I am on my way to Leeds today to start rehearsals for The Christmas Elf. It should be about a four-hour drive but often it can take an extra hour getting through London to the M1 Motorway. So I thought I would pre-empt the traffic and write my blog post this morning ready to launch when I arrive this evening.
This week I had the good fortune to be invited to two fantastic events. On Wednesday I went with friends to the Barbican to watch The Taming of the Shrew. . It was a Royal Shakespeare Company production which presented the audience with a really thought-provoking interpretation of this problematic Comedy. Director Justin Audibert switched the roles so that the play is gender-flipped by regendering all the pronouns. For example, the story’s protagonist Petruchio, (who is a fortune seeker who intends to marry the troublesome eldest daughter Katherine), becomes Petruchia. Claire Price presents a powerful interpretation of this role, hiding her venomous qualities behind charm and swagger.
Whilst the play unfolds, I suddenly realised how few lines the “female” roles of Bianco (Bianca) and Katherine have, despite me thinking that the play was about containing their wild spirits. It is only now that I realise that the center of the play focuses not on the prey but on the hunter. It became quickly uncomfortable, because even though the roles are now reversed to give the comedy a hint of female empowerment the general advocacy of dominance through psychological and physical manipulation is still present. Perhaps this is the message that the director was trying to put forward.
However there were many laughs had by all. A highlight for me was from Sophie Stanton’s giggle-inducing interpretation of a lovestruck Gremia who glides like a nymph in a Christmas ballet across the stage to swoon and salivate over a hair-flicking Bianco whose temperament was similar to a high school prom queen. It is interesting how through comedy we can shine a light on bitter truths and issues and how through laughter we can safely start an honest conversation.
On Friday I celebrated my friend’s birthday by attending a concert with him at the Wigmore Hall. There were three outstanding musicians Andrei Ioniţă cello; Stephen Hough piano and Michael Collins clarinet. The concert was part of the ‘Brahms series’ held at the Wigmore Hall to celebrate this composers prodigious amount of compositions specifically crafted for chamber music, song, and piano. I particularly enjoyed the 5 Stücke im Volkston Op. 102 by Schumann played masterfully by Ioniţă and Hough. It was also interesting to be exposed to a new composer, Carl Frühling and his exciting Clarinet Trio Op. 40. The music was very rich in melody, which was shared across the instruments. The harmony was very lush and late romantic in style but at times very non-intuitive which made it exciting for the listener. I have recently noticed a pattern of this whilst studying the Christmas Elf, which so happens to be composed by Pfitzner, who is a contemporary of Frühling. I found it really rewarding to hear this trio as it gave me inspiration and a better understanding of the German late Romantics, which I can use as I begin rehearsals tomorrow.
Today marks the first day of December and soon I will begin rehearsals for the Christmas Elf with Northern Opera Group in Leeds. With this in mind I thought I would share with you how I prepare and learn a new role.
After receiving the music I try to read the libretto (sung text) to get an idea of the overall story. This helps me to understand my character’s arc, their basic relationships with others, how people discuss and describe them and their key moments in the production.
If I am working on a piece that is in a different language to my own. I will take time to translate the libretto. This can be quite a time-consuming task. I aim to source/create a word-for-word translation. I often consult Nico Castel’s libretti Series, which can be found in music libraries such as at the Royal College of Music. This series contains a word-for-word translation, a phonetic translation and a poetic translation.
This series often helps speed up the process but I try to cross-reference with a dictionary to make sure I really understand what is being said and how it progresses the action of the story.
For each role, I often have a different time scale as I have to juggle all the projects that I have on the go along with other personal tasks so I try to work out a schedule for my learning. I try to break up the role, so as opposed to one big task I have several smaller goals. I use post-it notes to show different Acts, Scenes, and dialogue. If I am working on an opera by Mozart or Handel I will use different colours to differentiate between Recitatives, Arias, Duets , small ensembles, and Finales. These sections then make the overall task more approachable and easier to schedule.
