Category: Uncategorized

The ‘Men Behind the Music’

What do you think of when you think about classical composers? Maybe you think of them as old guys who wrote great music and know very little about their lives, or perhaps you know a little more about their history and the context of their works. By giving the composers a bit more personality or by giving the work a bit more context, classical music in general becomes that little bit less elitist and more accessible and relatable for the modern-day listener.

But when we listen to classical music now on BBC Radio 3, Classic FM or on Spotify, no one tells us much about the piece being performed, what we’re listening to, or what made this composer the way he was. The composer becomes glorified for his works, a compositional God among men, as it were. And often, through this glorification of the composer and their music in the modern world, we often forget to tell the endearing, unexpected and humorous stories that make up each composer’s unique personality. They were wacky, wonderful and (in most cases) downright weird! So here I thought I’d share some of our favourite facts and stories about the best loved musical masters.

1. Mozart’s Don G procrastination:

Image source

On the 29th October 1787, Mozart’s infamous opera, Don Giovanni, premiered in Prague, but on the day before the premiere, Mozart had still not composed the overture. Facts vary on the story of when he actually completed it; some say that he finished it the night before the premiere, while others say that he wrote it on the morning of the 29th, while suffering from a massive hangover. Either way, you’ve got no need to feel bad about procrastinating again. If Mozart wrote some of his best work with a hangover – we can too! *sips wine*


2. Wagner’s ‘fiery’ Ring Cycle: 

Richard Wagner, the pioneer of German Romantic opera, had grand ideas for the presentation of his operas. When laying out ideas for the staging of his infamous Ring cycle (1876), he decided that he wanted to build a wooden stage on the edge of the river Rhine (the river that features in the beginning and end of the opera with his glorious Rhinemaidens who emerge out of the water at the opening, and drag the ring to its depths at the end). He theorised that after the last performance, after the full cycle had been performed two or three times, that the entire theatre, stage and set, along with the score of the opera, should be burnt to the ground. Unsurprisingly, this idea was quickly rejected. (No! really?! You mean setting opera houses on fire after just two performances is not a realistic goal?! Who knew?)


3. Eric Satie and the 100 umbrellas thing:
The popular French composer, Eric Satie, had numerous quirks that made him a very ‘memorable’ character in the musical world. He would only eat white foods and would never talk while eating for fear of strangling himself. He would carry a small hammer with him at all times for protection, and when walking home at night he would walk with his arms plastered to his side, moving forward but with his head always looking behind him. Equally, after he died his friends found his apartment filled to the brim with over 100 different umbrellas….

4. Mendelssohn’s amazing memory skills:
Mendelssohn left the overture score of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in a cab, and when he got home and realised, he was able to rewrite every single note of the entire score from memory.

5. If you’ve ever wanted to punch someone while listening to Schoenberg, you’re not alone:
On 31 March 1913 Schoenberg conducted a concert with works from Zemlinsky, Mahler, Webern, and Berg along with his own Chamber Symphony. The audience were very rowdy and confrontational that evening, and were very much opposed to the music they were hearing. After Berg’s Orchestral Song Op. 4, No.2 was played, the audience were so appalled by it that they started whistling, shouting and laughing, and eventually full on fist fights broke out in the hall. The police had to be called to the venue and the concert had to be shut down. It was apparently the most scandalous outbreak in the concert halls ever recorded, until the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris in May of the same year.

6. Here comes the Bride?

The famous ‘Here comes the Bride’ Wedding March theme originally comes from Richard Wagner’s early opera Lohengrin (1848), an opera about murder. You might want to give any of your engaged friends a little heads up on that one before they decide to march down the aisle to that chirpy number!


7. Mahler making girls cry:
The composer Gustav Mahler was very strict in rehearsals, and apparently in a rehearsal for his Second Symphony (1888-1894) he made one of the female flute players cry by insulting her performance of his work. After, the two bouncers had to escort him back to his hotel because the brass section had threatened to follow him home beat him up for making her cry.

