Category: English Touring Opera

Highlights from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience

Timothy Burke, conductor of Patience, talks what to listen out for in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comedic masterpiece.

On Such Eyes As Maidens Cherish

Sullivan writes such beautiful and lyrical music to depict the world of the ‘Lovesick Maidens’ who lounge around feeling heartbroken and thinking of faint lilies. The surprising harmonies at the beginning of this number open the second act with expansive melancholy before introducing the quintessentially Victorian melody on the cornets.

The Soldiers Of Our Queen/If You Want A Receipt

The melancholy and poetic world of the Maidens finds its polar opposite in the thigh-slapping brassy ‘oom-pahs’ of the Dragoon Guards. After their brief introductory chorus, the Colonel sings his iconic ‘patter’ song – a hilariously preposterous catalogue of all the remarkable people of history whose wonderful deeds and qualities have been boiled down to create the essence of a Dragoon Guard.

Love Is A Plaintive Song

Patience, the titular heroine, spends the piece trying to discover what love is. By half way through Act 2, she thinks she has the answer, but it is quite a dark answer, with feelings of melancholy and misery mixed in with ideas of true, pure love. Sullivan’s song starts simply, with a beautiful melody in the minor key. Listen to the lovely interplay between Patience and the clarinet at ‘Tuned to each changing note’, and to the gear-change into the brightness of the major key at ‘Love that no wrong can cure’.

If you want to hear these songs live, book your tickets here.

Modernising Opera: Triumph or Travesty?

Ilona Domnich as a 1920s movie star in ETO's The Tales of Hoffmann

Ilona Domnich as a 1920s movie star in ETO’s The Tales of Hoffmann

ETO’s Box Office & Marketing Assistant, Genevieve Arkle, looks at the arguments surrounding this controversial subject, and makes the case for creative interpretation. 

‘If after my death something does not sound right, then change it. You have not only the right but the duty to do so’
– Gustav Mahler

In its Autumn 2015 season of French opera, ETO has chosen to reinterpret Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann in the style of 1920s cinema and set Massenet’s Werther in a domestic scene in 1950s America – two modern reimaginings of classic 19th century French operas. But in recent years there has been much controversy from opera goers over the idea of modernising opera, and in general, modernising classical music. Classical music has been battling with its elitist stereotype for decades, but debate frequently sparks over  whether a new production is sacrilegious to the composer’s intentions, or whether the modernisation of a work decreases its worth and value as a high class art form. While modern stagings of operas do frequently grace our theatres exhibiting controversial and fresh approaches to traditional works, they rarely receive popular attention, and period stagings of La Bohème and The Marriage of Figaro still reign supreme as crowd-pleasing favourites.

The fact that you have made it here to the English Touring Opera blog and that you’re reading this post means you might have already formed an opinion on the topic of modernising opera, or you have had some kind of experience with classical music that makes you intrigued about learning more or joining the debate. It is likely therefore that you fall into one of two categories: those for modernisation and those against. Those who are against tend to be advocates of traditional period productions and feel that if the composer’s intentions are not adhered to and if the score is not obeyed, that we are being disrespectful to the original work or even to the composer himself. Many similarly feel insulted by modern stagings; Peter Sellar’s infamous Don Giovanni no doubt caused a stir among Mozart fans, and I dread to think what traditionalists thought of the all male Don G that took place at the gay nightclub, Heaven, here in London a few years ago.

Don Giovanni at Heaven nightclub, 2011

But as in many cases with opera, the composer has passed away and therefore is unable to share his desires, thoughts, feelings or intentions on the presentation of his work, and more importantly he is unable to be affected or offended by any given performance of his piece. So if you decide that you want to produce an all male La Bohème with two gay couples then by all means, because Puccini certainly isn’t coming back to stop you. But many people feel that in some way the essence of Puccini lives on in his music, and that to present his opera in such a way would be disrespectful not only to the work, but to Puccini himself. These ideas about the composer being enveloped in his music as a sort of god-like figure began to take shape in the 19th century, as prior to this, performers were at liberty to edit a composition however they deemed fit, adding embellishments and ornamentations in order to suit their personal needs, as with the da capo arias in Handel’s operas.