I will then highlight my text and the music. Whilst I am doing this I create a list of the pieces that I am in, I acknowledge if there are any moments of tricky coloratura and harmonies as I personally make them a priority when scheduling in time for memorising. I always like to learn the first entry at the start and then move on towards the more difficult areas as I like to have a small victory to keep my motivation simmering.
After some careful planning, I will work out when to
schedule singing lessons and coachings, so that I can work on the role with my
teachers who know my long term goals or coaches who have expertise in a particular
language or period of music.
I will then sit down with my score at the piano and note-bash, and learn the melody methodically. Sometimes I create learning tracks that I can use whilst travelling on the tube, or in between singing practise.
Then with my schedule set, I make sure that I keep to it and with my fingers crossed and hope that nothing unforeseen turns up. Once I have the music underway I then have to start work on learning the words. But I will save how I do that for another time 🙂
This week I have had some time to reflect on my near year and a half since I left six years of conservatoire education. I also set some goals for the future and caught up with some household chores! It reminded me that I was recently asked, by my friend Ruth Hallows, to participate in a graduate interview for her blog. Ruth is a cellist, who also studied at the Royal College of Music. We met at a Freshers event which I recall as being a Wine and Cheese night, we both lived in the student halls and quickly became great friends.
The main focus of the interview was to give insight to newly graduating students on how I have navigated through my first year after achieving my master’s degree. I wanted to be honest, but I didn’t want to discourage people. It has been a challenging year but I try to look for the positives and for solutions to problems. In my profession, one encounters a considerable amount of rejection and like all musicians, I am constantly working on my craft and identifying areas for improvement. It takes a lot of personal strength and the support of family and close friends. A quote that motivates me and which is attributed to Winston Churchill:
“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
I think this would be my main advice to anybody transitioning to a new phase in life, or in fact just working hard on your chosen path. As Dory said in the Disney Film Finding Nemo: “Just keep swimming.” Stay focused on your goal and work hard. Acknowledge your weaknesses and practice with scrutiny to better them.
I have included below what I sent to Ruth in response to her questions. I hope that you find it helpful or interesting to read. If it sparks any questions please don’t hesitate to comment and ask.
My first year after graduating with a Master of Performance (Voice) from the Royal College of Music in July 2018 has been a bit of a whirlwind. I have sung in nine operatic productions, performed recitals alongside my duo partner George Todica and entered competitions within the UK, Ireland and South Korea.
The first week after graduating I was thrilled when I won the ‘Pendine International Voice of the Future’ at the Llangollen International Eisteddfod. This prize gave me some breathing space for a couple of months and the opportunity to travel to competitions. Following this achievement as part of my prize I was asked to sing alongside Rolando Villazon and Rhian Lois in Llangollen International Eisteddfod’s Opera Gala in July 2019.
What did you find particularly challenging?
After finishing studies, I found a few things challenging. Whilst studying I lived in the Halls of Residence and I missed the daily close and regular contact with other musicians that this provided and the availability of soundproofed practice spaces with pianos. Living with non-musicians in a shared home (so that I could afford to stay in London) doesn’t work when you have a 09:00 audition on a Saturday morning and you need to warm-up. My coaching and singing lessons became less frequent than I like and the opportunities to create video recordings when you need them disappear.
Was there anything you found you were particularly strong at?
Picking myself up and remaining positive. I try to blog weekly which helps me to remember that even the smallest achievement or recalling how I have relaxed with friends and family in my downtime is worth celebrating. I have a great support network; who I know I can turn to when I need advice and encouragement, including my very generous blog friends. For this, I will be continually grateful. I just haven’t had enough time to read blogs that I like as the professional work takes up such a lot of time to prepare to be ready for short rehearsals, so I hope that you forgive me if I’ve not been able to visit you all as often as I like.
“There is more honour
in defeat than in unused potential.”
What is your top tip for people in their first year out who may be hitting a wall?