8. New ‘Instruments’ in Symphonies:

Composers sometimes got very creative with the ‘instruments’ they could use in their symphonies. In Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture, composed in 1880 to commemorate Russia’s defence of their motherland from Napoleon’s advances, he composed in a set of cannons that go off a total 16 times during the performance. Also, in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, he created a ‘Mahler hammer’, which was a large wooden box that was hit with a sledgehammer during the performance.

9. Rossini, the gourmet chef:
The Italian composer Gioachino Rossini was known for being a big fan of three things: opera, food and money. He was a quick operatic writer and so he managed to churn out 39 significant operas in the space of nineteen years, and earned his fortune through composing. However, he had always had a passion for cooking. After he retired in 1829 he decided to dedicate himself to becoming a gourmet chef, and created recipes to go alongside his music. Not to mention, he used truffle oil in absolutely everything!

10. Beethoven’s obliviousness to his standing ovation:
By the time Beethoven composed his Ninth Symphony he was almost entirely deaf. Apparently, after the first performance in Vienna in May 1824, he was unable to hear the raucous applause from the audience and had to be signalled from the performers to turn around so he could see how much the audience enjoyed it.

So, here’s to our composers, the weird, the creative and wonderfully mad. What I hope these funny little anecdotes convey is that behind the music there is a composer and a composition with a story that needs telling. So, next time you pop on the radio or a playlist on Spotify, I encourage you to take to the internet or to your local library and have a read up on your favourite musical maestro; there is always something new to learn, and it can have a monumental impact on the way that we listen to music when we know a bit more about the person who composed it.

And keep an eye out for our ‘sister-post’ that will shine a light on the exceptional women of classical music and the monumental impact they have had on the world of classical music that we know and love today.

By Genevieve Arkle
PhD Researcher at University of Surrey


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.

Behind the scenes #LoveTheatre Day



What is your role at English Touring Opera, what does it mean?
I am Press and Marketing Officer. I am one of the links between our cast and creative teams, journalists, photographers and marketing teams in partner organisations around the country, and I make sure we have innovative campaigns in place to get as many people as possible to see our work.

What’s the most exciting thing you do there?
The exciting thing about this role is its diversity, not one day is similar to the previous one. I can be writing copy, going to the BBC for interviews, discussing pricing policy with a venue… The most exciting thing is probably going to rehearsals, at a stage when it’s just a repetiteur, a director and a singer discovering a piece of music, and then seeing it on stage only a few weeks later. It always feels like a magic trick, even if it is really hundreds of hours of work.

What’s the biggest challenge faced by the performing arts today?
As far as opera is concerned, one of the challenges is probably that we are constantly working against the idea that it is an art form for the old, the white and the rich. So it’s a collective work to renovate the art form in a way that makes it accessible to a diverse audience. There’s no education needed to enjoy opera, and keeping tricket prices low is something we thrive to achieve. I grew up in a jazz family that wasn’t particularly interested in opera, I am not a musician, I first attended opera with no knowledge of it and I was literally stuck on my seat. I think music moves human beings in a very intimate way, and I think operatic voices can go incredibly deep in that intimacy.

Do you recall a particular #LoveTheatre moment?
My first-ever time at the Comédie Francaise in Paris to see Molière’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme aged about 6 was a big eye-opening moment. More recently, Ghosts at the Almeida with Leslie Manville really moved me, I loved Francesca Hayward’s debut at ROH in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I have to admit that the Olympia Act in ETO’s production of The Tales of Hoffmann with Ilona Domnich and Sam Furness was a BIG #LoveTheatre moment!

A tough one: favourite opera/play of. all. times?
Oh this is difficult. Written on Skin by Benjamin is incredible. Matthew Bourne’s take on Swan Lake is a ballet I could see every week.
But the aria that is most likely to get on my neighbour’s nerves is this one:

Behind the scenes #LoveTheatre Day



What is your role at English Touring Opera, what does it mean?
I’m Head of Marketing. That means a looking after a lot of things, all coming under the banner of making sure as many people as possible attend ETO’s performances at theatres across the country.

What’s the most exciting thing you do there?
Attend performances and getting to meet audiences at venues on the tour. Otherwise, why do we do it?

