The glorious Hackney Empire goes grimey for the Arcola’s astonishing opera festival

(c) Alex Brenner
HEmpire E8 020115 ©
Empire of opulence. Rehearsing Wagner, Paul Carey Jones (the Wanderer) and director Julia Burbach

* Update Sunday 7 August 2022: today is your last chance to see performances of  either/both grand operas. Julia Burbach’s shortened productions will give you outstanding singing, immaculate playing by the Orpheus Sinfonia and Wagner’s epic-sounding music (pity about his complicated and crazy plots). It is a rare opportunity: just this once, forsake the sunshine for several hours in a superbly restored classic of the theatre world


TWO OF HACKNEY’S MOST powerful cultural forces have come together for the highlight show of an annual festival that observers once thought was far too ambitious for one of London’s poorer boroughs.

Dalston’s Arcola Theatre, home to drama so imaginative it won a worldwide reputation, and the Hackney Empire, which long ago found a way to get ethnic minority audiences into theatre seats, are combining for a Grimeborn double bill of Richard Wagner operas from the Ring Cycle.

Started 15 years ago with Arcola fingers crossed, the alt-opera Grimeborn quickly became good box-office. The evocatively named series — think Noughties grime music, think Glyndebourne opera — was devised by Arcola co-founder Mehmet Ergen after an idea that emerged from a Battersea Arts Centre opera festival.

HEmpire©DA16fans: © Hackney Empire panto Sleeping Beauty, Mare St, London E8, 011216
Fan-tastic: enthusiastic applause from the fans in the Hackney Empire gallery

The Arcola theatre company was named after the Dalston E8 street in which it first set up — in an abandoned sweatshop. The theatre later migrated to more central, and practical, premises near Dalston junction.

The Empire story goes back to the mid-’80s when impresarios Claire and Roland Muldoon decided to save a grand theatre in Mare Street that was cruelly made to hide its ornate, Victorian-baroque interior fittings under false ceilings and bland decoration as it operated as a bingo hall.

Ergen: opera-lover

The productions of this Grimeborn are likely to be as creative as previous seasons’ presentations, one of which somehow persuaded audiences — well, almost — that they were under water and watching sirens writhe in the legendary Rhine.

Never were Wagner’s epic fairytales such fun. They were superbly sung and acted, too, and well accompanied by a small band.

The festival’s HMS Pinafore will give the Gilbert and Sullivan musical a fashionably anti-imperialist tone; The Boatswain’s Mate by Ethel Smyth is re-set not in the late dame’s era but in the 1950s; Sumida River in Sign Language, will up the diversity stakes and the jazzy, poppy Sin The Musical, by John-Michael Mahoney, is a world premiere.

None of those appeal? Check the site because there are nine other productions.

Wagner’s Siegfried and Götterdämmerung will sensibly be staged at the spacious (the auditorium, not the seats) Empire in what is being termed “innovative reduction”.

JuliaBurbach©DA22: © JuliaBurbach at Hackney Empire with mother 060822
Proud mother: German opera director Julia Burbach with her Mutti at the Empire last night

Both operas will be sung in German (tilt your eyes up for the  English surtitles).

Neither opera is more than two hours (no intervals). At last, the Ring Cycle cut to posterior-friendly length.

David Altheer 230722

* Grimeborn, Tues 26 July 2022-Sat 10 September 2022. Arcola Theatrebelow, 24 Ashwin Street, Dalston E8 3DL; Hackney Empire, 291 Mare Street E8 1EJ

Arcola©DA13: © Theatre Ashwin St Dalston London aE8 June 2013

* Backstory: Arcola, 20 cutting-edge years; Million-pound Arcola move; Turkish lesson for Hackney; A Dalston music fest; Hackney group makes theatre work for youngsters

* Siegfried rehearsal pic © Alex Brenner. Others ©, and for sale for reproduction.

* Emboldened underscored words in most cases indicate a hyperlink, a reader service rare among websites. If a link does not work, it is probably because the site to which the URL refers has not been maintained. 

* Links to articles in The Guardian do not imply any approval of that newspaper’s historic slavery links.

This site welcomes fair comments, including the critical. They may be edited for grammatical, legal or taste reasons, or for shortening. In the unlikely event that anything defamatory is posted, the sender’s details may have to be divulged. (Under UK law, this applies to any comment/discussion forum, eg, Twitter.) RSS feed link is at top right. Twitter: @lovingdalston Publicists, amateur and professional, should read Also relevant may be the note at the end of Photographs © David Altheer unless otherwise stated and apart from supplied pictures

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.