There are lots of occasions where your confidence will be knocked and lots of rejections. You may question your dreams and whether you are talented enough to achieve your hopes. The best advice I received was not to measure my current success on my ambitions but on smaller goals that I could control. Such as learning a particular aria or role. I found this far more motivating and it kept me positive during quieter months. Also, don’t feel like you are failing if you have to take on other work to cover your bills. A forward diary of empty spaces is simply opportunities that have not yet been fulfilled.
To close the year, I will be performing as a Christmas Elf, but not with a bubble gun outside Hamleys on Regent Street, but as part of a production with The Northern Opera Group. Their Christmas production of Hans Pfitzner’s opera Das Christ-Elflein (The Christmas Elf), will be sung in English using a translation by Ben Crick and Nicola Whatmuff. I am thrilled to be a part of the opera and will be taking on the role of Elflein (The Christmas Elf).
This opera was new to me and for anyone else unfamiliar with the story it is based on a children’s fairy tale. It tells the story of an encounter on Christmas Eve between a local Christian family and Pagan characters, from German Folkore. Scroll down this post and sprinkle some fairy dust to find a more detailed synopsis.
The music composed by Hans Pfitzner to a German libretto by Pfitzner and Ilse von Stach was originally premiered in 1906. It was later revised by the composer into a two-act opera which premiered in Dresden on 11 December 1917
During the summer of 1917 Pfitzner revised the work as a two-act Spieloper (comic opera). He shortened the play by adapting some of the speaking and silent roles into ones for singers. The revised version continues to be performed occasionally in German-speaking countries and I can’t wait to be a part of this English adaptation in Leeds at Christmas. The opera will be directed by Davis Ward under the baton of conductor Ben Crick. Illustrator Sophia Watts has been commissioned to create some amazing images to accompany the opera and I cant wait to see them.
A forest in midwinter
Elflein, a little elf living in the forest, asks his friend Tannengreis, an old tree spirit, why humans ring bells and sing at Christmas and what it all means. Tannengreis expresses his dislike and mistrust of humans. Frieder appears in the forest on his way to the village doctor. His sister Trautchen is dying and he no longer believes in God. He tells the elf that he too has no time for his questions about Christmas.
Franz and Jochen, servants of Frieder and Trautchen’s father, enter the forest to cut down a Christmas tree and end up having an encounter with Knecht Ruprecht whom they initially assume is a toy seller and then a warlock.
The Christ Child appears and announces that he will bring Trautchen the Christmas tree this year. Elflein is fascinated by him, but Tannengreis warns him to stay away from humans and their religion. After a dance by young men and forest maidens prevents the servants from cutting down a tree, angels appear to announce that it is Christmas Eve, a holy night. The Christ Child leaves for the von Gumpach house. Elflein goes with him.
The von Gumpach house on Christmas Eve
Herr von Gumpach scolds Franz and Jochen for not having returned with a Christmas tree. They protest that they have seen the living Christ Child, but he doesn’t believe them and Frieder openly mocks them. Tannengreis comes looking for the little elf and is hidden behind the stove by Frieder. Trautchen is brought into the room, and Knecht Ruprecht arrives with village children to explain the tradition of the Christmas tree.
The Christ Child appears with the little elf bringing the tree for Trautchen but tells everyone that he has also come to bring the sick child to heaven. The elf takes pity on Trautchen and offers to take her place. The Christ Child agrees, grants the elf a soul, and gives permission for him to come back to earth every Christmas to visit Tannengreis. His new name will be “Christ-Elflein” (Christ’s Little Elf).
Christ-Elflein is brought up to heaven by the angels. Trautchen is cured, Frieder regains his belief in God, and Tannengreis is reconciled to humans. All present join in the Christmas celebrations.
There will be two performances on Saturday 21st December at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm at the Northern Ballet Stanley & Audrey Burton Theatre, Quarry Hill, Leeds, LS2 7PA. You can get tickets here :
If you live in the Leeds area and want to take part come and join in on 18 November at 7:15pm to sing in the chorus of the Christmas Elf. The first rehearsal will be at the Quaker Meeting House at 188 Woodhouse Lane, Leeds LS2 9DX.