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Werther Fever

Goethe_1774“There can be no doubt that there is nothing in the world as indispensable as love”
Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther

This season ETO is kicking things off with a intimate production of Massenet’s heart-wrenching opera Werther, a piece loosely based on Goethe’s infamous first novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther). Goethe is without a doubt one of the most popular literary figures of the late 18th and early 19th century, when his novels and poems set off a sort of Goethe fandom throughout Europe. When Werther was published in 1774, Werther Fever hit the Continent and encouraged young romantics to delight in sentimentalism, and join the search for the emotional and sensual pleasures of life.

On the surface, the story of poor Werther appears to be a commonplace tale of unrequited love: an emotional young poet falls madly in love with an intelligent and charming young woman, Charlotte, but his world is soon shattered when he learns that she is engaged to another man. Werther’s innocent infatuation soon turns into a romantic obsession, until by the end of the opera he believes that his only option for release from the agony of unrequited love is to take his own life. He dies after writing his beloved one last letter of farewell.

Lotte_an_Werthers_GrabmalThis tragic tale was more than just a work of fiction for the young and heartbroken Goethe. Werther’s burning desire for Charlotte is in fact an autobiographical account of Goethe’s own love for a young woman named Charlotte Buff. In 1772, the 23-year-old Goethe moved to Wetzlar to live and work as a lawyer and it was there that he met Charlotte (Lotte) Buff and her fiancée Johann Christian Kestner. Goethe spent much time with the couple, yet he soon began to realise that he was harbouring deep romantic feelings for the beautiful Lotte. Rather than facing up to his feelings and causing turmoil in their happy relationship, Goethe chose to flee the city and merely left a note for his two dear friends, attempting to explain his sudden absence. Heartbroken and utterly alone, Goethe moved to Frankfurt and began to consider writing. Shortly after leaving Wetzlar, Goethe received a letter from Kestner saying that a close friend of theirs, Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, had committed suicide due to his heartache from unrequited love with a woman called Elisabeth. This struck a chord with Goethe, and as he processed the loss of his friend and pondered his own disappointments in love, so came the idea for The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Goethe’s own love story with Lotte sadly ends without a happily-ever-after; but before he could let her go, he wrote her one final letter: “Farewell, dear Lotte, I am sending you shortly a friend who has much in common with me, and I hope you will receive him well – he is called, Werther…”

The novel instantly brought Goethe worldwide fame; it became a bestseller in Germany, England and France, and was translated into nearly every European language. It is even known to have been a favourite of Napoleon’s as he read the book seven times and carried it in his breast pocket next to his heart while he journeyed to Egypt.

3dfb23c7457150b5ece2a13a128ca136.960x540x1The book also triggered off a Werther Fever among the young Romantics of Europe (and you wouldn’t be far wrong to imagine squealing fan girls and crazed fan-fiction writers at this point!). The young Romantics latched onto the work like teenagers do with the Twilight Saga today: thousands of poems, stories, sequels, prequels and plays were written in admiration of the work, and fans desperately requested Goethe to write another book in order to follow up the tale. Young men throughout Europe started dressing like Werther from the cover of the book, in his iconic blue jacket and yellow trousers, and even chose to smell like Werther through the new range of “eau de Werther” colognes and perfumes that had been brought out for true Werther enthusiasts. Fans could also buy ceramic action figures and they could join Werther clubs, attend annual Werther memorial processions and buy emblazoned jewellery, bread boxes and porcelain.

Sadly this devotion to the work also had terrible implications, as the work caused a considerable increase in the number of suicides – a development which became known as “The Werther Effect”. Many young people tried to follow in Werther’s footsteps, sometimes successfully, by wading into rivers and attempting to drown themselves, with copies of Goethe’s novel tucked faithfully into their pockets.

Jules Massenet youngerThis sudden wave of interest in Goethe’s work meant that many people began to use it as the foundation for ballets, plays, symphonies and operas. Massenet however was a little bit late in hopping on the Werther bandwagon as he didn’t come into contact or realise the significance of the work until about a century later when the hype had already died down. While returning from a visit to Bayreuth to see Wagner’s Parsifal in 1886, he was given a copy of the novel and was instantly inspired. Werther was Massenet’s fifteenth opera and it is thought that he took musical influence for it from Parsifal, embodying aspects of Wagnerian dramatic music and German Gothic ideas. After the opera was composed, it sat in Massenet’s desk drawer for five years before being produced, and was eventually put on to great acclaim, at the Hopofer in Vienna. When the opera was performed in Weimar, where Goethe lived till his death in 1832, a local tenor named Giessen was asked to sing the title role. The irony of this was discovered however when it transpired that his real name was in fact Buff, and he was the grand-nephew of Goethe’s “real life Lotte”, Charlotte Buff.

