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.
I spend most of my time at Cambridge involved in activities that are almost entirely self-serving. I work towards a degree; I engage in musical projects to practice conducting; I seek work either to earn money or to gain valuable professional experience. There is I hope nothing shocking about this – apart from those of a religious bent or the small group who engage with the university’s numerous charitable schemes, this is not, I imagine an unusual position.
It is wonderful, therefore, to break this pattern of self-obsession and introspection by taking part in the Turtle Song project, a scheme run by English Touring Opera and Turtle Key Arts and supported by Clare College, Cambridge. This is my second year of involvement with Turtle Song, and it operates as follows: every week, a group of three or four Clare students spend about two hours in a room with a composer, director-animateur and twenty or so citizens of Cambridge. The composer and director work with these people to create a series of songs around a common theme (this year, the theme is simply that of walking or journeying) with instrumental or vocal support from us students, culminating in a performance of a full song-cycle at West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge. Continue reading
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
Soprano Paula Sides is one of English Touring Opera’s most recognisable faces, having worked with the company on no less than six productions since 2009, including The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro and Xerxes.
She now plays Bubikopf in ETO’s Autumn 2012 production The Emperor of Atlantis, which she is finding one of the most inspiring roles of her career.
Here she talks about how the opera, written in the Terezin concentration camp, is a life-affirming and at times humorous exploration of some of the big questions in life.
Paula is Jewish, and, in this second clip, explains how she is thrilled to be in a production that is helping keep alive the music written in Terezin.
Act 1, Scene 1, and the question on everybody’s lips in Albert Herring is who should be May Queen. The scene is effectively a committee meeting, a means to an end, lacking much physical stage drama. I was slightly disappointed: I had wanted to take some photographs of dramatic facial expressions, I had wanted to hear more about director Chris Rolls’ imaginative vision, his quirky characterisations.
I had clearly underestimated the cast! While the semi-circle in which they were sitting (for rehearsal only) was quite reminiscent of a village gathering, energy levels were as high as ever, truly the “living drama” that conductor Michael Rosewell had expressed a desire for (and that was before the trials of such a notoriously difficult score started to take their toll…). I also managed to capture a fair few fabulous faces “(click to view).
What struck me most about the vocal rehearsal was the continued collaboration between conductor and director. Rolls’ dramatic ideals could, of course, not be achieved without their vocal manifestation. Rosewell left no stone unturned in his quest towards perfect articulation, maintaining that all of Britten’s intentions for interpretation should be found in the music – provided the prescribed tempo is adhered to! Meticulously accented cries of “Good MoooornING” created bristling, fearful excitement in a polyphonic colloquial setting. Continue reading
In June 1940 the Gestapo took control of Terezín, an abandoned fort in the Czech Republic. By the end of November it had been turned into a ghetto, holding hundreds of thousands of Jews. Those who survived its horrendous conditions waited there to be transported to their deaths at Auschwitz and Treblinka extermination camps. Two of the inmates were composer Viktor Ullmann, and librettist Peter Kien who collaborated in 1943 to write an opera – The Emperor of Atlantis. It was never performed during their lifetime. Nazi authorities banned the opera after the dress rehearsal in Terezín. Both Ullmann and Kien died at Auschwitz before the end of the war. Continue reading
Photos by @
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
Rehearsal pictures by @hanburyrebecca