As I speak at opera and music club meetings around the country, I am often asked ‘How do you choose the operas?’, or even ‘Why did you choose those operas?’
They are good questions. Each season I have to remind myself of how the choices were made, inasmuch as they were made two or three years ahead at least. So now I am reminding myself of why I have chosen these remarkable, different, infrequently performed operas in autumn 2012.
Initially I always ask myself ‘Have we a fighting chance of doing this opera particularly well?’
This means looking at the orchestration (in these three cases, we can perform them exactly as written; for bigger operas, we would need to find an orchestra arrangement that had merits of its own), at the singing roles, and at the scenic demands. Availability of suitable artists is checked long in advance – and in our case we are looking for two singers for each role, because in our long tours it is very likely that understudies will go on. So you have to make sure you have not just one excellent Queen of the Night in the company, but two!
All of the opera companies receiving support from the Arts Council spend a fair bit of time sharing information, with the intention of making an interesting and varied diet of opera across the country. It doesn’t always look this way in the end, but there is a real effort to do this; if one company has it in their plans to perform The Magic Flute on tour, it pretty much means that we have to avoid the title for a while. At the same time, there are plenty of other companies, small and large, touring – so it’s a rich and complex map.
Naturally, I listen to audience members, and opera clubs, and theatre managers, and my own marketing and technical managers. There are a lot of important voices in the decision making, and finally it boils down to me making my best call.
In the case of autumn 2012, I have been thinking about this one for a long time. In autumn seasons, we are trying to choose operas that work well with a slightly smaller orchestra than the spring season. Sometimes this will mean a season of baroque opera – in 2006, 2009, 2011 and again in 2013 – in partnership with our own period players, the wonderful Old Street Band. In other years I am thinking about operas which are just terrific theatre, well suited to intimate spaces which specialise in presenting ‘straight’ theatre of high quality. This is the case with autumn ’12: no normal season of operas, but a touring festival of approachable, intimate, theatrically compelling operas from the last century.
What is there in common between Albert Herring (a village comedy with a sophisticated score), The Lighthouse (an atmospheric, psychological thriller) and The Emperor of Atlantis (an arresting, utterly unique comedy, written in such extraordinary circumstances that it is undeniably important)? Only that each is unusually good theatre, written in the middle of the last century. Otherwise, they could not be more different – in terms of musical and dramatic language, tone, performance history, and in terms of the feelings they create in audiences.
Going to these operas, three nights in a row, you could not hope for a more diverse experience of opera – even though we will be working with the excellent Aurora Orchestra on each of them, and even though many of the singers will perform in two of them, and understudy in the third. Designers Neil Irish and Guy Hoare have already looked at me dumbfoundedly, as they start the work of making a different scenic world for each opera (but each world must very cleverly turn into the other in a few hours on stage!).
Albert Herring I knew we could do well, because I had in mind the excellent British singers with whom we could work on it. I am really proud of the experienced team who comprise our ‘committee’, voting on the Suffolk village May Queen, headed by the indomitable Jennifer Rhys-Davies as Lady Billows. In the hands of Michael Rosewell, a much lauded conductor of Britten, and of young director Christopher Rolls, I think we have the chance of a really ‘definitive’ comedy.
I have produced Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse before, and I know that it is so well-crafted that it always works well in the theatre. I became more and more excited as I found the right team for these troubled keepers, overtaken by a sort of extreme cabin fever – three singers who could act it well, but also sing it accurately and beautifully. I was able to invite Theodore (Ted) Huffman, a young American director whose work I have been following with interest, and to interest an exciting British conductor, Richard Baker, to be at the helm (or to man the lamp, I guess) of the project. I can’t wait to see the faces of the audience as they leave the theatre, after Max’s brilliant, tour–de–force ending to an evening of suspense (not necessarily what one expects of a night at the opera!).
I gave myself the wonderful job of directing Viktor Ullmann and Peter Kien’s extraordinary Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis), a short opera written at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, rehearsed by gifted inmates, and smuggled out of the camp after the first performance was cancelled and the creators and performers were sent to certain death at Auschwitz. In this black comedy, Death is disgusted by the excessive demands made of him by modern war, and he goes on strike. Not being able to die, it turns out, is unbearably strange – and in this eloquent, wistful, jazzy little opera Ullmann and Kien articulate all the beauty and all the waste of life in the moments before extinction. I have chosen to pair this opera with a church cantata of Johann Sebastian Bach, Christ lag in Todesbanden (Christ Lay in Death’s Grip), which has some interesting textual and musical relation to the opera, and for which I have a production idea about which I am really excited. Even better, we have commissioned the wonderful Iain Farrington to make an arrangement of the Bach cantata for Ullmann’s quirky orchestra (presumably what was available at the ‘model’ camp), including banjo, saxophone and accordion. I have produced The Emperor of Atlantis before, and seen it a few times in performance: always it is strange and wonderful, and it has every chance of being a performance that changes your ears and your eyes, even your life.
James Conway, ETO General Director