A stage full of bunny girls, Space Hoppers and high-tech green-screen effects? It’s Rossini, as you’ve never seen him before

One of the girls at the front of the stage looks as though she is having trouble sitting down. Bending a tanned, gazelle leg underneath her, she is careful not to snag her pencil-thin heel on her gold bikini bottoms as she reaches the boards. Behind her, a giant yacht cruises across a turquoise lagoon while palm trees sway in the breeze. A beach ball makes a slow arc through the air, and a man with a hairy chest poking through his silk bathrobe sips a martini. It’s the middle of Friday morning, just another typical day at Scottish Opera.

If it all looks like a photo shoot from the pages of OK! or a flashback to an episode of Eldorado, there is no cause for alarm. It is the work of Colin McColl, Scottish Opera’s current guest director, who wants to put the “soap” into opera. His production of Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers opens in Glasgow this week, and he wants it to be full of “visual and aural treats”.

“When I was asked to do The Italian Girl, I didn’t really know it,” says McColl, drinking a glass of tap water before rehearsals get started. “They gave me the libretto to read — and those things, they’re all deeply silly, they’re absolutely ludicrous. So I decided to have fun with it.”

The original story takes place in the palace of Mustafa, a wealthy Turkish sultan. Mustafa is desperately trying to get rid of his clingy wife, Elvira, in whom he has lost interest, and wants to replace her with a hot-blooded Italian girl. In McColl’s modern remake, Mustafa’s palace becomes a state-of-the-art superyacht cruising the Med, and Elvira is an actress in a lowbudget Latino soap, Algiers.

“We were very influenced by Hugh Hefner and the Playboy mansion,” McColl explains. “We have these bunny girls running around. We’ve brought in dancers who just hang around the pool all day and giggle. And we’ve made Mustafa this kind of Aristotle Onassis character. He’s his own lord, with a bevy of lovelies and a giant staff.”

Rossini’s comic opera is given further nips and tucks with a storyline that involves backstage tantrums on the television set, water-skiing and motorbikes. While the action unfolds on stage, a giant screen behind the singers will transport them into various glamorous, sporty settings using green-screen technology.

It’s a high-octane, multi-media production, and one that has already enjoyed success when it premiered in New Zealand in June. Kiwi audiences praised the production’s strong theatrical edge, calling it “a world-class, innovative performance”, and Alex Reedijk, Scottish Opera’s general director, was so impressed at the opening night in Wellington that he commissioned it for the autumn season here.

Reedijk joined Scottish Opera in 2006 after being in charge of NBR New Zealand Opera for four years. Before leaving New Zealand, he had spent several years fostering the growth of new operatic work there, and he has made no secret of his plans to do the same for Scotland. The year after joining Scottish Opera, he launched its Five:15 series, where Scottish authors collaborate with composers to create new mini-operas lasting 15 minutes.

As well as challenging 21st-century notions of how opera should look, Reedijk says that an international collaboration such as this, between his native New Zealand and Scotland, is also budget-friendly. “Opera’s an expensive business,” he says. “If you can split the cost of things like costumes and sets, it makes a lot of sense.”

Reedijk was also pleased to collaborate again with McColl, a friend of 20 years he has worked with several times before. “It takes quite a long time to forge a good partnership,” says Reedijk. “Starting fresh, you need to build a rapport, establish a common language. I know Colin very well. I knew exactly the sort of production he was going to bring.”

That production — in which top-heavy blondes bounce around on Space Hoppers — might seem the kind of thing to give die-hard opera buffs heart palpitations, but Reedijk is confident that Rossini is in safe hands.

“They gave me the libretto to read — and those things, they’re all deeply silly, they’re absolutely ludicrous. So I decided to have fun with it.”

“Colin brings this fantastic theatrical energy to what he does. His pieces aren’t rooted in the past, so, while the opera may be 100 or 200 years old, Colin’s take is always respectful to it but, at the same time, he tells the story in a fresh way.”

Reedijk may be fully on board now, but he admits that when he went to see the production for the first time in New Zealand, he was apprehensive about such a drastic overhaul of the opera.

“I was pretty anxious, to be quite frank,” he says. “It’s quite a big punt, translating it in this way. But [the audience were] unashamedly enjoying themselves, with some terrific singing. I loved it.”

Both Reedijk and McColl agree that the quality of the singing and music must be a priority but, once the talent has been secured, the director should try to tell the story in as entertaining a way as possible.

“I mean, we’ve got Karen Cargill, so there’s no drama there,” says Reedijk of the Scottish mezzo-soprano who is singing the part of Isabella, the Italian girl of the title. “She’s just a tornado on stage, a whirlwind.” Cargill last sang with Scottish Opera two years ago, when her role as Rosina in Sir Thomas Allen’s production of The Barber of Seville had critics gushing praise, calling her “a welcome touch of international class”.

But Reedijk also knows that he can’t please everyone. In fact, he divides the opera-going community into three camps. “For certain audience members, these stories can only be articulated through the traditional opera methods. For many others, they’re just as happy to see a contemporary, fresh take on things. Then there are some who regard traditional operas as desperately stuffy, and who don’t want to come and see those. The only way to cut through all of this is to concentrate on great storytelling.”

For traditionalists, Scottish Opera’s Italianate autumn season includes The Elixir of Love, a rustic alternative to the bling of The Italian Girl. “My job is to make our audiences feel safe,” says Reedijk. “Across a year, I hope you like most of what we do — maybe not all of it, but most of it. We want people to trust Scottish Opera.”

McColl hopes his production will attract many opera beginners, because such a colourful visual feast makes it very accessible. “Supertitles over the stage have already got over the language barrier, which puts a lot of people off opera. Using this kind of audiovisual stuff on stage is just taking things to the next level,” he says.

Although McColl is one of New Zealand’s most highly regarded theatre directors and has been artistic director of the Auckland Theatre Company since 2003, most of his inspiration for The Italian Girl came from earlier in his career, when he directed the long-running Kiwi soap opera Shortland Street.

“I did more than 100 episodes of that, so I’m quite familiar with those kinds of TV set and the things that go on during filming.” But to refresh his memory, McColl did a lot of research into other soap operas, particularly Latino ones. “My favourite was one called Without Breasts There is No Paradise. It sounded a lot more romantic in Portuguese. Lots of volleyball scenes in that one, as I recall.”

Before he gets too misty-eyed at the memory, he stops laughing, to add: “At the end of the day, it’s entertainment. Rossini wrote it to order, for the Venice Opera, as entertainment. He wrote it in 18 days. They were quick-turnaround operas at the time, which is very like telly writing nowadays. I think Rossini would totally approve of what we’re doing.”

The Italian Girl in Algiers will premiere at Theatre Royal, Glasgow, on October 21, then go to Eden Court, Inverness, His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, and the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh. Visit www.scottishopera.org.uk

Click here to see what the show looked like when it was performed in New Zealand.