Tagged: contemporary

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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Intern on the Inside: Towards an Unknown Port

This is an exciting term for the year 5s at St Mary’s and St John’s Primary School in Barnet. They are one of the lucky groups singing alongside ETO in their Autumn tour. In 3 weeks’ time they will be on stage at the Royal Opera House, Linbury Studio Theatre, and today rehearsals are getting into full swing.

Towards an Unknown Port is a song cycle composed by Helen Chadwick to be performed as a response to The Emperor of Atlantis.  For this exciting new community project, lyrics have been taken from poems written by children in Terezín concentration camp alongside children’s accounts of the Balkans war. These haunting words have been set to beautifully lyrical melodies and the children, teachers and ETO are working together to stage this brand new work. Continue reading

Albert Herring rehearsals, week one

Photos by @VerityBramson

No Red Herrings: Balance and “Bananarmageddon”

Day two of rehearsals for ETO’s autumn production of Britten’s Albert Herring. Act 1, Scene 2. Herring (Mark Wilde), disillusioned by the monotony of a life working in the grocer’s is about to be interrupted by Emmie (Erin Hughes), entering in a whirlwind of hormones and non-sensical rattling.

I am particularly struck by the fluid approach that the whole Herring team have towards the rehearsal process. Balance is key: friendliness and professionalism, a relaxed atmosphere tempered with the utmost efficiency. Neither pushy nor dictatorial, the strength of Chris Rolls’ directorship lies with his ability to take inspiration from the intuitive reactions of his talented cast: A-Level-fresh Hughes absentmindedly plaiting her hair during a moment of respite prompts a “Girls in Topshop” characterisation of Emmie. Rolls is also very aware of the indications for gesture and emotion inherent in Britten’s score, and the intelligent cast never miss a beat (if you’ll pardon the pun) when picking up on the composer’s intentions. Continue reading

“Three men dwell on Flannan Isle to keep the lamp alight…”

Rehearsal pictures by @hanburyrebecca

Intern on the inside: the story of a lighthouse

Having just graduated from Bristol and feeling somewhat bereaved at the loss of my student days, ETO has thrown me a lifeline and welcomed me right into the heart of their opera-making process. I am going to spend the next couple of months observing rehearsals and cornering the creatives behind ETO’s autumn season to try and work out exactly what makes their productions tick. Artistic Director James Conway has opted for a season of daring modern opera and this week’s rehearsals of The Lighthouse are getting into full swing.

One of the most exciting things about The Lighthouse is the real life mystery that hangs over the action. The suspicious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers in the winter of 1900 remains an unsolved mystery. Peter Maxwell Davies’s score is a response to this enigma. Here, Max discusses this extra-ordinary occurrence. Continue reading

Choosing the operas for the autumn 2012 season

As I speak at opera and music club meetings around the country, I am often asked ‘How do you choose the operas?’, or even ‘Why did you choose those operas?’

They are good questions. Each season I have to remind myself of how the choices were made, inasmuch as they were made two or three years ahead at least. So now I am reminding myself of why I have chosen these remarkable, different, infrequently performed operas in autumn 2012.

Initially I always ask myself ‘Have we a fighting chance of doing this opera particularly well?’

This means looking at the orchestration (in these three cases, we can perform them exactly as written; for bigger operas, we would need to find an orchestra arrangement that had merits of its own), at the singing roles, and at the scenic demands. Availability of suitable artists is checked long in advance – and in our case we are looking for two singers for each role, because in our long tours it is very likely that understudies will go on. So you have to make sure you have not just one excellent Queen of the Night in the company, but two! Continue reading