Key things to note:
1) It costs NOTHING to take part! 2) You don’t need to have sung opera before and we don’t audition. 3) There will be rehearsals on the following dates:
Mon 18 November 7:15pm
Mon 25 November 7:15pm
Mon 2 December 7:15pm
Mon 9 December 7:15pm
Thur 19 December 6 – 9pm
Mon 16 Dec 7:15pm
Sun 15 Dec 2 – 6pm
Fri 20 December 6 – 10pm
Sat 21 December – Show Day 2pm and 7pm
Any questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Charlotte Hoather shone as Pandora, here presented as the Presidential Aide who resigns and joins Epimetheus’ gang of rebels. Her clear soprano was especially suited to the nature of the score, and her dramatic performance was strong yet subtle.
Pandora (a very impressive Charlotte Hoather), clad in statuesque white, is Zeus’s much put upon ‘chef du cabinet’:
There are many poignant moments. I will mention a ‘Queen of the Night’ moment for Pandora.
As The Fire of Olympus draws to a close George and I are looking forward to returning to the North West of England to perform a lunchtime recital at Bamford Chapel and Norden United Reformed Church, Norden Road, Bamford (near Rochdale), OL11 5PQ. If you missed our recital in Warrington then this is a great opportunity to hear our program of music inspired by English texts.
We originally designed the program to celebrate English and American composers and how the music is affected by the different styles and cultures vary. We begin with songs inspired by the English Countryside, local folklore, and Poetry that focuses on Nature‘s connection to love and human emotion. We then decided to throw in a wild card by including the two arias from Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, sung in English translation. This meant our musical cruise could take a detour to France. Since we were stopping in Paris, George decided to include a piece by one of Paris’s favourite salon players, Frederick Chopin. The piece is called ‘Rondo a la Mazur’ and is one of Chopin’s earliest piano works that showcase his talent of making the piano sparkle. The journey continues as we embark to the New World with musical flourishes of Copland and how his music drew inspiration from American folk songs and finishing off with more glitter with a sprinkling of Bernstein’s.
We really hope you can come along and board our transatlantic musical adventure.
Here is a couple of clips from our performance in Warrington last week:
The weather is changing and you can feel that Winter is approaching. The heavens opened yesterday morning just as we were preparing to leave for our concert in Warrington. But undeterred, umbrella in hand we set off in good time to make it to the concert.
Bold Street Methodist Church was a lovely venue and we were made to feel very welcome by the organisers of the concert, Brian, Irina, Sharon, and Dianne who had arranged the event with the support of WACIDOM.
The organisation supports many young artists, both singers, and instrumentalists and I have been proud to be associated with them since 2012.
The audience was so appreciative of the programme that George and I performed, and we were thrilled that so many people made the trip into Warrington to watch us especially considering the inclement weather.
Jake came along to our concert and is a regular supporter of the WACIDOM concert series and is a student of music himself. It was such a treat to have such an enthusiastic and supportive friend in the audience.
Following our performances of Romeo & Juliet for Arcadian Opera, last weekend in Stowe, we have kindly been given permission to share some of the photographs taken by James Gribble, who also played Mercutio. I hope the pictures give you a real flavour of the production. 🙂
One of the great things about working as an opera singer is that I get to collaborate and work alongside so many amazingly creative and artistic people, who like me are passionate about what they do.
Whilst working on The Fire Of Olympus with Radius Opera this year I have had the opportunity to work under the baton of Ellie Slorach, a wonderful conductor who brought the opera’s music to life.
During a break in rehearsals, I asked Ellie if she wouldn’t mind answering a few questions so that I could share a little of her insight into the world as a conductor. I hope you enjoy what she had to say.
1 How did
begin training as a Conductor?
