Saturday, 23 September 2017

Fever Pitch, Highbury Opera Theatre

What would musical life in London do without churches? Sitting at the back of Union Chapel in Highbury, flicking through the programme for this new opera Fever Pitch, from Highbury Opera Theatre, one is struck by the role played by benevolent local church halls, the churches themselves and the musicians that they employ (even on a sporadic basis) in offering the space in which to rehearse a production such as this.

If this is a fairly obvious point, it's also a transferable one in the case of Fever Pitch. The piece, adapted by Tamsin Collison from Nick Hornby's seminal 1990s novel of the same name concerns the faithful, the true believers who would fixate on the team religiously... that may be enough direct analogy for now but it's also representative of the ideal that propels HOT, a community-centric company that brings its own community together. A chorus concerning this in the second half of the show was less drama and more mission statement.

It's Fever Pitch The Opera's strongest suit, too. For both the inevitable 45 minute halves a company scrambled in both age and sex are constantly on the move, using all the space in the octagonal chapel, singing, fighting, dancing and - that most tricky thing to do on stage - smiling and greeting one another. Scott Stroman's score is a hugely ambitious survey of, largely, jazz styles from 1950s big band to slippery jazz of the periods shown on stage in passing banners ('1968', '1976' etc.) and incorporating more familiar terrace chants into its rhythm and contours than I could keep an ear on.

The adults, teenagers and children of HOT set about it quite fearlessly, actually. The sextet of principals are head-mic'd for clarity (there's no fear of 'you're going home in a Fach-ing ambulance'), All had properly absorbed the fidgety score (pitch and rhythm with one eye perpetually on the tension of some Arsenal game) and brought great focal charisma to this home fixture. And home fixture it was. The audience loved it from the start and the whole evening was all the more fun for it.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Over My Shoulder, McCaldin Arts

This weekend I went to see an unusual and out-of-the-way show in London's NW commuter belt. Over My Shoulder is the title of a song made famous by the 1930s star Jessie Matthews in the hit show Evergreen, which played at the Adelphi for a year in 1931. The song lends its title to this recital by Clare McCaldin, as the music and stories of Jessie Matthews' life metaphorically looks across at the life of another contemporaneous star, soprano Elisabeth Schumann. Schumann was also serious box office in London in the 1930s, albeit in a different vein of musical life, classical concert & art song.

This performance was given in the outwardly anonymous St. Martin's church hall in Ruislip by virtue of the peculiar fact that both women are buried at opposite ends of the churchyard. This extraordinary kernel of circumstance was the jumping-off point for Clare McCaldin's exhaustively researched talk - for which she had been advised by Joy Puritz, Elisabeth Schumann's granddaughter, in attendance - and a healthy diet of songs that reflected both the familiar repertoire of both women, as well as their noteworthy achievements and relationships. A well-wrought (if slightly stilted) Liebeslied by Otto Klemperer was a fascinating case in point. Together with the pianist Paul Turner, Clare also performed songs specially arranged for the show by Liam Dunachie, from the titular show-stopper to Rodgers & Hart's Dancing on the Ceiling.

The narrated recital has become a speciality of Clare McCaldin and her umbrella production company McCaldin Arts (you can read musicologist Katy Hamilton's view of the older Haydn's London Ladies here). This narrated recital not only provided historical and cultural context but also touched on the stylistic disparity of the two singers' disciplines - and the issues with an ageing performer's career, where technique can struggle to keep up with popular demand. It was a touching story, beautifully sung and played, reflecting on the importance but evanescence of performing arts in our lives. There is a second performance in central London in February 2018 (more via

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

La Boheme, Royal Opera

The inevitable has come to pass. The Royal Opera have finally got a new production of La boheme, Puccini's evergreen masterwork, after many years & revivals of John Copley's fine staging. Richard Jones is one of the most dependable directors working today, in as much as his work is never without thought and invariably thought-provoking, and his new contemporaneous production is no exception. The great Act 2 showpiece is a riot of fine costuming and colour in a Gallerie Lafayette-a-like, whose staging trucks rush on and then off again for Cafe Momus, a congested but meticulously constructed bistro scene. The waiter-actors excel.

My biggest impressions were of the orchestra, producing deep-dyed tones, especially in the Act 1 woodwind; and the principals' consistency of approach. Here were a group of very young people lost to the id of youth. There was no arch acting here, nothing calculated or knowing but a sextet of kids pinging from one experience to the next. The catastrophic denouement is all the more brutal for it. You'll need a tissue.

A Summer Round-Up (2017)

It's September now but, before I forget, here are most of the lyric stagings I had the (largely) good fortune to go and see over the Summer.

First up was The Magic Flute at the King's Head Theatre. There was an inspired umbrella concept of putting it in the Amazon (or somesuch), conferring some purpose on the usually rather milquetoast character of Tamino. Plenty of effort had gone into the set design and this if nothing else had the cast rushing about with all the energy that this panto-by-another-name can demand.