What’s the biggest challenge faced by the performing arts today? How is ETO doing its bit?
Short-term thinking and lack of creativity. There’s a risk that by trying to screw as much money as possible out of the audiences of today, the arts as a whole alienates the audiences of the future. An example is the increasing insistence of many theatres to charge booking and transaction fees when buying a ticket. This creates a further barrier to attendance and, importantly, reduces the amount of money going back to the artists who create and perform the work. At ETO, we do our best to lobby our venues to keep ticket prices low, particularly for children and young people. We also provide exciting, different programmes of opera for adults and children that don’t just rely on a few well-known old titles.

Do you recall a particular #LoveTheatre moment? 
Al Seed’s The Factory at the Leeds Metropolitan University Studio Theatre in 2006. Until then, I’d largely assumed theatre was a polite, uncontroversial business lacking the counter-cultural spirit of great literature or punk music. An hour of comic noise terror later my mind had changed for ever – never had I simultaneously wanted to escape a theatre and been so engrossed in my whole life.

A tough one: favourite opera of. all time?
Easy. The first full length opera I ever saw – Handel’s Flavio staged by ETO at Exeter Northcott Theatre back in 2009. I was working for the Northcott at the time, and met James Conway (ETO’s General Director) and Jim Follett (then ETO press officer) before the show, who persuaded me to give Handel a try. I don’t know if musicologically this makes any sense, but there’s a gentleness to this aria (from 2.20 in the video) that makes me think as much about folk music as it does opera.

Behind the scenes #LoveTheatre Day



What is your role at English Touring Opera, what does it mean?
I’m Head of Development at ETO which means I raise money from many different sources, including individuals, trusts and foundations and companies, in order to help keep the show on the road!

What’s the most exciting thing you do there?
Well it’s incredibly satisfying when a new person signs up to be a Friend of ETO or a trust decides to support us, perhaps by helping stage a new work like Pia de’ Tolomei or by making a gift that allows to us commission and stage a new opera for children with special needs like Dust Child.   New donations to ETO make me feel that we’re communicating our mission in a way that resonates with our audiences and since I’m truly passionate about what ETO does, I feel so pleased that other people are too!

What’s the biggest challenge faced by the performing arts today? How is ETO doing its bit?
I’m not sure there’s a one-size fits all challenge, especially as I notice big regional differences when considering this question.  However, from an opera perspective, I think it’s clear that everyone is concerned about attracting more young people to an art form unfairly tagged as ‘elitist’.  One of the principle reasons which drew me to this role at ETO is the company’s belief that opera is for everyone- this is an ethos that’s at the core of everything we do.  With this in mind, I think we’re helping challenge opera stereotypes by introducing children to opera in schools, providing discounted tickets for young people, and programming a really fabulous mixture of titles to encourage audiences to either try something new (for instance, every theatre outside London in which we performed Pelléas et Melisande had never received this gorgeous opera before) or come to opera for the first time via a ‘classic’ work (We had a fair few new opera-goers at La boheme who described it as ‘the original Rent’!).  I’m really proud of the fact that we cover more of the UK than any other opera company and that James Conway, our General Director, is known for choosing really interesting repertoire (as opposed to playing it safe with a short list of well-known titles).

Do you recall a particular #LoveTheatre moment?
But there are so many!  A real highlight for me was a 2010 trip to ENO to see L’elisir d’amore (translated for their production as The Elixir of Love which I have to say sounds rather prosaic in comparison). I’d previously seen a production with gorgeous singing (I’d cheerfully listen to Aleksandra Kurzak in anything!) but a staging which to me dulled the sparkle of the cast and dramatically lessened the impact of Donizetti’s gorgeous music.  As I recall, it centered around a single giant haystack (!) and left me feeling puzzled, and grumbling about production budgets.   I’m not even sure why I was convinced to see it again… I’d dragged my husband along under duress, so when John Berry came out to announce that the tenor who was meant to star in the role of Nemorino was ill, as was his understudy, I felt an elbow in my ribs and a hissed, “we could still make a run for it and have a lovely dinner instead”.  The audience was told that a suitable tenor who knew the role in English could not be found at such short notice and a Lithuanian tenor named Edgaras Montvidas would perform the role in Italian instead.  Our patience was requested, amidst audible groans from some audience members and laughter from others– we decided that the performance would, if nothing else, certainly be memorable!

