In this second podcast, staff director Will Edelsten and marketing manager Andrea Perseu take you around ETO’s rehearsal rooms in London’s Bermondsey, just before the start of the day’s rehearsals. Listen to this episode here.
ETO’s staff director Will Edelsten and marketing manager Andrea Perseu introduce our first podcast for this season. Featuring contributions from all the ETO team on what Venice means to them, and a conversation with ETO’s general director James Conway on the operas in the season. Plus, help us find a new name for the podcast and listen to Oliver John Ruthven play Ombra mai fu from Handel’s Xerxes. Listen to the first episode here.
Listen to a 15-minute podcast about our upcoming autumn season, featuring interviews with the artists and creatives of all 3 operas: click here.
The process of designing a set is fluid and ongoing. Both practical and aesthetic considerations often change as ideas develop, and references and inspirations can come and go throughout. When designing the set for Werther, we went through a few versions, finding the balance we needed between naturalism and abstraction, what we needed practically, what best embraced the brief and what chimed as the right decisions for the piece when looking at the set and listening to the music.
Ideas often come and go as the set is designed, and sometimes they get completely scrapped, but often an element or echo remains. For example, at one point a crucial reference for us was the photography of Gregory Crewdson. The way his photography depicted domestic scenes, with a stark beauty, a heightened naturalism and a layered perspective was one of the foremost visual references in creating our setting. However, as we continued the process, the set developed and we went in a different direction. The naturalism felt too detailed and overpowering for the brief, so we moved on to something more theatrical, more poetic. In this case, some elements did remain however, the layered perspective was still useful and exciting, but the direct connection was no longer prevalent.
There can be various reasons for leaving an idea behind and finding a new one. As a director it is important to know how the space is to be used, whether the characters can interact and be affected by their surroundings in the most helpful way. A simple change in how one reads a line can mean a new reaction is needed in the design. Ongoing research often leads to a change of tack, practical necessities or budget constrains become clear, but all of these filters generally lead to a set which makes more sense – the ideas more defined.
Moving on from an idea can be a difficult process, as one can get attached to certain elements. The crucial thing is to make sure one only hangs on to ideas when they are good, not just because they are familiar. Challenging oneself to keep looking, and keep refining ideas is a good thing, questioning how someone who has not gone through the same process you have will look at the outcome.
It’s been an enjoyable design process. From the start Oliver (Platt, director) was interested in the domestic rituals and routines embodied by the character of Charlotte. We discussed the opera in terms of nature vs social obligation; Charlotte and Werther’s desire to be together against her duty to Albert and her family.
We also knew we would be placing our musicians on stage with the action and so had the beginnings of an interesting approach in which opposing yet complimentary forces became a key factor.
Gregory Crewdson became an early reference. His photographs are often geometrically balanced in composition and feature an everyday environment coupled with a surreal element. To contextualise this for our production, it was the naturalism of the story set against the immediate presence of the musicians. There is little of Crewdson evident in the final look of the design but he was an important marker along the way.
Another subtle influence was James Abbott McNeill Whistler, a painter who named several of his portraits ‘Symphony in’ a particular colour. It became easy to see compositional/tonal similarities between these works by Whistler, Crewdson’s photos, and some of the simple pictures of kitchens that we had gathered.
We began to see Charlotte’s everyday world in terms of calm and balance, while Werther’s world, which is also the musicians’ world, is rendered as a simple, black and abstract space framing the naturalistic space that Charlotte inhabits.
I hope this allows the two parts of the opera to exist in harmony with one another and yet in direct tension at the same time: the reality of the story of Werther set starkly within the abstract and emotional world of the music that drives it.
As if three months of touring round the UK was not enough, last week the intrepid company of ETO’s Siege of Calais embarked on a flying visit to Budapest to perform the opera at the Armel Opera Festival. I had been singing the role of Edoardo (Edward III) for the second half of the UK tour, having won the chance to perform it at last year’s Armel Opera Competition.
One of the features of the competition is the resident orchestra, the Pannon Philharmonic, who are based in the southern city of Pécs, where they inhabit the modern and highly impressive Kodály Centre. This is also, unfortunately, where they rehearse. So, at 8am on the Monday, we jumped on a bus and wended our way through rush hour traffic and down the motorway to Pécs. Around 3 and a half hours later we arrived, slightly drained, and headed straight into a day of rehearsals with the orchestra. Fortunately, their beautiful playing helped assuage our fatigue and, the rehearsal finished, we were ready to brave the journey back to Budapest (a journey made easier by many bags of snacks a few bottles of wine!). Later that evening, we bumped into James, who told us that Pécs is one of the best-preserved examples of Renaissance architecture in Hungary. Sadly our schedule didn’t permit us to explore that far and most people didn’t make it past McDonald’s.
