Listen to a 15-minute podcast about our upcoming autumn season, featuring interviews with the artists and creatives of all 3 operas: click here.
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.
“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.
This 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.
The 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.
This 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.
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.
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
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
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 Theatre. 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 http://englishtouringopera.org.uk/productions/pelleas-et-melisande
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?
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 http://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
Tell us a bit about yourself – where were you born and where did you grow up? Do you come from a musical family?
I was born in North London within the Hertfordshire border and lived in the same area till I went to college. I come from a very musical family; my parents are professional musicians in London orchestras, and my aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and grandparents all played instruments so for me, there was no escaping a musical education, and I’m very grateful for that. One of my favourite feelings is being totally surrounded by live music, as I was when I played the violin in my school orchestra, and I imagine it stems from growing up in the midst of a lot of musical people making a lot of noise.
Why is opera important?
I could philosophise about this all day, but my short answer is that opera, like all art and indeed sport, is intrinsically optimistic. lt is not a crucial part of our survival, but instead it provides us with the optimistic idea that there is more to life. The reason the first cave drawings were so fascinating is because they set this new standard for living – they raised the bar from sheer survival to something more, something undefinable and ever-evolving, and opera is a highly-evolved extension of that original expression. It is a form of beautiful communication between humans – it reconnects us to our passion and our humanity, and gets us to think on a higher level, where the ultimate aim is to transcend and make something more beautiful of our lives.
What has been the most exciting moment of your career so far?
The most exciting moment was definitely a working audition with Antonio Pappano. He is an incredible musician and a tough man to impress so I was quite nervous, standing in his room at the Royal Opera House with him watching me intensely from two feet away, but he conducted me through my arias and I was so inspired by his passion and technical knowledge of the voice that I was able to do exactly what he wanted and it felt amazing.
La traviata or Anna Nicole?
Interesting to compare these two as there is something iconic about both the female leads. However, I have to say La traviata. Anna Nicole is undoubtedly a great piece with some very juicy music and I’m a big fan of the composer, Mark Anthony Turnage, but I could probably live without ever doing that role whereas Violetta is a role that I’ve always aspired to do one day.
Mélisande is the epitome of indirectness; it’s hard to understand her and she retains a sense of mystery throughout the opera, avoiding answering any direct questions. She is sensual and childlike, quite fearful but at other times surprisingly bold. She could be described as a Lorelei, a tragic siren-like character who unwittingly lures people to their doom.
Have you ever toured before? What are you looking forward to the most?
I toured Kurt Weill’s Street Scene with The Opera Group in 2011. We did 30 shows in 28 days and it was tough! This tour looks a little more forgiving with rest days in between shows, thankfully. I’m looking forward to going to some places I don’t know so well, such as Aldeburgh, and I’m hoping I’ll have time to go to Bath Spa. I’m also really looking forward to getting to know the rest of the cast; we’ll be rehearsing from August so there will be plenty of time.
Who are your inspirations?
Well, there are so many to list here but in terms of sopranos, I love Maria Callas, Mirella Freni, Mariella Devia and Renée Fleming. Closer to home, my friend and ex-housemate Sophie Bevan, American soprano and friend Corinne Winters, my husband, tenor Ben Johnson, and perhaps most importantly my teacher, Jeffrey Talbot.
Do you have any pre-performance rituals?
I try to listen to my body on the day of a performance and figure out what it needs, for example, I might have to steam or meditate if I’m not feeling great, but usually I combine a vocal warm up with some stretching and yoga, then eat a big late lunch, rest, warm up some more and then slowly get into costume and make-up.
What is your dream role?
I would love to play Liù. Turandot is my favourite opera – in fact I think it was the first opera my dad introduced me to as a child – and no matter what mood I’m, in I can always get swept up emotionally in that dramatic music – it’s wonderful.
And finally, what would you say to someone coming to see Pelléas & Mélisande for the first time?
I hope you enjoy it! It’s a symbolist work so don’t be put off by the lack of action; it’s all in the words and dream-like quality of the music.
Susanna will play Mélisande in ETO’s new production of Pelléas & Mélisande, opening at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music on Thursday 1 October 2015. For more information and to book tickets visit www.englishtouringopera.org.uk/pelleas-et-melisande
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.