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.
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:
Saturday 19th October at 19:30 pm, opening night, Sunday 20th October 15:00 pm matinee performance sees the culmination of three weeks of intensive but ever so enjoyable rehearsals for Arcadian Opera’s production of Gounod’s Romeo & Juliet. We are in the fabulous Roxburgh Hall Theatre, Stowe School, MK18 5EH a beautiful location mid-way between Banbury off the M40 J10 motorway and Milton Keynes M1 J14. (Tickets)
During the rehearsals, I have learnt so much working under the watchful ears and eyes of Justin Lavender and Alison Marshall and I can’t wait to take to the stage next Saturday to help bring this opera to life.
Some Pictures From One Of Our Rehearsals
The story is such a sad story. I remember as a teenager, about the age of Juliet in the story, traveling to Verona on a family holiday and visiting the site of Juliet’s balcony. At the time I just could not have imagined being in her position, a forbidden love with an impossible decision that brought with it unintended consequences.
The music is so beautiful and, in this production, we will be singing in English accompanied by the Arcadian Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Although current productions of Romeo and Juliet are more often than not updated, the set and costumes designed by Stage Director Ali Marshall, put the action back in the wild and dangerous times of fifteenth-century Italy, when gang warfare was also a fact of life.
James Hutchings (Tybalt) practicing swordplay with William Branston (Romeo)
Justin Lavender, Musical Director
Our Music Director is Justin Lavender, he was originally persuaded by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten to abandon nuclear engineering for music. His international debut was as Nadir in Les Pêcheurs de Perles at Sydney Opera House. This success led to engagements with opera companies and orchestras throughout the world at the very highest levels. In 1990 he made debuts at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, singing the leading role of Arnold in Rossini’s spectacular masterpiece, Guillaume Tell, as well as at the Wiener Staatsoper as Tamino in Die Zauberflöte. His debut at La Scala, Milan, in the title role of Rossini’s Le Comte Ory came the following year, along with Demodokos in Dallapiccola’s Ulisse at the Salzburg Festival. (MORE)
Alison Marshall, Artistic Director
Alison Marshall initially trained for five years at the prestigious Tring Park School for the Performing Arts after which she studied for a further three years at the Royal Academy of Dancing. She then became a professional ballet dancer in Germany, rising to be a solo dancer, appearing in many of the favourite classical roles as well as several roles that were created especially for her. While there, ballet roles permitting, she would occasionally sing in the extra-chorus of the opera company resident in the same theatre. (MORE)
I do hope that if some of you are in the area you can come along to watch, I’ve advised my parents and grandparents to bring along their tissues. Yesterday I introduced my old friends and previous neighbours to come to watch the Fire of Olympus opera in York and they really enjoyed it, especially that for their first experience of opera it was sung in English and they could understand everything. So if you’ve never tried opera and always wanted to know what it is like I recommend Romeo and Juliet, a story you probably know, again sung in English. We’d love you to come along and support us. All my best wishes, Charlotte x
My Autumn will be spent touring around England and you will be able to hear me sing in York, Stowe, Warrington, Stoke On Trent, Todmorden, Bamford, and Leeds.
Next up I will be performing the role of Pandora in ‘The Fire of Olympus’ in York with Radius Opera. We will be appearing at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre on the 12th of October at 7:30 pm. ( Tickets Here )
Then the following weekend I will be appearing as Juliet alongside William Branston as Romeo in Arcadian Opera’s production of Gounod’s Romeo & Juliet at the Roxburgh Theatre, Stowe. ( Tickets Here ) Performances are at 7:30 pm 19th October and 3:00 pm 20th October.
Following Romeo & Juliet, I will be performing with pianist George Todica in a lunchtime recital at the Bold Street Methodist Church, 4 Palmyra Square N, Warrington on 26th October.