I began training aged 18 at University of Manchester because
they had a student conducting program and I auditioned for that and managed to
conduct all of the student music society ensembles in my time there, which was
amazing as the best way to learn is just to do it, with people in front of you,
much better than standing in front of a mirror or alone in your practice room. Then I went on to do my Masters at the Royal
Northern College of Music.
2 So how did you know you wanted to specialise in conducting before you started University?
I didn’t really know I thought it looked fun and I’d done a tiny bit at school with primary aged children, I’d led the rhythm sticks group rehearsals and warm-ups for chamber choirs, it was on my mind to do it as I really enjoyed it. I am naturally a leader so I thought that was a good aspect of it. When I got to University it had a great conducting program so when I auditioned for that at the end of my first year I didn’t look back.
I used to play the piano, the oboe and I sang, playing and
singing in ensembles – Mark Herron and Justin Doyle were my conducting tutors
at the time and they were the heads of choir and orchestra at the time and very
3 Who were
your musical influences?
My teachers at University I mentioned and definitely my teachers from where I studied at High School Anne Boult (Piano) and Jenni Phillips (Oboe) they were real influences on me at the time. I guess the big music world right now, we were really lucky at the RNCM to have Sir Mark Elder who came in to do masterclasses, he is very inspiring.
4 I saw on-line you were involved with New
Adventures can you explain your role in that company?
My role is for the production of Romeo and Juliet, a new production, I was the young associate conductor so I shadow the main conductor on tour to see how he worked with dancers and had little bits and bobs for myself, such as rehearsals, rehearsals with the cover Romeo and Juliet dancers in the different touring locations.
5 Now you are
working with Radius Opera on the Fire of Olympus what would you say are the
major challenges or differences between conducting for contemporary dance and
conducting for opera singers?
I think there are many similarities. For a start you are standing in the pit with the orchestra who can’t see the dancers or singers and you are the messenger. So the music isn’t the only focus of what is going on, it is the whole drama or the whole dance that is going on so the whole of the arts as a collaboration. So I feel that the role is similar in trying my best to accompany what is going on stage and equally, I have my own musical ideas to add to that and the dancers and singers bring their own ideas so I have to respect that too.
The artists also have logistical things such as the singers need to breathe, dancers need to breathe too and sometimes they need longer to take a breath, the logistics are similar but the main difference is that in the opera world the music Director has a say about what the singers are doing and will coach the singers, in the ballet world the music director is not a director and I’m not expected to tell the dancers how to dance. So, in the contemporary and ballet dance world, I’m more accompanying the dancers in a helpful role as a vehicle to help them dance better without coaching them. I can breathe well like a singer and in the opera world, it is more of a coaching role I can feel when a singer needs to take a longer breath. To see if dancers are falling out of turns etc. ballet conductors sit in a studio and watch for weeks and weeks.
6. What is your view on this opera we are doing now,
what challenges did it bring and what do you like about it?
The challenge of a brand new opera is there are no recordings and no-one has ever done it before so the good thing about that is we have some ownership over it as the first people to do it. This Opera is a kind of pastiche of Handel’s operas. So there are stylistic traditions but we’re not quite sure what traditions to keep and what to break. From a musical directors point of view, the music is quite complicated and hard for singers to memorise so I am trying to be as clear as I can with queues and word entries and I have to think about that more than an opera people know such as the Magic Flute.
7. As a conductor how do you bring the story alive through the music?
I’m driven by the drama in Opera, so when the orchestra arrives I have already had the privilege of sitting through the three-week rehearsals so I know what the drama requires from the music. For example where I need to shorten notes because there is a bang on stage or we need to lengthen a note because the singer needs time at that point to express their feelings more slowly and so on. So when the orchestra arrives I have formed my opinion of the drama so I know what needs to be done. The orchestral rehearsals are actually quite practical and become expressive as we build on our understanding of the on-stage action.