In the end it was excellent– Jonathan Miller’s production used a very free translation in which the setting transfered from Italy to the 1950s American Midwest and having a Nemorino singing in Italian with the rest of the cast in English made him seem even more like a lonely outsider in a society not always welcoming of foreigners.  What’s more, Andrew Shore (as a delightfully sleazy Dr Dulcamara) pulled off a phenomenal feat of singing to the rest of the cast in English while singing to Montvidas in Italian– a clear example of a serious professional but also totally believable.  After all, wouldn’t a snake-oil salesman be able to communicate with every potential customer?

I still gush about this production (clearly!)!  It was a really amazing example of turning a potential disaster into a triumph.

A tough one: favourite opera of. all. times?
That’s easy:  Bizet’s Les pecheurs de perles.  A seriously vacuous plot but oh, the music!  The libretto was composed by Eugene Cormon and Michel Carre, with Cormon commenting after the premiere  that they would have written something better if they’d known Bizet was so talented!

Behind the scenes #LoveTheatre Day



What is your role at English Touring Opera, what does it mean?
I am the Education and Community Coordinator. My role is organising and assisting on Education projects which makes it really varied as no two projects are the same. It can include working with schools, community groups, musicians, directors, conductors on projects that could be community operas or children performing in our evening performance or workshops breaking down opera. I am also music librarian for the company which involves planning years in advance and sourcing and preparing music for the cast, creatives and orchestra.

What’s the most exciting thing you do there?
Everything I do is exciting. The great thing about my job is no two projects are the same. You can spend one day watching a community opera in Hampton Court and then a few days later be preparing for a performance at the Royal Albert Hall.

What’s the biggest challenge faced by the performing arts today? How is ETO doing its bit?
The biggest challenge is the lack of funding and support for performing arts at a youth level. The lack of support for arts education makes it a constant challenge for us to increase audience engagement, but with a varied programme of outreach work, aimed at both those who already enjoy opera and those who have no experience of opera, we are rising to the challenge!

Do you recall a particular #LoveTheatre moment?
I was lucky enough to go to a very active performing arts primary school where we were given opportunities to see shows and give performances on a regular basis from a young age. However, the first time I came to see a show in London (the Lion King), the whole atmosphere was like nothing else. Being in the middle of the west end, in what seemed like an enormous theatre, with all the amazing costumes and singing, was exhilarating.

A tough one: favourite opera of. all. times?
Turn of the Screw, Benjamin Britten. When I saw it a few years ago, I jumped out my seat and almost had a heart attack!

Behind the scenes #LoveTheatre Day

#LoveTheatreDay is a celebration of all things stage. For a production to take place, many bees are working behind the scenes to ensure we reach as many people as possible, with the best possible work. Here are some of the English Touring Opera bees…

Alice Wright, Artistic Assistant

What is your role at English Touring Opera, what does it mean?
My role is an Artistic Assistant. This job involves being an office adminstrator, audition organiser, surtitle preparer and general helpful person during our busiest periods, when we are in rehearsals, production, and the lead up to the tour opening. It is incredibly varied and busy – but I love it!

What’s the most exciting thing you do there?
The most exciting thing for me is being involved with the opening of productions. I love nothing more than being in a theatre, and find it incredibly rewarding to see parts of a creative rehearsal process develop as we hurtle towards an opening of a show. Being in such close proximity to our productions is so exciting, and knowing that I am helping (in a small way!) create something so special is fantastic.

What’s the biggest challenge faced by the performing arts today? How is ETO doing its bit?
I think the biggest challenge is encouraging and nurturing people’s love of the arts when they are children. The performing arts give you such a wide range of intellectual and emotional experiences, it is a life education like no other and has to be encouraged and funded for if we want to see our passion and industry staying alive. ETO is doing it’s bit with a HUGELY wide range of education projects, ranging from taking children’s operas into schools (we reach over 10,000 people country-wide a year), running workshops specifically linked to the tours, performing with children in our ‘main stage’ productions, travelling with operas for children with special education needs, and so much more.

Do you recall a particular #LoveTheatre moment?
There are lots to choose from… but seeing Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2012 was amazing. The show was simply perfect.