The next day the company seemed well rested as we got into the Thália Theatre for our technical rehearsal. The ETO technical staff had been working since midnight to make sure the set was in place and when we arrived for the 2pm session we were greeted with the familiar sights (and smells) of the set and costumes. The rehearsal went smoothly, considering it was simultaneously the only chance Jeremy had to rehearse with the orchestra in the pit and the only chance James had to get everyone in the right place for the lighting. Mention must also be made of the three chorus men who were stepping into the opera for the first time (at least for the first time in two years). This was their only rehearsal too!
The performance couldn’t have gone better. It was felt by all that the intensity was at a level we hadn’t experienced before (this could perhaps be explained by the presence of TV cameras, broadcasting the performance live on the ARTE website) and hopefully this transmitted to the audience. One member of the company described it as having the feel of an opening night but with the experience of three months of touring.
I stayed in Budapest for a few more days to watch some of the other shows in the festival. These included a drastically updated The Marriage of Figaro, a production of The Magic Flute, Private View, a piece written within the last year and using a small ensemble of singers with the backdrop of Hitchcock film clips, and an intriguing double bill based on the death (or otherwise) of Mozart: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri, in which the latter poisons his rival, and Rendine’s Un segreto d’importanza, which speculates that Mozart faked his death and travelled to Italy to give inspiration to a young Rossini. It was very well conceived and highly entertaining.
On the final night of the festival I attended the awards ceremony, where each of the winners from last year’s competition were invited on stage to be interviewed briefly after a clip from the opera was shown to the audience on the big screen. It was an experience I can safely say I have never had before, being filmed live on ARTE watching myself sing an aria. I’m not sure I’m in a hurry to repeat it…
The jury announced their decision as to the best performer of the festival (which went, quite deservedly, to a soprano who had a dance routine whilst singing the Queen of the Night’s first aria) and the best opera. Sadly ETO didn’t win this one, as it went to Private View. However, you can still vote for our production to win the audience award on the ARTE website for the next few weeks: click here and scroll to the bottom of the page to find the online poll.
The opera will be available to watch online for the next 6 months, both on ETO’s website and on the ARTE website, if you missed it last spring or would like to see it again. I hope you enjoy it.
1. The festival comprises six operas, performed by companies from around Europe, all of which include roles sung by prize winners from the same competition.
2. James Conway, ETO’s General Director and director of The Siege of Calais.
3. Jeremy Silver, conductor of The Siege of Calais.
Here in a very warm (though not so warm as London) Budapest the Armel Festival opened last night with a production of The Magic Flute from the Southern university city of Szeged, which has a jewel box opera house and a full-time opera and ballet company. The production was by Róbert Alföldi – he is a colourful figure in the Hungarian theatre, and I have been told he represents for many the liberal values they don’t find in the government. The show sold out weeks ago, and I was squeezed into the back of a box. The audience was quiet during the show, but when he came on stage the applause went on and on and on.
I nipped back to the hotel after the first act, and met our own cast, just returned from another Southern city, Pecs, where they were rehearsing with the excellent resident orchestra and conductor Jeremy Silver. It turns out that this means seven and a half hours of bumpy bus travel (return), as well as six hours of rehearsal, which is far from ideal. They have this morning off, thank goodness, but we have to have one rehearsal in the theatre this afternoon – because of the Thália Theatre’s challenging acoustic, and even more particularly because the show has to be re-lit from top to bottom with the equipment that we have found here.
I am amazed at how calm our technical team is; it seems that we cannot move many of the lamps, so Tom has had to resurrect a number of old lamps from storage in the basement and repair them in order to effect some of the side lighting in the original plan (not common here, but stock in trade of UK touring shows because it reliably ‘sculpts’ figures on stage). They have been at it since midnight last night (it’s just coming up to midday, and somehow they need to get a break before we rehearse at 2).
(Pause for gentle comedy; I am the only customer in the large theatre cafe, but a very vigorous cleaner has just taken full ten minutes to rub down all the upholstery in my immediate vicinity, perhaps for my benefit or for my company. Certainly I am now covered in a nice dusting of crumbs…).
We had a long visit to the theatre yesterday, while the Szeged show was fitting up. We came across a very generous and helpful marketing manager who translated for what one calls the ‘yes’ meeting: everything, it seemed, was possible. Everything except for clearing the access corridor of the detritus of many old productions from another theatre, which meant that we had to cut into pieces the large, revolving stage piece which dominates our set, and which had been carefully preserved through two long UK tours, fitting even through the narrow ingress of the Blackpool Grand Theatre. I have just seen the sawn pieces banged back into shape, and wait with excitement to see if it will still revolve as the action requires.
