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…