One of the highlights for me will be performing the role of Pandora in Stoke on Trent at 7:30 pm on Wednesday 30th October at the Repertory Theatre as my Grand Parents and their friends will be in the audience to watch. ( Tickets Here )
My last performance in the role of Pandora for Radius Opera will be at 7:30 pm on Saturday 9th November at the Todmorden Hippodrome, Todmorden. ( Tickets Here ) Although there will be a screening of the film of the opera that Tim Benjamin produced and directed that was so much fun to be a part of. The premiere will be at the Leeds International Film Festival at 7:30 pm on 16th November 2019 ( Tickets Here )
I have another lunchtime recital with pianist George Todica at the Bamford Chapel and Norden United Reformed Church at 1:00 pm on the 12th of November.
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.
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…
As we enter the final week of the rehearsals for Much Ado About Nothing everything is coming together nicely. This week we will get to run through the full production, familiarise ourselves with the costume changes, and rehearse with the orchestra. It is going to be a whirlwind week culminating with our performances at Morley Town Hall on Friday 23rd and Saturday 24th August at 7:30 pm.
Here is a small taster video put together by Northern Opera Group featuring photos by Fiona Pelly and music from the Act 1 chorus! This is just a sneak peek at our rehearsals which I hope will encourage those of you who can to come along and savour the excitement and emotion of this amazing production. See the full opera on 23 and 24 August at Morley Town Hall Tickets £10 – £20 www.ticketsource.co.uk/northernoperagroup.
Yesterday I was invited to accompany David Ward for an interview hosted by Andrew Edwards on his BBC Radio Leeds breakfast show. Though I have done several interviews in the past for both radio and TV this was my first in an actual radio station. So, it was quite exciting for me as we made our way to the studio to sign in as guests. The show aired just after 8:00 am and BBC Radio Leeds sent us the audio which I have shared with you below.
I have really enjoyed learning my way around Leeds and working with all the cast and creatives on this show. For those of you that can come along, I’m sure that you will have a great evening.
Rehearsals are well underway now for ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and it has been great to meet the rest of the cast and see the imaginative ideas of David Ward and his fellow creatives brought to life.
If you can join us at Morley Town Hall on either Friday 23rd or Saturday 24th August, there are still some tickets left if you are quick. You can buy tickets on the Northern Opera website HERE.
Following on from my post last week I want to share part two of my interview with David Ward, Director of the Northern Opera Group. In this part of the interview, you can read about my character, Hero and my on-stage partner Claudio who is played by Roger Paterson.
Then to close the interview David shares his thoughts on how to engage and attract future audiences to opera.
How would you characterise Hero, my role in the production?
The key to getting Hero right is to
get the balance between her purity and innocence, and the flame of mischief and
an awakening sexuality.
In our 1950’s set production, she’s
clearly the model example of a teenager we find in these great instructional
videos of the era – obedient, well behaved, never not chaperoned around a boy
… She’s the token ‘Queen’ of the High School Prom – the girl all the boys
want, but will never be allowed to get. Think Sandy, rather than Rizzo!
She is, however, turning into an adult, soon to leave home and marry, and start a life slightly removed from those societal structures she has grown up around. She’s emboldened by the attention she’s received from Don Pedro and Claudio (and, we can assume, many other young men) and under the influence of the unconventional Beatrice, it’s crucial we don’t let Hero become simply a wet character – the character’s sympathetic (but dull) victim.
My significant other romantic interest in the opera is Claudio, how do you envisage him?
The opera is marked by the
distinction between the two central couples. Whilst Beatrice and Benedick are
fighting against society’s norms, Hero and Claudio are living up to them. They
are the perfect young lovers – respectful of each other and of the parents, not
jumping the gun in following the expected stages of their burgeoning
Claudio – like Hero – is adjusting to his new place in the world, where he’s no longer a kid in school, but becoming a man. He’s already been to War, and now returns ready to take up his place in society. He’s still rather shy around women – he’s got a lot of emotional growing up to do! – but when he feels that he’s been deceived by Hero, he takes up the alpha-male role that society and culture have taught him to adopt.
