In the post-war years of austerity, Benjamin Britten was at the forefront of a new type of opera, the “chamber” opera. Although principally focussed on new works, this pioneering venture aimed to widen the reach of live opera performance: small orchestras, no chorus, simple costumes and staging. In the last few decades, this genre has come of age with “reduced” arrangements of repertoire works, allowing performances in venues from public gardens to prisons.
My new arrangement of Massenet’s Werther is a complete re-working of the rich, Romantic orchestral score, adapted for only four players: clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Rather than being a mere reduction of the full score, this version attempts to create an entirely new chamber piece. Every player is a soloist with their own character: the clarinet agile and melancholic, the violin soaring and passionate, the cello rich and soulful, the piano full and supportive. Taken as a whole with the vocal lines and text, the intention is to conjure an atmosphere of intimate and direct expression.
The scenario of the opera is perfect for this approach: a “normal” domestic household is disrupted by passionate personal conflicts. Musically, this brings the sound-world closer to that of song, especially the mélodie so beloved of French composers. Massenet himself composed many volumes of songs, and this arrangement taps into that deep source.
French music is often noted for its transparency, lightness and delicacy, qualities that we will be exploring. Our production places the players on the stage, at the heart of the action. It promises to be a truly personal theatrical experience.
Arranger and conductor
ETO’s French opera season opens at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, on Thursday 1 October 2015, before touring to Buxton, Malvern, Durham, Harrogate, Cambridge, Bath, Snape Maltings and Exeter. For more information and to book tickets visit www.englishtouringopera.org.uk.
For the most part, when getting started on a project, it’s best not to think. To be honest, the less you involve whatever intellect you might possess, the better. Instead the key is to listen to the piece, then listen again and again until bits of it are stuck to your head like chunks of fallen masonry that you can’t shake off. Still no intellect.
Slowly, such listening will produce inarticulate feelings of things (perhaps textures or a sense of something) and quite swiftly these impressions shift into images. These lay the foundations for what the world of the story might look like – the visual language and sensory framework that allows the fabric to be woven.
With Hoffmann it’s a dark gothic world, in keeping with its 19th-century romantic origins. We go from the beery intimacy of the prologue to the very boundaries of modern science, onwards to the flickering shadows of spirit conjuring, ghostly apparitions and satanic meddling and finally to the sybaritic licence of sexual indulgence, high-class courtesans and the thievery of souls.
All of these, it seemed to me, found their expression in cinema and it wasn’t hard to find swathes of marvellous visual references. From the Brothers Quay with their Institute Benjamenta and Street of Crocodiles, to Georges Méliès The Man With The Rubber Head; from Nosferatu to the silvered glamour of Hollywood in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s there is a whole universe of work that resonates with Offenbach’s stupendous energy and Hoffmann’s dark concerns. It certainly feels that if either had been around to enjoy them, they would have delighted in the scope of such visual invention, storytelling and the celebration of atmosphere that these films possess.
And so it felt like rewarding and fertile ground to have Hoffmann as a maker of silent movies, just as the talkies are coming to the fore – a director and creator left behind just as the actor was in The Artist. He’s looking over his own work – his leading lady Stella lost to the new technology and his muse foundering.
It was fascinating to discover a great pattern in early film of using opera stars in the lead roles. The style of acting was suited to the silent medium and the singers brought with them status, artistic credibility and a devoted audience. So Stella the opera singer can go on to become Stella the silent movie star and the groundwork for our filmmaker Hoffmann begins to be laid.
Director, The Tales of Hoffmann
ETO’s new production of The Tales of Hoffmann opens at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, on Friday 9 October 2015, before touring to Buxton, Malvern, Durham, Harrogate, Cambridge, Bath, Snape Maltings and Exeter. For more information and to book tickets visithttp://englishtouringopera.org.uk/productions/the-tales-of-hoffmann
The piece has a ravishing score by Clive and Mark Ives of Woo Music, and is sung by a brilliant young cast – Emily Blanch, Katie Grosset and Guy Elliott. It was performed nearly 20 times across the country earlier in the year, and has just returned from the Philharmonie in Luxembourg, where it was sung in Luxembourgish, for there is indeed such a language!
The story is really a universal one about the fears of growing up, but here is given an edge because Olly is on the autistic spectrum and the headteacher of his new school turns out to be a monster. In these situations there is only one thing for it: get the audience to help you make wings and fly.