A tough one: favourite opera of. all. times?
This is a tough one! I tend to go through phases of being competely obsessed with different operas. The top (rather eclectic) two at the moment are Puccini’s La bohème and Britten’s Noyes Fludde. La bohème has the most amazing, heartbreaking and perfectly formed score, I hear something different every time I see it, and Noyes Fludde is the first opera I really got to know well, and I love it because it invites everyone to be involved (performers and audience!). There is nothing exclusive about it, it is Britten telling a story that anyone can be part of, and he does it very well!

10 questions for ETO’s Pelléas, Jonathan McGovern

1. You performed at Glyndebourne Opera House aged 12. Did you always know you wanted to be a singer?
I’m not sure I can say I’d always known! Singing sort of found me in my late teens. From the age of 12–18 I was member of the National Youth Music TheatJonathan McGovernre. Every summer I’d go away on residential courses for rehearsal and productions. It was an incredible learning environment both musically and theatrically with the most amazing directors and teachers. It was during my sixth-form years that my voice really grew. I was taking Music, French and German for A-levels and the combination of all these subjects opened up the world of song and opera to me. I continued lessons at the Royal Academy while at university and at the end of my final year took the plunge and auditioned for postgrad. It was then I thought this might be something that I might want to take seriously as a possible career path.

2. Why is opera important?
Ok… No messing around here! Opera, like all theatre is a form of storytelling I suppose; one of the unique things that we do as human beings. That by itself is an important thing. What makes opera special is its aspiration to use music and the human voice to say or embody the things that we feel that perhaps can’t be said in such an explicit way. That realm of uncertainty is open for us to conceive what we want. Preparing for Pelléas, I discovered a wonderful quote of Debussy which hints at this. While he was searching for a libretto which would inspire him to write the opera, he said he wanted to find a writer that would “allow me to graft my dream onto his”. Opera has its own particular way of becoming something even greater than the sum of its parts.

3. In an interview in the Telegraph (January 2012) you said that you played county cricket for Surrey under -16s and that you regret having to give it up. What made you choose music over being a professional athlete?
That’s incredibly flattering but I didn’t really have the choice to be quite honest! I was a decent cricketer but I never anywhere near the level to pursue it professionally. I try to keep up playing socially but with Saturday morning rehearsals, weekend concerts and summer festivals there’s not much time at all to spend a day in my cricket whites… I generally stick to the squash court to put my back out nowadays.

4. Les Troyens or Thebans?
I’d have to say Thebans. Perhaps I’m biased having been lucky enough to perform the latter’s première at ENO last year but for me some of the most exciting times have been working on a new piece of music. Quite apart from the fact that Julian Anderson’s wonderful score, it’s a very special thing the freedom you get performing a piece that has never been performed, or more importantly never heard before.

5. This autumn you are playing the title character in our new production of Debussy’s Pelléas & Mélisande. How would you describe your character to an opera newbie?
For want of better words, Pelléas is an old soul. Whilst at face value he can seem perhaps slightly naive, he’s actually a very honest and emotionally aware person, perhaps too much. This sensitivity to his own feelings gives him a deep sensuality which fosters a passion which we see grow in him through the opera. He finds himself wrestling with his feelings and the hurtful consequences that they might reap on those close to him.

6. Have you ever toured before? What are you looking forward to the most?
I’ve travelled before for shows but will never have done so many performances of a single work in as many venues as this Autumn’s season. On a basic technical level, a new venue for every show is a true challenge, which I love. On a personal level I’m looking forward to going to Exeter, the last time I performed at the Northcott was over 15 years ago, so it will be a nice trip down memory lane!

7. How do you learn a new role?
I suppose I can talk from very recent experience can about how I learned Pelléas. First off, I listened to the whole piece to get a feel for it and went through the score marking everything up, highlighting my role and translating it. Pelléas is particularly hard because of the sheer amount of words (which is prose) and the rhythms Debussy writes so I started by learning my bits purely speaking in tempo. Once I’d got my tongue round them, I set about learning the actual notes started and singing it. Once that foundation was in place, I then took scenes to French coaches, repertoire coaches and most importantly my singing teacher to really get to grips with the technical challenges of the role. It can seem a bit painstaking but I’ve found the words in rhythm as a first stop really helps stuff stick.