But this isn’t the real Claudio. As
we discover in the opera’s final scenes, it’s not a role he’s comfortable with,
nor one he really wants. He loves Hero, he believes in her, and he recognises
his follies. He might have been to War, but there’s still a lot of growing up
to do …
Asking Will Millennials Kill Opera, Too? Can Opera Attract a new generation of fans? I noticed you had special price tickets for students and young adults with prices starting at £10, £15 and adult tickets £20, what other ways are you trying to engage a new generation of fans?
I think that opera companies of all sizes have to be mindful
of how we can attract new audiences.
There are three key things we do to help bring through a new
generation of audiences
i) The staging of community productions, where anyone can take part in performing in a fully staged opera, for free. I originally discovered a love of opera through taking part – I didn’t come from a musical family or have any friends who liked opera, however, I was roped into taking part in a show where they were low on male voices and ended up staying! We do a lot of work with local choirs, schools and universities to attract new people to take part, and making participation free is crucial to attracting a wide range of people. Many choral societies and drama groups charge fairly significant fees to take part which prohibits people from joining – particularly those people who aren’t sure if they’ll like it or not. We’ve had people from ages 9 to 80+ take part in previous productions, and by bringing them together with professionals for future shows, we hope to add to the attraction and experience of taking part.
ii) The programming of a range of repertoire, for a range of audiences. By staging rare operas, we’re able to delve deep in opera’s past to find works that will appeal to both audiences new and old. This is particularly important for our community productions, where often a large part of the audience are friends and family of those involved – they need to be attracted by repertoire which sounds enjoyable, accessible and suitable for the whole family. For example, we’ve previously staged Pauline Viardot’s ‘Cinderella’ (a well know and well-loved story) and this December we’re performing Pfitzner’s ‘The Christmas Elf’ which is both a terrific opera and one that should chime with younger audiences this Christmas. ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is another example of a work which will have appeal to new audiences who are familiar with theatre and Shakespeare.
iii) A commitment to low and affordable tickets. I spend a lot of time fundraising for our productions (we are a registered charity) to ensure that we can keep tickets prices at an affordable level and that we can taper ticket prices suitable for young audiences. We want ticket prices to be affordable so that a whole family can attend – if you think that a West End show might be £40 for the cheapest seats, £160 for a family of four to sit in the Gods can be extremely prohibitive! We also want tickets prices to be at a level where new audiences are willing to take a punt on something new. For our 2018 Festival, we had 40% audiences under the age of 35 which points towards some success in our ambitions to make our work attractive and affordable to young audiences. We have also trialed short, free, pop-up performances in recent years – delivered by a high-quality cast of repertoire that’s suitable for casual and new audiences. From 2020 we’ll deliver one free pop-up tour of a short opera every year to reach new audiences across the North of England.
This week I traded in my Jane Austen for a dose of William Shakespeare in the guise of a lovely opera composed by Charles Villiers Stanford with the libretto by Julian Sturgis based on the bards play Much Ado About Nothing. Having the opportunity to be a part of this rarely performed little gem has been made possible by David Ward and his production company The Northern Opera Group.
I met up with David when I was last in Leeds and he kindly agreed to an interview which I wanted to share with you. I hope that you find his insights and detailed answers as interesting as I did.
1) Can you tell us about Northern Opera, when did you start, where are you based, what is your mission, goal, and hopes for the future?
We launched Northern Opera Group in 2015, with the aim of
bringing operas outside of the core repertoire to audiences in the North of
England. There is some great opera to be had in the North, however very little
outside of the main operas (Figaro, Boheme, Carmen, etc.). I’ve always been
interested in the further reaches of the repertoire, and having this as our
focus seemed a great way to offer something new to existing audiences, and find
all sorts of repertoire which might appeal to audiences who wouldn’t usually
consider going to the opera house.
Our first production was Menotti’s ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’. We thought we’d see how this first production went before committing to any more, however, we had a great response from participants and audiences so we seemed to be on to something!
Since then, we’ve staged another eight productions and launched our annual Opera Festival, which provides an opportunity for us to bring audiences and artists together for a few days to enjoy varied performances, but also to debate and pick apart opera through a programme of discussions, workshops, and other events.