8. To finish what is a fun fact about you?
My hobbies aren’t that cool I have very standard hobbies, running and I really enjoy baking. I’ve just started bread making so fresh bread each week is my new thing I love the smell of it. I guess that’s a fun fact to finish on.
Last night, Saturday 14th September, was the premiere of Tim Benjamin’s The Fire Of Olympus at the Burnley Mechanics Theatre. It was a lovely venue with a fabulous stage and a wonderful audience.
After all the hard work put in by everyone involved over the past few months it was such a thrill to finally bring the piece to the stage. It was a wonderful experience to perform such a different character role alongside the rest of the cast and the orchestra to bring Tim’s music to life.
As the tour is still ongoing, I don’t want to give too much away about the production and what we have in store for the audience. But if you can attend one of the shows I do encourage you to come along and witness the spectacle first hand.
With the ‘Fire Of Olympus’ opening in Burnley, Lancashire on Saturday 14th September 2019, this coming week is going to see all the hard work put in by the cast and creatives as all the pieces finally come together. There are still a few tickets left for the performance in Burnley if you want to be amongst the first to see this amazing production you can get your tickets here:
Following my interview with Tim Benjamin last week on my blog, Tim turned the tables on me with some questions of his own. He kindly allowed me to share them with you along with a short promotional video that he had filmed to help raise awareness of the opera.
1. Pandora is famous,
yet people don’t really know much about who she really is. Can you give us the
I discovered that Pandora was the first human woman on Earth. Zeus the leader of the Gods asked Hephaestus a fellow God to create her to go to Earth to be an evil thing for men to balance out the theft of fire for use by mortals by Prometheus his name meant ‘forethought’ he was as his name suggests a thoughtful Titan (one of the original supreme beings on Earth) 🔥.
During Pandora’s creation, the other Gods were asked to bestow gifts upon her. Hephaestus made her in the likeness of the goddesses, Athena dressed her in silvery robes and taught her feminine skills, Aphrodite gave her elegance and desirability, Hermes gave her a beautiful voice, but Zeus contrived within this to provide her with curiosity, a litany of lies and deceitful essence. She was also given a bottle/jar full of the ills of the World. She was told when she was sent to Epimetheus (Prometheus’ brother another Titan, his name meant afterthought) to be his bride not to open the bottle under any circumstances.
After they were married and had a daughter her curiosity got the better of her, she opened the bottle and unleashed the evils and sins on humankind, other than hope which some believe was trapped in the bottle when she hurriedly tried to put the stopper back in place.
2. Pandora is the
character who changes the most in the opera. How do you interpret and realise
In ‘Fire Of Olympus’ Pandora is a personal assistant to Zeus on Mount Olympus, she is extremely efficient and hardworking, promoted by him, a trusted and loyal worker who is very ambitious and driven to succeed and expects be respected. I believe in her mind she sees herself as one of the elites and wants to be accepted as an equal.
After the mysterious
‘Fire’ is stolen from Zeus’ office, Zeus is incandescent with rage, especially
when Epimetheus avoids capture and starts a people’s rebellion, a revolution.
Pandora is asked to report on the mob and the people’s uprising. Zeus has a
plan that changes Pandora’s outlook in an instance, he wants her to go to
Epimetheus and ‘allow him to do what he wants with you’ he wants her to give
him the bottle and be sure he opens it. Zeus just sees Pandora as a tool, a
nothing, a disposable pawn ♟ she finds this
impossible to accept, if she remained loyal to Zeus he would always just use
her as a girl and would never see her as she saw herself an equal.