The collaboration with Woo Music came about in an odd way. I have been a fan of their electronic music for a while, having come across an album of theirs in a store in Soho with the fabulous title, Whichever Way You Are Going You Are Going Wrong. As I was hunting down more of their work, I made contact with Clive, and when it came time to commission a new piece it struck me that their soundworld could be perfect for an opera – obviously their first. They had no hesitation in agreeing. I sent them some lyrics for the final scene in the show, and within days a glorious track arrived and the deal was done.
Nearing the end of the show when the audience are encouraged to stand up and ‘take flight’ a young girl with Down’s syndrome came out of the audience to have the film screened on to her tummy. As this was happening she began to move her ‘wings’ and try to fly. The smile on this girl’s face was so broad, and full of joy I leant over to the headteacher of the school to comment on how wonderful it was and he informed me that usually they never saw this girl smile at all. They were amazed by her reactions. It was a truly powerful moment. What opera can achieve, eh? Education Manager, Norwich Theatre Royal
A particular awareness in the creation of these operas is that we need to engage with the audience on many different levels: sounds and sights along with touch and even smell vie with each other for attention, and then storylines that have a familiarity about them, but take our young audiences in surprising directions (we hope!). In all this there is the constant quest for moments of calm beauty to be interspersed with the humour. Making work for these special audiences demands a particular sensitivity, one that Woo have plenty of, and it was a joy creating Waxwings with them.
Head of Education (ETO) and Director/Librettist, Waxwings
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.
Curious about our new season of French opera? In this short video, ETO’s general director James Conway introduces the three operas that we are taking around the country this autumn: Debussy’s Pelléas & Mélisande, Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann and Massenet’s Werther.
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
This autumn, English Touring Opera perform a programme of music written by Vivaldi for the Ospedale della Pietà orphanage in Venice. Vivaldi spent most of his life working at this orphanage, which was a place where illegitimate children of local aristocrats were sent. Amongst the distinguished guests invited to performances was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who described the extraordinary power of the music:
I have not an idea of anything so voluptuous and affecting as this music; the richness of the art, the exquisite taste of the vocal part, the excellence of the voices, the justness of the execution, everything in these delightful concerts concurs to produce an impression which certainly is not the mode, but from which I am of opinion no heart is secure.
A typical orphanage ‘concert salon’
In depth, Rosseau wrote:
A kind of music far superior, in my opinion, to that of operas, and which in all Italy has not its equal, nor perhaps in the whole world, is that of the ‘scuole’. The ‘scuole’ are houses of charity, established for the education of young girls without fortune, to whom the republic afterwards gives a portion either in marriage or for the cloister.
Amongst talents cultivated in these young girls, music is in the first rank. Every Sunday at the church of each of the four ‘scuole’, during vespers, motettos or anthems with full choruses, accompanied by a great orchestra, and composed and directed by the best masters in Italy, are sung in the galleries by girls only; not one of whom is more than twenty years of age. I have not an idea of anything so voluptuous and affecting as this music; the richness of the art, the exquisite taste of the vocal part, the excellence of the voices, the justness of the execution, everything in these delightful concerts concurs to produce an impression which certainly is not the mode, but from which I am of opinion no heart is secure. Carrio and I never failed being present at these vespers of the ‘Mendicanti’, and we were not alone. The church was always full of the lovers of the art, and even the actors of the opera came there to form their tastes after these excellent models.
What vexed me was the iron grate, which suffered nothing to escape but sounds, and concealed from me the angels of which they were worthy. I talked of nothing else. One day I spoke of it at Le Blond’s; “If you are so desirous,” said he, “to see those little girls, it will be an easy matter to satisfy your wishes. I am one of the administrators of the house, I will give you a collation [light meal] with them.” I did not let him rest until he had fulfilled his promise.
In entering the saloon, which contained these beauties I so much sighed to see, I felt a trembling of love which I had never before experienced. M. le Blond presented to me one after the other, these celebrated female singers, of whom the names and voices were all with which I was acquainted. Come, Sophia, — she was horrid. Come, Cattina, — she had but one eye. Come, Bettina, — the small-pox had entirely disfigured her. Scarcely one of them was without some striking defect. Le Blond laughed at my surprise; however, two or three of them appeared tolerable; these never sung but in the choruses; I was almost in despair.
During the collation we endeavoured to excite them, and they soon became enlivened; ugliness does not exclude the graces, and I found they possessed them. I said to myself, they cannot sing in this manner without intelligence and sensibility, they must have both; in fine, my manner of seeing them changed to such a degree that I left the house almost in love with each of these ugly faces. I had scarcely courage enough to return to vespers. But after having seen the girls, the danger was lessened. I still found their singing delightful; and their voices so much embellished their persons that, in spite of my eyes, I obstinately continued to think them beautiful.
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! Continue reading