A pint at the opera

When two artforms collide


We love it when brewers draw inspiration from, or even collaborate with, their favourite artists. But it’s very rare to see this creative process work the other way round, and have artists take their cue from the world of beer and brewing. That’s exactly how Infinite Opera came up with the concept for its latest piece though, titled Besse, which the company is now touring around artistically inclined breweries in the UK and, potentially, even beyond. 

Infinite Opera is the brainchild of Roxanne Korda and Daniel Blanco Albert, with the former taking care of the script and story, and the latter handling musical composition and conducting (or, as he modestly puts it, “making sure everyone starts and finishes at about the same time”). The pair started working on Besse, which they describe as “a mini opera trilogy”, back in 2019, after Roxy had dived into the historical connections between female brewers (brewsters) and the mythologies surrounding witchcraft.

“The woman who ran the gallery where we had a residency at that time is really into witchcraft, and suggested we talk to Dig Brew in Birmingham to see what they thought,” recalls Roxy. “Oli [Webb, Dig Brew’s founder] has an arts background, and just happened to also have been reading into the historical role of female brewers, so we met up and it all came together really nicely. That’s when the basic idea for Besse was born, and the realisation that it should be staged in an actual working brewery.”

The story of Besse centres around the figure of a female brewer (or brewster) in the 14th century, and a law introduced during the Black Death, which prohibited women from selling liquor.

Roxy says: “A lot of women who were brewsters started being branded as witches; it was a time where patriarchal control really surged, I think because so many people had died. So, we had to condense all of that history into the year of the Black Death. Anyway, our main character finds out she's not going to be able to run her inn anymore, because as a woman she can’t hold a license. There’s a loophole though, in which she can carry on if her husband dies. So it all develops from there…”

And is there a message for the modern audience, I ask nervously?

“Oh, yes,” says Danny, eagerly. “We have a couple of Trump-like characters in there, taking advantage of the whole societal upheaval to grab control for themselves. Also, we should say that every single character in the piece represents, conceptually, an ingredient in the process of making beer and the interactions that happen during that process.”

Roxy jumps in: “Yeah, it's pretty dramatic, because the main character is representative of yeast. So she dies at the end, gets consumed by alcohol basically. So, yeah, it is quite dramatic I suppose. Everyone dies. But that’s opera.”

Aside from pitching in with some brewing knowledge and a venue, I’m curious about the extent to which Dig was involved in the creative process itself.

“I mean, there's definite separation,” says Oli, “and Dig Brew isn’t credited at the end of the show, or anything like that. However, I would like to think there's also a larger kind of involvement than simply hosting. I’m really interested to see how it develops as it travels to other breweries, then maybe I’ll have a clearer idea of how much we did or didn’t do.

“I mean, we've had a lot of conversations, and being involved with the opera changed Dig Brew’s design trajectory quite significantly… What I learned about the history of beer and women's history being so intertwined, kind of crystallised for me the idea of the ‘other half’; what are we, and what aren’t we?...The whole experience has given me two and a half years of – I don't know what to call it – nutrients? Certainly, if you look at Dig Brew’s logo, if you look at all of our current designs, this whole design period, all of that is post Infinite Opera.”

Besse’s latest venue has been Anspach & Hobday’s railway arch home on the Bermondsey beer mile. In another piece of remarkable serendipity, Paul Anspach went to university with Roxy and stayed loosely in touch through Facebook. When they reconnected over the opera project, Paul was already on the lookout for artistic collaborations for the brewery.

“We've done a few bits and pieces at the brewery before,” says Paul. “The main one we do, music-wise, is our annual Carol concert. We've made a lot more space at the Bermondsey arch now, because production brewing has now moved down to Croydon, so we were looking for good opportunities to try and do more with that space. When Roxy got in touch, I was already kind of aware of the project with Dig Brew, and the more she told me about it the more it made perfect sense.”

There’s certainly something quite eye-catching about two such odd bedfellows as brewing and opera getting together to create something beautiful. But perhaps, in some respects, it’s not such an odd pairing after all.

“Working with and in the breweries has turned out to be a very important influence,” Danny says. “Not just in the sense of design, but from a conceptual standpoint; how to frame a performance, where to perform and how to perform. Consider the politics of performing in a brewery, and the relationship with the different power dynamics in both industries; the opera industry is dominated by massive opera houses that control the programming and the styles and what is a trend, and what isn’t. As a small, young opera company trying to get a hold in that world and bring it to a new audience, I think teaming up with craft breweries has quite powerful symbolism.”

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