The opera was a huge success, and became more popular even than Manon, composed by Massenet in 1884. Yet while the public revelled in its curious beauty and tragic plot, Massenet’s younger contemporaries became incredibly jealous of the attention the opera was receiving. Debussy in particular was very unimpressed by the opera and its growing popularity, and it was this hatred for Massenet that drove Debussy to complete his one and only opera Pelléas et Mélisande. Both works are currently being performed by the ETO so perhaps you should join in the debate and see if your preference is for Werther’s intimately tragic work or Debussy’s musically endearing symbolist opera.

Genevieve Arkle
Box Office and Marketing Assistant


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.

Cyberomance: 7 films (and one poem) about the love affair between man and machines

At the start of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, the young poet and hero of the opera, Hoffmann, is smitten with a young woman named Olympia – only to have his illusions shattered upon realising that his love interest is in fact an automaton created by his nemesis Coppelius.

As far-fetched as this sounds, there is a rich history of fictional characters falling in love with statues, robots and other inanimate objects. Here are 8 such cases, beginning with the poem that started it all.

1. Pygmalion (8 AD)

In Ovid’s narrative poem Metamorphoses, Pygmalion was a Cypriot sculptor who carved such a fair and realistic woman out of ivory that he fell in love with it. Ovid’s tale is the first describing a relationship between a person and an object, and as such has inspired countless generations of writers and has been widely transmitted and re-used in the arts through the centuries.

2. Metropolis (1927)

Fritz Lang’s silent science-fiction epic features a robotic doppelganger of Maria, our hero’s love interest. The android is created by the evil master of Metropolis to beguile the city’s workers with her beauty and lead them towards their doom. Brigitte Helm is well remembered for a performance as Maria and her robot double, but it is the striking design of the fleshless android that became the iconic image of the film.

3. Blade Runner (1982)

Ridley Scott’s neo-noir is set in a dystopian 2019 Los Angeles, where bioengineered ‘replicants’ are virtually indistinguishable from humans. Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, a retired police officer who might or might not be a replicant. His relationship with the android Rachel (Sean Young) provides the moral crux of the movie and asks us to question what it is to be human.

4. Weird Science (1985)

John Hughes’ cult classic follows two hapless high school nerds who hack into the government’s computer network in order to create their perfect woman. While our heroes originally use their home-made supermodel to gain the respect of the school bullies, their relationship with Lisa changes over the course of the film and ultimately teaches the pair the importance of self-respect.

5. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)

The opening instalment in Mike Myers’ spy spoof trilogy saw Doctor Evil send seven blonde Fembots to seduce the film’s hero Austin Powers, before killing him with their breast cannons. Powerless to resist them, Austin performs a striptease, tipping the Fembots over their “sex limit” and making their heads explode. Liz Hurley and Britney Spears featured as fembots in the sequels.

6. Her (2013)

Joaquin Phoenix is the brilliantly named Theodore Twombly in Spike Jonze’s sci-fi romcom: a lonely writer who falls in love with Samantha, a hyper-intelligent computer operating system personified through a Siri-like female voice. Romance blossoms, leaving the audience slightly disquieted by our love of gadgets.

7. Ex Machina (2015)

Young coder Caleb Smith wins a week’s holiday at his reclusive boss’ mountain retreat – only to find he must participate in a strange experiment by evaluating the human qualities of a breathtaking new breed of artificial intelligence, housed in the body of a beautiful robot named Ava. Caleb and Ava grow closer, but does the AI have further motives for seducing him?

8. Humans (2015)

Based on the award-winning Swedish science fiction drama Real Humans, Channel 4’s sci-fi series is set in a parallel present where the latest must-have gadget for a busy family is a Synth – a life-like android. The drama centres around the Hawkins family: Joe’s decision to buy domestic synth Anita puts him at odds with his wife Laura, who feels replaced by the unthinking and unfeeling robot.

9. Did we miss anything?

In all of the examples in this list the role of creator is performed by a man, while women are more often than not mere representations of men’s fantasies and desires. Do you know of any examples in cinema, or literature, where the relationship is reversed? If so, add a comment below or on Twitter @etopera.


