performing to Palestinian audiences as one of the most powerful of his life. It was the only time he didn't mind people using mobile phones during a performance: the Palestinian music lovers wanted to share the experience with as many friends as possible, filming and recording Mozart's masonic masterpiece.

All of the Choir of London singers perform for free, and no one in the organisation takes a salary. On its own terms, this will be an impressive enough performance of La Bohème, but taking into account the effect it will have on audiences who have never seen the piece before, it could be one of the most significant operatic productions of the year. More power to the Choir of London, I say.


Choir of London take Puccini to the Occupied Territories

So where can you see the show when it opens on Saturday? Unless you're in Jerusalem, Ramallah or Nablus, you can't: they're taking this show to the occupied territories; where it's only the second opera ever to have been seen.

The first was the choir's production of The Magic Flute a couple of years ago, directed by Samuel West. This time, Palestinian singers will be part of Puccini's opera, with a children's chorus from al-Kamandjati Music Centre, a Ramallah-based project set up by violinist Ramzi Abu Radwan in 2002 that now works with 350 children. As well as the Bohème performances, there's a concert of Brahms's German Requiem with musicians from al-Kamandjati, the Barenboim-Said Foundation, and a Palestinian choir based in Bethlehem; as well as a Mendelssohn piano concerto from Palestinian pianist Saleem Abboud Ashkar.

Ready for their encore ... The London singers take a bow after their rehearsal performance in Brixton. Photograph: Tom Service

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