Issue 271
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It's 2015, in a disused warehouse in Digbeth. Two armed officers are pointing assault rifles at us. They're shouting. There's lots of shouting. We're nodding. There's a lot of nodding. We consider getting to our knees and placing our hands on our heads until they open their mouths and start to sing. We're watching our first performance by Birmingham Opera Company, up there with the most ambitious — and surreal — opera-makers in the world, their 50th production is a fortnight away, so we snuck into rehearsals. And, yes, it has all the hallmarks of the genius-meets-madness of their previous 49 shows.
Khovanskygate (2014), Cannon Hill Park. Image: Donald Cooper
In 1987, artistic director and very big deal Graham Vick CBE staged a production of Verdi's Falstaff in Cocks Moors Woods Leisure Centre, as in the one with the swimming pool with the forever broken slide. From productions in burnt out ice rinks to train stations, the next thirty-something years has seen the world-class, city-changing company put string quartets in helicopters mid-performance, dress its chorus in suicide belts and, critically, engage a completely new audience.
Mittwoch aus Licht (2012), Argyle Works. Image: Helen Maybanks
"If you haven't even heard of opera, you're who we exist for" says Operations Manager, Jeelan Moghraby. "And I'm not talking about the audience here — we actively go out to local community centres, refugee hostels and homeless shelters to recruit." While the Company basically collects industry awards and attracts some of the biggest names to take on its lead roles, the 150-strong chorus is full of volunteers, some of whom literally won't have heard of opera, and might not speak English at the beginning of the seven-week rehearsal period. BOC also has its stalwart volunteers, that have performed with the company for years, like 90-year-old Jason, who had to be convinced to accept a seat mid-way through the three-hour rehearsal we nosed around.
#DnA (2016), former Hummingbird Dale End. Image: Adam Fradgley
The forthcoming production of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk will be the fourth time Brum's own CBSO has taken on the score to the hugely ambitious operas performed by the Company. The 90-piece orchestra, which includes musicians from the city's Conservatoire, will tackle the challenging acoustics of Ladywood's vacant Tower Ballroom, on the edge of Edgbaston Reservoir. If you never made it, the Carnival Ball of 1933 was hosted there, as well as the World Roller Skating Championships of 1967, which West Germany won if you're asking. In control of the orchestra for 2019 is 28-year-old Birmingham born Alpesh Chauhan. For Alpesh to be conducting such a big opera so early in his career — like so much of what the Company is doing — is a little bit unheard of back in normal land. A bit like collaborating on a set with the guys who build some of Glastonbury Festival's biggest, boldest bits, you might say.  
NYC Downlow, Block9, Glastonbury Festival. Image: Peter Podworski
Yep, Block9 — who not only created the dystopian fairy tale castle at Banksy’s Dismaland but are responsible for the eponymous Glasto set design (partially pictured) — are in town to create a suitably dank and anarchic environment for their first opera collab. Swapping Worthy Farm for seven weeks of B16, Brum-born co-founder, Stephen Gallagher saw the Opera Company's performance of DnA at what used to be The Hummingbird and knew he wanted to get involved. He was actually disappointed about how up together this year's venue felt when he eventually saw it with its lights on. "It looked like a real sh*t hole when we first scoped it out, but the next time we visited all the uplights were on and we realised we had a lot of work to do to make the Tower Ballroom look suitably abandoned." Having already removed lots of the ceiling, we're pleased to report, Stephen's fully on track.
Mittwoch aus Licht (2012), Argyle Works. Image: Helen Maybanks
Lady M, as everyone at the rehearsal was calling it, tells the story of the rebellion and betrayal of — spoiler alert — triple murderess and housewife, Katerina. Back in the 1930s, Stalin outlawed this popular libretto within two days of seeing it for "tickling the perverted taste of the bourgeoisie", which immediately makes it even more cool.

The audience will move and be moved (both emotionally and physically, the chorus is a confident bunch) by the action, with no allocated seats and parts of the set on rollers. And, no, we can't show you pictures of how Lady M is going to look — you'll have to get a feel for what to expect from the Company's other-worldly past productions. Because like our first experience of this city's big-thinking operatic army, you deserve to discover it on your own, rifles and all. 
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is at Tower Ballroom on March 9, 11, 13, 15, 17, though some dates have already sold out. All tickets are under £20.


Whether you’re an aspiring Instagram demagogue, an SLR 4eva sort, or maybe just a little bit fascinated by photojournalism (*raises hand*), The Photography Show is ready to open your lenses. Included in your ticket (£14.95), join sessions about how to build a social following with talks focussing on everything from food photography to vlogging. There’s an entire stage dedicated to capturing the great outdoors, as well as practical demos on key techniques around using light and freezing motion. The three-dayer also features visual history makers like Pete Souza, the former White House photographer who had almost unfettered access to Obama and his Oval Office. It’s £12 to hear from Souza, who'll share stories behind his most memorable shots from the more than two million he captured. At the NEC from March 16 to 19. Tickets


Edmund de Bergerac: detective John Nettles tootles around Jersey in a 1949 Triumph, looking for clues between pints. Wait… let’s start again. Playwright Edmond Rostand suffers stifling writer’s block in 18th century Paris, so uses his skills to send love letters to Jeanne on behalf of his best mate, Leo. Big noses and belly laughs ensue, forming the backdrop for Rostand to pen the classic play, Cyrano de Bergerac, later brought to the big screen by Steve Martin and *assumes French accent* Gerard Depardieu. Starring Freddie Fox from the BBC’s The Three Musketeers and comedy ledge Josie Lawrence, Edmond de Bergerac is the biggest of deals in France, with five Molière Awards to prove it. See the untold story behind the classic, performed in English for the first time at The Rep from March 15 to 30, tickets (from £15).