8. Do you have any pre-performance rituals?
My ritual is to not have a ritual. I can’t help but think that you’re setting yourself up for the fall if you do!

9. What is your dream role?
Pelléas is actually one, Billy Budd another but I’ve got a big itch to scratch wanting to be Riff in West Side Story. Dusting off the dancing shoes as we speak.

10. And finally, what would you say to someone coming to see Pelléas & Mélisande for the first time?
It’s a symbolist piece so every line means everything and nothing at the same time. Debussy might give the odd suggestion here and there but just enjoy the grey areas!

Jonathan sings Pelléas in ETO’s new production of Debussy’s Pelléas & Mélisande, opening at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London, on Thursday 1 October 2015, before touring to Buxton, Malvern, Harrogate, Cambridge, Bath, Snape Maltings and Exeter. For more information and to book tickets visit

10 questions for soprano Ilona Domnich

You started your career as a pianist. What made you change course and start singing instead?
As a pianist I realised how much the hands sing when they play. My piano teacher sent me to listen to bel canto and Mozart operas, so I could play better. I was amazed when listening to Maria Callas and Montserrat Caballe, Freni, Pavarotti, Domingo by the depth of what the human voice can express. Listening to their beautiful singing ignited my soul and my heart has burned passionately since about singing. I feel that a human voice has immence power to touch the depth of emotions and feelings. When I sing I am tapping into my inner courage, surrender and honesty. I find it very liberating and healing too. But it was a long journey, as at that time I was studying forensic science, as well as piano.

What is your favourite soprano role?Ilona Domnich
The one I am learning or singing at a given moment. I have dream roles and I have roles that I loved singing, that have changed my life. Yet I love starting a new role, I am curious to discover everything about my heroine. It is like an investigation, the fingerprints and the DNA of a woman who I sing. Besides, in every opera there is always huge drama and crime involved. The only difference is that I am giving my heroine a new life and for a short time she is able to live her life fully through me.

Most recently, you sang the role of Mimì to great acclaim in ETO’s production of La bohème. What was your experience of touring this work?
I loved every minute, discovering the role with James [Conway – ETO General Director] and Michael [Rosewell – ETO’s Music Director] and wonderful collegues and performing so many times for very welcoming audiences. I was worried in the beginning that there is not enough music for the intensity of my Mimì and her journey, but the more I sang, the more I realised that it is all in Puccini’s music and in the Italian language. He is a genius. Every single performance was different and I found something new about my Mimì and her relationships with other bohemians.

Traditional productions or modern adaptations?
I like both. What matters for me is finding the soul of my character and following her emotional journey. Opera for me is about building up and releasing the tension, digging into the female underworld and finding the balance between the light and the darkness, so directors are free to create this by any possible means. I like clear, not overwhelming productions, so people can see themselves in our characters, can be touched deeply. I also like productions full of imagination, unexpected surprises.

Do you have any pre-performance rituals?
Of course! I like dancing to pop music getting my energy flowing and then a quiet time to centre myself in order to fully focus on the performance.

This autumn you will sing in our new production of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. What can you tell us about the piece and the (three!) characters that you play?
I am hugely excited and honored to be given such chance. It has been very rare in soprano history that one soprano sang all three. I am taking the challenge because I feel ready, mature enough and I would like to experience it. I will play a beautiful mechanical doll, a poorly singer and a provocative prostitute. It won’t be easy and I know I will enjoy it!

Last year you were chosen by Opera Now as one of their Top 10 High Flyers, “sopranos who are destined to have impressive careers”. What other artists had the biggest influence on you musically?
It was wonderful to be chosen. The magazine has also followed the release of my CD ‘Surrender’ on Signum Records, with a 4 star review and an article as ‘Artist of the month’ which I am so thrilled about. I have many influences, all my teachers and coaches, many inspiring collegues…  Amongst them are Caballe, with whom I had a master class; Leo Nucci- with whom I recorded the duets from Rigoletto; Domingo – who I am dreaming to meet; and Natalie Dessay – my greatest inspiration with her fearless singing and incredible feminine confidence and natural beauty. I am inspired by theatre, movie actors, by cartoon characters, by jazz and pop musicians.