She is disgusted,
drained and feels she is worth more. Without knowing what is in the bottle she
takes it from the office with the intent to work with the rebellion against
3. In what ways are this role and music like Baroque music and Handel? In what ways different?
The ‘Fire Of Olympus’ blurs the musical traditions of contemporary and baroque music. The singers are accompanied by a chamber orchestra, which is a large ensemble for various instruments that existed during the baroque era, such as the harpsichord. The opera presents its story-telling in a similar way to Handel and Baroque opera. The Recitatives move the story forward in a speech like manner and the Arias allow for dramatic soliloquies in an ABA format. (For context, in pop music you have typically verse chorus verse chorus. This can be called ABAB format.) The character’s initial emotions are presented in Section A, then explored further with new musical ideas in Section B and finally when section A is repeated, typically with ornaments, the character’s emotions turn into decisions which are then acted upon the scenes to follow. However, I would associate Tim’s use of syncopated rhythms and atonal harmonies in the recitative and melismas as a contemporary music tool to word paint.
4. Do you approach
roles in new opera differently from well-known roles from the operatic canon?
Yes, I approach roles in new operas slightly differently from well-known roles, for a start I can’t just watch other videos of fellow singers interpretations and I wouldn’t have studied the characters in scenes during my training or watched other people doing the roles in their scenes. However, that is what I also love about portraying characters such as Eve, Hero, Uccelina and now Pandora I have to breathe life into the character from scratch. I always try to interpret from the words and music what the composer and librettists intentions are for the character. I create a drawing and a storyboard of how I imagine the character to look and act. I get as much information in advance from the Director and I was also very pleased to meet the librettist during rehearsals last week to get his feelings and thoughts about my interpretation and make any changes from what he told me.
5. Everybody sings,
perhaps to their baby, in a choir, on the football terraces, or even in the
shower, but few people can sing like an opera singer. Can you explain in
layman’s terms how you make such an incredible sound?
I’ve always had a natural amplification. I was frequently told in school performances and choirs I sang with that I was “too loud”. Whilst at High School, I participated in musical theatre productions and often my microphone was turned down or completely off on stage to balance with my colleagues. When you’re told ‘your voice cuts through like a blade’ you think “Is that a compliment or not ?”😂. But in Opera this vocal quality is essential. When I began training professionally I found that operatic singing is dependent on three different categories: Support (Breathing / Posture / Muscular Activity), Phonation (the production of sound by the voice box) and Filtering of the Sound (resonance and the impact of the lips and tongue). Each category has lots of intricate layers, which is why operatic singing is an athletic art form that needs the training to maintain stamina and flexibility so the body can naturally and healthily produce sound that can sustain a three-hour performance over an orchestra that is both dramatic and pleasant to listen to.
This week sees the start of the rehearsals in Manchester for Tim Benjamin’s opera “The Fire Of Olympus” in which I take on the role of Pandora in this modern-day adaptation from Greek Mythology.
The opera has been composed by Tim Benjamin who is also the artistic director of Radius Opera. As the driving force behind this project, I asked if he could spare a little time to answer a few questions and he kindly shared his insight with us.
1. The Fire of Olympus is a new opera, what inspired you to pick this subject?
In 2016 I wrote an oratorio, “Herakles”, for choir, large orchestra, 5 solo singers, and a narrator (spoken)
At the very end, the narrator, who plays the part of “Time”, a kind of mystical storyteller, says: “Perhaps now I shall tell you the story of Prometheus… but no, that can wait for another time.” The oratorio was a big success, especially with the choral society that performed it, and lots of people asked when they were going to get a sequel about Prometheus. And so the idea for this opera, “The Fire of Olympus” came about! While the opera is a very different style of piece, two of my collaborators are the same; Anthony Peter my librettist, and Professor Emma Stafford, of Leeds University, our resident Ancient Greece expert.
2. What musical influences have you used when creating the opera?
The main musical influence is Handel, specifically his
“Italian” operas such as Giulio Cesare and Serse. However, rather
than a pastiche (i.e. trying to make something exactly like a Handel), I have
actively tried to “steal” Handel, to make it my own, in a similar way
that one could accuse Stravinsky of “stealing” Pergolesi, or Britten
of Purcell. So I think the end result sounds initially a bit like Handel, but
on closer inspection, it’s something quite different…
There is also a strong personal, non-musical inspiration from Handel: his opera company in 18th century London, with which he directed many of his operas at the Queen’s Theatre, and practically defined the fashion for musical drama at the time. I would love to achieve something along those lines, in the modern world and context, with my company Radius Opera! So we are filming “The Fire”, in a very artistic way, and hope to use this popular contemporary art form (film) with the style of 18th-century popular opera, to forge something new and with broad appeal.