We tackle life’s big questions, head on. So let’s talk pancake fillings: lemon and sugar? Splodge of Nutella? Deluge of blueberries? Whatever your pancakey poison, you’re not wrong. But how’s about some crispy duck, shredded spring onion and a hefty helping of hoisin sauce to mix things up this year? Take that, Lent. Better still, you can get said duck pancakes for half price, saving you a tenner, at both Chung Ying Central and Chung Ying Cantonese from Pancake Day on Tuesday right through to March 10. Just mention the deal when you order.


TAPS’ raison d’être is simple: Beer, street food, music. And we’re here for it. More than 25 breweries will be bringing bold new craft beers and intriguing little ales to the Custard Factory on March 29 and 30. Dig Brew Co’s blueberry milkshake IPA went down a treat at the last edition and if you’re into Siren, Beavertown, Moor Beer, Purity or Tiny Rebel give us a whoop, because they’re all there too. Grub-wise, Döner Summer brings the vegan kebabs you won’t want to spill on the way home. Whilst Dick’s Smokehouse don’t do ribs, they do cajun pork belly ribs, with pineapple salsa–slaw and a rum BBQ sauce. Hopefully with a napkin. From £11


It was always fairly clear that Stephen Merchant was the unshowy superior in his partnership with Ricky Gervais, and his good-natured comedy about a British wrestler heading stateside is further confirmation. Based on a true story, it follows Florence Pugh as she flourishes in the WWE – leaving her brother behind to pick drawing pins out of his back in old Blighty. Think a glossier, cheekier version of The Wrestler spliced with Bend It Like Beckham – a nice bit of fun for a date, this. One thing: despite his prominence in the trailers, The Rock is in it for about 30 seconds. Times & trailer


Birmingham's beautiful but pint-sized Barber House has switched to equally beautiful but significantly bigger premises, and they're offering a helluva prize to mark the move. Squeezing out of their Bennett's Hill spot and moving 100 metres around the corner to Waterloo Street (near Adam's restaurant) they've more than doubled in size. Great news being as it was insanely in demand in its previous home. The same trademark lightbulb encircled mirrors, crisp white walls and even crisper beard trims, shaves and hair cuts now come with a complimentary shoe shine area and double the work stations, and no more waiting around if you don't fancy it — you can now book. Five winners will receive free hair cuts for a year (a total of eight cuts per winner) while a further 20 entrants will win shave or beard kits worth £25. To enter you either need to walk in for a cut, beard trim or shave between now and March 31, or book yourself in for an appointment within the same period. Do that, mention I Choose Birmingham, and your name will (literally) go into a top hat for the draw. Prices start from £23.50 and every booking comes with a comped shoe shine and drink from the now far better-equipped bar area. Call 0121 2367507 to book
Venue: @Pizza, Unit 33 Grand Central, B2 4BF 577; website
Choice: Mean Greens (£9.95) Chooser: Louis, General Manager

It'll take you 64,000 visits to try every topping combination at Grand Central newbie @Pizza. At a rate of one pizza a day, that's over 175 years worth of variations. Or you can get the skinny in the next two minutes. Go! Everyone gets a 48-hour proofed sourdough base, then you pick a sauce, like tomato or smoky BBQ, a cheese, like Italian mozzarella pearls, and then, a bit like the classiest, friendliest, freshest Subway you can conjur, you load up your base with meats, veggies, and finishes, like olives or dressings. Every combo is the same price (£9.95) and every pizza cooks in 90 seconds. And fortunately for our availability for the next couple of centuries, the "You Choose" concept exists, so it was for GM, Louis, to decide what we ate when visiting. We're alot of things, and we're definitely meat feast sort of pizza people, so Louis's selection of Eat Meat Repeat, complete with four types of the good stuff was met with an unprofessional level of grinning. Bravely then, he persisted with his second choice of Mean Greens AKA The One with a Salad on Top. And how right he was. While the subtle kick of the basilica picante (Italian sausage) next to some properly charred pepperoni was happy-making, it was the basil pesto base, salad, grilled veg and mozzarella that had the more wicked way with our mouth. The speed at which the pizza comes out after it's ready means the fresh ingredients stay crisp and distinct and suddenly, it felt like summer. 
Alan's back and there's a Partridge Appreciation Night to celebrate. On March 11 at The Old Crown, it's £10, including Toblerone. Fancy it, Dan? DAN! DAN! 
You need to sign a disclaimer before attending Enigma, a new food and drink experience that required input from hypnotists and magicians. £75 pp. Book from 12pm today
Kuula Poké will be on Hawaiian from April in the Great Western Arcade, where Yorks used to live. Think lomi-lomi salmon, ahi Tuna and plenty of tropical fruits and seeds.
Pass us a hula skirt.
For it's DDC inauguration, Beef on the Block's doing Aubrey Allen bavette steak and hand-cut chips with peppercorn sauce, chimichurri, blue cheese or gravy. Sunday from 12pm.
Digbeth First Friday is tomorrow from 6pm. Multi-artform events are happening across Centrala, The Edge and other funky venues you've either been to or need to go to.

"Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back and, instead of bleeding, he sings."

Robert Benchley

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WORDS: Katy Drohan, Tom CullenRobb Sheppard, Andrew Lowry
PICTURES: Barber House — Jack Spicer Adams, @Pizza — Curious Rose Photography, Fighting With My Family — MGM

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