How do you learn a new role?
On the go, between concerts and playing football with my son (amongst other mother/son activities). I learn through text and by creating associations. I enjoy the investigation sometimes too much and often leave the memorising for later. I often secretly wish that rehearsing an opera would be as actors rehearse their roles – reading the text and music together and creating it from scratch!

In the July 2015 edition of Prospect magazine, opera and theatre director Fiona Shaw said that if she ruled the world she would make sure that every child was given a musical instrument. What would you do?
I agree with her, learning a musical instrument gives children confidence from a very young age. The moment a child manages to play a few notes, he feels that he can do something special, which is the most magical feeling, and translates later to other spheres of the child’s life. It also teaches a child to concentrate on one activity for longer. I would also take children to an opera from a young age. Opera is full of wonderful stories and it opens the world of feelings, something that we need to teach our kids early. So if I could influence the world I would send children to see operas, just as they go to movies or football.

Finally, what would you say to a young person considering a career in opera?
Breathe through the ups and downs, be patient, work hard, be hungry for learning and listen to your deep inner voice.

Ilona sings the triple role of the Three Heroines in ETO’s new production of The Tales of Hoffmann, opening 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

The Real Bohemians


Illustration by Joseph Hémard from Scènes de la vie de Bohème, Paris, 1921.

Since its 1896 premiere, Bohème audiences have spent countless hours laughing, cheering and crying with its beloved characters. And yet what makes the phenomenon of the opera’s enduring popularity so interesting is the fact that we care so much about characters we know so little about. In Bohème’s libretto you will not find any long Verdian choruses giving back-story or characters stopping to “tell the story all over again.” We are given several hints about the characters’ past life but these move rapidly by as the opera progresses to its tragic end.

So who are these Bohemians scratching out a living in the garret? The answers to these – and many other — questions about our Bohemians can be found in the original source for Bohème’s libretto – Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème, a story cycle published in weekly instalments in the literary magazine Le Corsaire.

For the stories in Scènes, Murger drew upon his personal experiences and recollections growing up with artists and writers in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Given the autobiographical nature of the stories, it’s not surprising that Murger based one the main characters on himself: the starving writer Rudolphe (Rodolfo in the opera). Like Rodolfo, Murger had first-hand experience of poverty: on one occasion, he had to receive a theatre producer in bed, since he had loaned his only pair of trousers to a friend for a job interview.

Henri Mürger by Nadar, 1857

Henri Murger by Nadar, 1857

Our painter, Marcello, is actually a composite of Champfleury, a writer Murger had shared rooms with, and Tabar, an artist who was forced to abandon a painting about the crossing of the Red Sea as he could not afford to pay the models and costumes he needed to sketch the scene. At the start of La bohème, we hear Marcello exclaim:

Questo “Mar Rosso” mi ammollisce e mi assidera
Come se addosso mi piovesse in stille.

This “Red Sea” of mine makes me feel cold and numb
As if it were pouring over me.

What of Bohème’s heroine, Mimì? She too is a composite character mainly drawn from a girl Murger knew named Lucile (we now perhaps see the reason for “Mi chiamano Mimì, ma il mio nome è Lucia”, “They call me Mimì, but my real name is Lucia”). Murgers Mimì is small and delicate, but also possessed of a “savage brutality” and “profound egoism”. Her attraction to Rodolfo is definitely not a gooey-eyed strong one. Perhaps in mentioning Mimì’s real name in the libretto, Puccini is hinting at the character’s darker side?

labohemeIn 1851, Scènes was published in novel form and the edition quickly sold 70,000 copies. This led to it being adapted for the stage by the Parisian dramatist Theodore Barrière, who decided to focus on the relationship between Mimì and Rodolfo, retaining Marcello and Musetta as secondary characters and reducing the number and importance of the other Bohemians. This same format was used by La bohème’s librettists Giacosa and Illica when structuring the opera.

So here we have the real Bohemians. Murger’s original novel is not easy to find in bookshops; digital copies are available on Amazon and free of charge on Project Gutenberg (in French and English). ANDREW HIGGINS