Alongside our focus on rare repertoire, we’re also committed
to producing both professional and community operas. We firmly believe that the
best way to get new people involved in opera is to enable them to take part,
and we welcome people of all ages and abilities to take part, for free, in our
We’ve grown quite substantially year on year so far, and over the next five years we hope to establish the Festival as a key part of the UK’s annual opera calendar, expand the number of events we’re able to programme, and increase the scale of our community work by bringing together professional and amateur musicians – this will start with our December 2019 production of the delightful festive opera ‘The Christmas Elf’!
2) Why did you choose an opera based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing by Charles Villiers Standford?
I first came across the opera in 2016 when we were looking
for a rare Shakespeare opera to stage as part of the nationwide Shakespeare
400th anniversary celebrations. I was instantly attracted to the work – the
characterisation is so colourful, the vocal writing so attuned to both comedy
and drama, the libretto so craftily weaved from the original play!
Back then we were only able to stage a select number of
scenes with five actors and piano, so the ambition of staging the full work
When planning for our annual Festival, it’s important to
find a headline opera that the whole programme can hang off. I like to have a
theme that brings each Festival together (previous years have been Great
British Opera, and Opera and Asia, for example) and with such an amazing and
broad range of repertoire available around Shakespeare and Opera, there was
always only going to be one opera that I wanted as our headline production!
Now the company has grown considerably since 2016, we’re able to bring the full opera to the stage – with orchestra – and, crucially, we’ve found the right venue which suits the opera perfectly. Morley Town Hall is a resplendent Victorian venue which – rather ashamedly – doesn’t have any existing classical music provision. We love to bring audiences to new and interesting venues, and we’re sure that artists and audiences alike will love discovering Morley Town Hall at the same time as they discover Stanford’s ‘Much Ado’!
3) The original opera was first performed in 1901, the setting Messina, in Sicily. What is the setting of your production?
My approach to directing opera – particularly operas
originally set a long time ago – is always to find settings which resonate with
both the opera and with audiences. Sometimes this means keeping the original
setting, how often for a work to communicate with audiences, and to help bring
out some of the key themes of the opera, restaging the work to a more familiar
setting can help the work speak to a new generation of audiences.
There were some obvious questions to answer as I began preparations for this production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ – notably which war is the production centred around, and in which places would we find such a close-knit and hierarchical community? The more I sat with the opera, and the more I thought about times and places that would resonate with audiences, the more I was drawn to the idea of moving the action to 1950’s small-town USA.
Coming out of the Korean War in 1953 was a generation of kids who hadn’t perhaps fought before, but who were brought up on heroic military exploits from World War Two. They were part of an extremely hierarchical society, where the pillars of the community found in ‘Much Ado’ – the Priest, the Chief of Police, the Mayor (Leonato) – rule supreme.
They were of a generation taught to respect their elders, to
fall into clear societal positions, where the man was head of the house, where
Scouts and Little League Baseball kept young boys rooted in the expectations of
maintaining a certain way of life, and certain social structures.
But amongst this inflexible way of life, there are the early rumblings of a cultural revolution emerging. Claudio and Hero may be the archetypal young lovers who are the bastions of rural small-town life, but in Benedick and, in particular, Beatrice we see a new generation emerging. A generation that won’t simply nod along with how society expects them to behave. Beatrice – in my eyes a young Katharine Hepburn – can go toe to toe with the boys, and this contrast between our leading couples of Beatrice/Benedick and Hero/Claudio perfectly exemplifies this emerging clash of cultures.
As much as I would have loved swanky New York 1950’s aesthetic, this idea of small-town USA is central to the opera. The community is extremely tight-knit; everyone knows everyone and, returning from a War when they were simply three of many, Claudio, Benedick and Don Pedro return back to the bosom of their town as notable personalities – big fishes in small ponds. There’s also something about the confusion, deception, and hot-headedness of the opera that lends itself to the sweltering South (there’s a reason why Tennesse Williams’ Deep South settings work so well with his characters).
Next week I will bring you part two of the interview in which we discuss some of the characters in the opera and you can read David’s thoughts about attracting new audiences to the world of opera.