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 visit  http://englishtouringopera.org.uk/productions/the-tales-of-hoffmann

An introduction to Donizetti’s operas

Gaetano Donizetti was one of the three leading Italian composers of the ‘bel canto’ style of opera in the early 19th century, alongside Gioachino Rossini and Vincenzo Bellini. Despite not being as widely performed perhaps as Rossini, Donizetti is the most prolific of these composers having written an incredible 70 operas during his lifetime, spanning from his first opera Il Pigmalione (1816), composed age 19, to Ne m’oubliez pas (1843).

Donizetti began his musical studies with Johann Simon Mayr, an opera composer and teacher, and was later fortunate enough to secure a position studying with Rossini’s principle teacher Padre Mattei. His professional career began in 1818 when he was commissioned to write Enrico di Borgogna for the Teatro San Luca in Venice. This opera is a story of love and power featuring strong elements of Rossini’s style: for example, it uses Rossini’s coloratura roles with florid and embellished melodies at the end of the musical line, known as fiorituri.

Enrico is a great example of Donizetti’s early style; it is dramatic and emotional, but sticks to the conventions of Italian opera and doesn’t bore us (or the singers!) with extremely long and drawn-out arias.

Donizetti took some small melodic sections from Enrico di Borgogna and recreated them in his international breakthrough work, Anna Bolena in 1830. This tragic opera was incidentally also the first of Donizetti’s operas to be performed in London in 1831. In this work he was able to achieve a more unique compositional style, and also new psychological depth, and most significantly we see the first appearance of Donizetti’s signature “mad scene”. It is in Anna’s mad scene that we can hear some brief allusions to Enrico:

We can see Donizetti’s “mad scene” developed even further just a few years later in his most famous opera, Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), known for this vocally astounding and psychologically chilling scene:

Shortly after Lucia, Donizetti composed L’assedio di Calais in 1836 (The Siege of Calais in ETO’s production). This work was his first in the style of French grand opera, in an attempt to have it accepted and produced by the prestigious Paris Opéra. L’assedio contains some of Donizetti’s most beautiful and moving music, and was very progressive for a work composed in 1836.This makes this opera perhaps one of the more individual of Donizetti’s works, as it was an opportunity for him to demonstrate his impressive skills as composer, and help to push Italian opera forward by challenging its conventionality, paving the way for the works of Verdi.

Donizetti composed for another seven years following L’assedio, during which time he produced an impressive quantity of works, including his famous Don Pasquale in 1843. However, later in 1843 Donizetti contracted syphilis, and eventually began to suffer both mental and physical deterioration. He passed away in April 1848.

Donizetti’s tale has a bleak end; however his life’s work not only created a vast expanse of music for us to enjoy, but also teaches us a wonderful message. From a young age, his father had no faith in him pursuing a career as a composer – Donizetti himself stated “…never encouraged by my poor Father, who was always telling me: it is impossible that you will compose, that you will go to Naples, that you will go to Vienna”. Indeed, he did go to Vienna, and to Naples, and Paris, and become one of the most famous Italian operatic composers – he succeeded despite doubts or difficulty, and he demonstrates that we can achieve all that we desire as long as we persevere and do not lose sight of our aspirations. GENEVIEVE ARKLE

English Touring Opera is touring new productions of Donizetti’s The Wild Man of the West Indies (Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo) and The Siege of Calais (L’assedio di Calais) in Spring 2015. For more information visit www.englishtouringopera.org.uk.

Dogs, cats and geese: the role of puppets in children’s opera

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPuppetry is an ancient form of storytelling thought to have originated over 3000 years ago. Simple puppets were used in Egypt as early as 2000 BC when string-operated figures were manipulated to perform the action of kneading and baking bread. Clay puppets dating to 2500 BC have also been unearthed in India, and written records of puppetry can be found in ancient Greek text from the 5th century BC. Almost all human societies have been using puppets in one form or another, either as entertainment or ceremonially in religious rituals.

Laika the Spacedog

ETO has a history of working with puppets and puppeteers, most notably on the award-winning Laika the Spacedog in Spring 2013. The opera tells the irresistible story of the first animal to go into orbit at the height of the Space Race between the United States and the USSR.

Laika is portrayed by two puppets which look identical. One is a marionette, the most famous type of western puppet, operated by strings that animate the limbs. The other is a table-top puppet, which is used whenever the performers need to interact with Laika at close range. The puppeteer has much more control over this type of puppet, but also less distance, so in some ways more skill is needed to maintain the sense that the puppet is alive independently of the puppeteer.

The following images show the progress of the puppets from prototype to carving to painting and costume.