The ‘no’ meeting which follows every ‘yes’ meeting was sometime after midnight, while our guys waited with the local crew for the arrival of the truck with our set and costumes (my chair legs and indeed my own legs are now being brushed by the same, very thorough cleaner). Ryan (manfully taking over for Production Manager Steve Hawkins) finally texted me at 1.40am that the truck had arrived. Apparently it had been parked in a lay-by an hour away, and they had forgotten about the delivery. Ryan managed to reach by phone the slender and impressive Fanny, a Festival assistant who had just done her final university exam that morning, and Fanny did not mince her words with the trucker, who spoke no Hungarian so probably did not mind to much.
So they are getting on with it, cheerfully, and the local crew seem hearty, willing, and bemused by what it is we have built. Our terrific wardrobe mistress has had to go to hospital with nose bleed that just wouldn’t stop, but the festival is making sure she gets good care. On the hospitality front, they score highly.
As for me, I spend a lot of time asking if I can help, but the lads take one look at me and know that no is the right answer. All in all, I am humbled by how hard everyone works, and how generous they are in their relationship to ETO. I know that a significant group have to be at rehearsal in London on Wednesday, so after the show tonight are leaving for the airport at 3am for a flight at 6am.
I had not quite reckoned that The Siege of Calais will be streamed live tonight (at 7pm local time, 6pm in the UK) from Budapest on ARTE. No wonder the whole team is putting heart and soul into making it look good. My heart is thinking a little rapidly – either from the very strong coffee, or from the thought of what we must try to get through in the rehearsal this afternoon, and still not tire out the poor, wonderful singers.
It’s eventful, difficult, interesting, and deeply tiring for the whole team – but still, what great good fortune to be working with such strong and generous artists and technicians, to collaborate with such a scrupulous orchestra, and to show Budapest and the international audience for ARTE the kind of work we are lucky enough to tour live in the UK. I am proud of this show, and chuffed to have another chance to show people what an eloquent, political and moving opera is Donizetti’s The Siege of Calais.
General Director, ETO and Director, The Siege of Calais
ETO’s General Director James Conway introduces our new production of Handel’s Ottone. For more information visit http://englishtouringopera.org.uk/productions/ottone
On Saturday, 10 May Inside Opera: Live broadcast from the Grand Opera House in Leeds, giving exclusive behind the scenes access to seven of the UK’s biggest opera companies.
If you’ve ever wondered how we put an ETO show on the road, watch our Opera That Moves film, which was specially-commissioned for the day. It follows a week of ETO performances at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham with soprano Abigail Kelly, production manager Marius Ronning and staff director Dafydd Hall Williams.
Find out more about what people thought of Inside Opera: Live on Twitter: click here.
Inside Opera: Live, four hours of live-streaming, will see seven of the UK’s opera companies join forces to offer unprecedented behind the scenes access on Saturday 10 May.
The number of participating organizations means that the event is a first for the arts, with English National Opera, English Touring Opera, Northern Ireland Opera, Opera North, The Royal Opera, Scottish Opera and Welsh National Opera coming together to celebrate the art form as part of the annual European Opera Days weekend. The event is particularly designed to reach anyone who is new to opera.
The day will be hosted from the Grand Theatre in Leeds as Opera North prepares for performances of Puccini’s La bohème. The packed afternoon will feature behind-the-scenes footage from all participating companies, live interviews with singers and directors, live links to rehearsals and community-based activities.
Inside Opera: Live will be streamed on YouTube at www.youtube.com/insideopera from 14:00-18:00 BST on 10 May 2014.
The third week of rehearsals for ETO’s Autumn 2013 season is drawing to a close and the three productions are starting to take great shape. The final batch of props are being sourced and made by the stage management team, fight scenes have been choreographed and, in Jason rehearsals, we have witnessed Hercules throwing Medea into the ocean!
Observing rehearsals of Jason this week has been very insightful. Director Ted Huffman has been working on a scene towards the end of Act I, which really takes the character of Medea in a different direction. Medea, previously identifiable as the object of Jason’s love, now becomes a pagan witch. In her magic chamber, Medea sings of the ‘caverns of mystery’ and calls for the king of the underworld to protect Jason on his quest to discover the golden fleece. In scenes like this, where the action is so far removed from any sense of reality, great imagination is demanded of the singer. Whenever I have observed Hannah perform on stage I always felt very attached and drawn to her character, partly because of the beautiful music but also because of how much Hannah seems to open herself up and live her character. Even though the witchcraft addition has completely changed my perception of the character, I still feel like Medea is a very tangible character.
It has been such a privilege to be involved in ETO’s rehearsals and to be given an insight into so many different aspects of the company, from creative tasks to the more administrative activities, I have learnt a great deal about the whole process of producing opera. This week I have continued my work on the production books, making sure that the blocking notes are up to date so that the cover casts can be rehearsed with ETO’s staff director, Olly Platt. I have also been preparing surtitles and helping in the final proofs and edits of the programmes, which will shortly be sent to print.
PJ Harris is an aspiring director, recent graduate of the University of Leeds, and a production intern at ETO.