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.
Puppetry is an ancient form of storytelling thought to have originated over 3000 years ago. Simple puppets were used in Egypt as early as 2000 BC when string-operated figures were manipulated to perform the action of kneading and baking bread. Clay puppets dating to 2500 BC have also been unearthed in India, and written records of puppetry can be found in ancient Greek text from the 5th century BC. Almost all human societies have been using puppets in one form or another, either as entertainment or ceremonially in religious rituals.
ETO has a history of working with puppets and puppeteers, most notably on the award-winning Laika the Spacedog in Spring 2013. The opera tells the irresistible story of the first animal to go into orbit at the height of the Space Race between the United States and the USSR.
Laika is portrayed by two puppets which look identical. One is a marionette, the most famous type of western puppet, operated by strings that animate the limbs. The other is a table-top puppet, which is used whenever the performers need to interact with Laika at close range. The puppeteer has much more control over this type of puppet, but also less distance, so in some ways more skill is needed to maintain the sense that the puppet is alive independently of the puppeteer.
The following images show the progress of the puppets from prototype to carving to painting and costume.
ETO commissioned and toured this opera in Spring 2014. The story was based on the classic children’s book by John Burningham, which was then celebrating its 50th anniversary. The opera follows Borka, a goose born without feathers, as she tries to learn to fly and to swim, is abandoned by her friends, and is finally rescued and taken by boat to Kew Gardens.
In ETO’s production, the young geese and the dog Fowler are all life-size puppets, while the older geese, as well as the two human characters (the Captain and his Mate) are played by humans.
Shackleton’s Cat is the latest in this line of operas especially created for children in primary schools and family audiences. The opera recounts Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition to the South Pole, the destruction of his ship Endurance, and the subsequent tale of survival against all odds.
Mrs Chippy was the tabby cat taken on the expedition by the carpenter Harry McNish. The crew loved Mrs Chippy (who was eventually discovered to be a boy cat!) for his friendliness, his character and his ability to walk the ship’s rails in even the roughest seas.
In our production, Mrs Chippy is played by a puppet, handmade by stage designer Jude Munden. Here are some pictures of her creation process.
There’s only one week to go until Laika in Lambeth is performed at Battersea Arts Centre – we’ve posted a sneak preview of one of the backdrops and the latest blog post from the show’s producer Sarah Botchway below. You can see the full blog here.
Thanks for reading my blog so far! I hope it has given you a good flavour of what is to come! So far three newspapers have decided to run a story on the show and hopefully more will follow. The performances is now less than two weeks away, so it’s all systems go. The set is coming along well and it is looking amazing, Cathy is a genius. The musicians from the Royal Academy of Music arrive on Monday, which I think will take the whole thing to another level.
I’m really looking forward to seeing all of you who have already bought a ticket on Tuesday 11th June. The 2pm performance has now sold out but there are still tickets available for the 7pm show. If you haven’t bought your ticket yet I would love you to come, so if you’re free email or call the office to reserve a ticket (firstname.lastname@example.org or 020 7735 2978). It’s going to be a great show. Those of you who are coming arrive early!
The address is Battersea Arts Centre Lavender Hill, London SW11 5TN ( a few minutes walk from Clapham Junction). The entrance to the Grand Hall is on Town Hall Road.
Dashing between the office, the rehearsal room and the road, Steve Hawkins has been ETO’s production manager since 2009. In this interview he tells Rebecca Hanbury just what it takes to tour three operas at the same time.
How did you first get interested in production management?
It was through school. We had a good drama teacher who encouraged us to do backstage elements as well as the acting side. Building the sets, doing lighting and sound was just as important as performing. I worked my way up through that and then did a degree in stage management, covering all areas of technical theatre.
Has opera always been a specific interest of yours?
No, not always. But it developed through college where the opera productions were often the most interesting ones. They tended to be more lavish, and certainly the ones with a chorus had higher demands than the theatre productions, which tended to be smaller scale. 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
Rehearsal pictures by @hanburyrebecca
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
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