Borka the Goose with No Feathers

ETO commissioned and toured this opera in Spring 2014. The story was based on the classic children’s book by John Burningham, which was then celebrating its 50th anniversary. The opera follows Borka, a goose born without feathers, as she tries to learn to fly and to swim, is abandoned by her friends, and is finally rescued and taken by boat to Kew Gardens.

In ETO’s production, the young geese and the dog Fowler are all life-size puppets, while the older geese, as well as the two human characters (the Captain and his Mate) are played by humans.

Shackleton’s Cat

Shackleton’s Cat is the latest in this line of operas especially created for children in primary schools and family audiences. The opera recounts Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition to the South Pole, the destruction of his ship Endurance, and the subsequent tale of survival against all odds.

Mrs Chippy was the tabby cat taken on the expedition by the carpenter Harry McNish. The crew loved Mrs Chippy (who was eventually discovered to be a boy cat!) for his friendliness, his character and his ability to walk the ship’s rails in even the roughest seas.

In our production, Mrs Chippy is played by a puppet, handmade by stage designer Jude Munden. Here are some pictures of her creation process.

“A delightful evening”: a student review of Haydn’s Life on the Moon

ETO_Moon161014_imagecreditRichardHubertSmith-7599Having been to watch the opera Life on the Moon, I can say with certainty that it is a hugely enjoyable experience for one and all.

The set was fantastic: the complexity of Buonofede’s garden in Act 1 provided an excellent contrast with the simplicity of the supposed moon in the second act. I believe that this juxtaposition added to the comedic effect of the opera, as it is somewhat ironic that Buonofede was enthused by the concept of leaving his beautiful stately home to visit the plain and barren land of the moon.

From an analytical point of view, I was able to see that beneath the mask of comedy, the writer perhaps intended to make a statement about feminism, as the other characters are able to trick Buonofede – a sexist man – and make a mockery of his ridiculous view of women as sexual objects and property of men. The plot itself gave the audience a cathartic experience, as we watched their prank become successful, leaving Buonofede to be the sad, old man that he is.

The quality of singing was exquisite throughout – I believe that the operatic format of this piece added to the comedy, and had it been an ordinary play, it may not have been quite so hilarious.

I would definitely recommend this production to others; everyone over the age of twelve would be sure to find it both interesting and humorous. My only criticism is that some members of the audience struggled to follow the story due to the speed of some of the singing; however, this issue could be easily resolved had the subtitles been shown on the screens. Overall, I was very pleased – a delightful evening indeed.

Karis – Y11 student, Framwellgate School, Durham
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Karis attended our production of Haydn’s Life on the Moon as part of Stepping onto the Moon, a series of free workshops aimed at secondary school students, exploring the world of opera and how it is produced. For more information visit ETO’s website.

Eleven mostly weird and sometimes wonderful science fiction operas

The genre of science fiction is associated with the modern world but dates back for centuries. Haydn’s opera Life on the Moon (Il mondo della luna) was first performed in 1777 and with a plot involving a – faked – journey to the Moon has been described as one of the first sci-fi operas. Ahead of ETO’s tour of Life on the Moon this October and November, we’ve beamed up eleven more examples of opera’s forays into science fiction.

Janáček – The Makropulos Affair

The plot of Janáček’s opera was written between 1923 and 1925, based on a play by Karel Čapek (the Czech playwright who would introduce the word ‘robot’). The opera’s plot centres on a potion that bestows everlasting youth on its central character Emilia – at the cost of exhausting her to such an extent that a natural death eventually comes as a relief. Continue reading

How to become one of Handel’s divas

George Frideric Handel came across a number of different singers throughout his career. Some of the women he worked with turned out to have strong, diva-like, personalities. If you are interested in gaining the ‘diva’ status in preparation for Handel’s Ottone this Autumn, read our quick guide!

1. Make sure people know that you are the best singer on the stage

Senesino, Cuzzoni, Berenstadt in Handel's FlavioFrancesca Cuzzoni (who created the role of Teofane in Ottone in 1723) and Faustina Bordoni (who created the role of Rossane in Alessandro in 1726) were sworn enemies (affectionately known as ‘The Rival Queens’), their rivalry causing riots between audience members at opera houses as they booed and cheered their favourite singer. In June 1727, they fought on stage in front of the Prince of Wales at the King’s Theatre. The women were free with their insults in Italian, and pulled at each other’s hair and costumes before being escorted from the stage. Handel still kept both of these singers in his company however, despite the fact that this fight ended the opera season at the theatre! Continue reading