3. I think it was an amazing idea to use technology and pre-record large choir choruses, have you seen this done before? Or was it a completely new direction for you?
I have never seen or done this before, although I’ve created one or two large choral pieces. What appealed to me is the kind of person who joins their local choral society, then enjoys a wide variety of choral pieces from African Sanctus to The Messiah, performing alongside professional soloists, and develops a really fun-loving approach to music-making. I wanted to create something with those people, and give them back this new opera. And so we went and did numerous workshops, all over the north of England, and created this Chorus for “The Fire of Olympus”. It was huge fun and I can’t wait for them to hear what we’ve done!
4. What qualities do you think an opera company director needs to bring a project from inception to life?
Well, it’s hard, really really hard. There is basically no public funding for this – the Arts Council fund the big companies, but they have little money and many people competing for a slice of a diminishing pie, so they fund things like creative street festivals where the “bang for your buck” is greatest. It’s an inescapable fact that opera is expensive – perhaps the most expensive art form, particularly difficult at the “indie” level at which I’m working. I would say its only comparison (in respect of cost and difficulty) is film, which is also really hard to do well, and for which it’s also really hard to raise money for. However, with film, there are revenue streams – licensing deals, cinemas, TV – which don’t exist for opera, which really can only count on a theatre audience. And so, if opera is not subsidised somehow, ticket prices have to be high in order to pay for the work; so opera sometimes ends up accessible only to those who will pay the price. I hate that, as opera is truly an art intended for ordinary people to enjoy, much more so than (for example) chamber music or symphonic music.
I’m not sure if that answers your question! But for me, the hardest part has been trying, on one hand, to raise money and on the other hand to persuade people to donate things to us, while with my other hands, I try to create work of originality and high quality. So what does an opera director need to be? I would say an octopus. You need to have many hands…
5. Can you sum up the story, was it daunting to bring Greek mythology into a modern setting?
Zeus is a horrid, overbearing, manipulative man-child,
President of Olympus and all-powerful. Prankster-activists Prometheus and
Epimetheus accidentally steal his Fire, an ancient artefact that is the root of
Zeus’ might. He despatches his minions Hephaestus and Pandora to recover the
Fire, but they plot against him. So we end up with tragedy, comedy, passion,
and politics that I think are really resonant with our present
I did not think it was very daunting, though – the stories from ancient Greece are so fundamental to our culture, they almost can’t help but be familiar, yet teach us something new each time we hear them!
6. Did you remain true to the Greek legends and myths? If not, what changes have you incorporated?
The dystopian modern setting and characterisation are of course new, but apart from that, we have remained true to the myths. We have been assisted by Professor Emma Stafford from Leeds University, who is an expert on ancient Greece, but perhaps, more importantly, is a very keen amateur singer and actor!
7. When I storyboarded my role in preparation for rehearsals, I imagined Pandora as a Miss Sloane, Ivanka Trump, Karen Brady type woman, how do you see her?
She reminds me, a bit, of Claire Underwood in “House of
Cards”, but really she’s a super-ambitious self-made ice queen, who has
risen to the very top and has designs on Zeus’ position.
OK, that is not strictly true to the original Greek myth.
Pandora was “created” by the gods as a punishment for stealing fire –
in order to punish the first man, gods sent the first woman, effectively!! –
but we felt it would be more interesting to interpret this as a powerful career
woman who is flippantly destroyed by the man she helped secure in his position
Nonetheless, she is still sent with her “jar” (the word “box” is a mistranslation!) to punish Epimetheus; and it is true to the Greek that she and Epimetheus end up as an item, confounding the gods’ intentions, and found the race of men from whom we all descend…