If The Magic Flute was a Spielberg/Zemeckis adventure movie in close-quartered song, then the English National Opera Dream of Gerontius (with added BBC Singers) at the Festival Hall was... well, I don't know. Derek Jarman? An earnest, barely-staged production by the lighting designer Lucy Carter promised the best of both available worlds: an opera company given the opportunity to perform in concert, whilst bringing that staging sensibility to a concert work with all the inherent drama of Verdi's Requiem (and of course, quite a bit of the music of Wagner's Parsifal). Simone Young steered a steady course down the centre of the available melodrama. A unique event but with plenty of potential for revisiting (perhaps with other concert works), we hope.

There was a new (dir. Keith Warner) Otello at Covent Garden, the first in a quick succession of Shakespearean operas to be seen. The Royal Opera is a company that knows how Verdi goes, especially under the musical direction of Sir Antonio Pappano. It might be fair to say that the show had been constructed around the talented principal tenor Jonas Kaufmann; what I was perhaps least expecting was that his command of the role allowed him to act with great detail and really essay the part. I found I was less interested in the thrill of a challenging romantic role than I was with the choices he took with the character, afforded to him by never having to fight the music.

Glyndebourne's new Hamlet also put a tenor through his paces. Brett Dean's operatic version of one of Shakespeare's most literary plays also has substantial roles for many others and the cast was a pretty fair cross-section of some of the best talent in the UK (and the US - super idea casting Rodney Gilfry as Claudius). Allan Clayton's performance in the title role was phenomenal. I saw it in a cinema relay in London.

Quietly chasing these two flagship shows was an already tried and tested Merchant of Venice, a production staged by WNO (also directed by Keith Warner) which came to Covent Garden at the tail end of the season. it was interesting to see the audience for this show, as very different, largely younger clientele - were they expecting Pyotr Tchiakovsky only to leave - as many did - at the interval of this recently dusted-off piece by André Tchaikowski? They shouldn't have gone, as this proved itself to be a fine piece worth an outing, perpetually alert to the measure & music of Shakespeare's text.

After all these substantial meals from the Bard's cookbook, I was looking forward to revisiting Grimeborn in Dalston. Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen isn't the ideal opera for the inevitable reduction treatment as so much character and colour is in the score. Again, the director Guido Martin-Brandis had given the design and costume team hefty support to realise a convincing forest. The cast took care of the rest, with Alison Rose's eponymous Vixen a winning, independent fox.

The summer was in full swing now and it was time to catch part of the Tete-a-Tete Festival. The Cubbitt Sessions are al fresco lyric shows and I saw Impropera in a series of sketches rounded off with a full length confection based on audience suggestion (a sort of contemporary Fledermaus sequel). In these very much postmodern times, it takes something to be funny, as they were.

Finally, there was a concert performance of Mussorgsky's Khovanschina at the Proms. This is an epic opera and lived principally through the rendition of the score by the BBC Symphony under Semyon Bychkov and some uniformly remarkable singing from a largely Russian cast - though the handful of BBC Singers men who came down to the front of the stage must also be applauded for performing without copies in convincing vernacular.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

The Day After, ENO Studio Live

A hot Saturday in June with the bars of West Hampstead overflowing with Arsenal supporters watching the FA Cup Final playing out just up the road was perhaps a tricky backdrop for English National Opera to offer a new platform for their work. More than this, the piece with which ENO Studio Live (that's #ENOStudioLive for the connected) has opened is a little known opera by Jonathan Dove concerning some sort of apocalypse.

The Day After was originally written as a five hander with scoring to be performed en plein air. Jonathan Dove has adapted it for chorus and it is difficult to imagine how it might have been otherwise. The story is that of Greek myth, as the impetuous Phaeton takes advantage of his father Phoebus' largesse and demands that he ride the sun chariot, which he does to a disastrous end. The full ENO chorus are simply marvellous as a classic Greek chorus, both a contemporary population of characters and the implacably-faced corporate narrator. Rachael Lloyd and William Morgan join soloists from the chorus Robert Winslade Anderson, Claire Mitcher and Susanna Tudor-Thomas as the characters. James Henshaw conducts from behind the stage in Lillian Baylis House Studio 1. It's vocally & musically excellent across the board, the company managing - or relishing? - the new demands of a different acoustic (a little dry with, sotto voce air conditioning) without any dramatic reserve.

Above all, I was very struck with things I might not otherwise have noticed, i.e. in the Coliseum. The attention to detail of the stage preparation left one convinced that the company was walking on ash. I assumed that the three choristers directly in front of me had colds until it became clear that 'ill health' was the intent of a meticulous make-up team. So often in London one attends small-scale, alternative venue close-proximity operatic productions in which the costuming, design and make-up have been left to chance or the whim of the performers. it becomes clear at moments like this that a company such as ENO really does believe the Gesamtkunsterk ('total art work') creed of opera and moreover, makes it work.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Performing Live - Peril or Thrill?

Image: The Daily Telegraph

Clearly, performing live is both perilous and thrilling for performer and audience alike. I'm focused here on well-worn work, repertory pieces of music or theatre. The appeal of (re-)creating drama or music in front of other people is amplified by these poles. It's thrilling to hear an alternative interpretation of how the music show 'go', how the sound of a different voice and collection of instruments brings its own character to bear on even the most familiar works. It's also thrilling to see how artists negotiate difficult music or multitask the demands of behaving and moving in peroration. Sometimes the music is simply incredibly difficult and seeing an artist overcome the pitfalls of producing a coherent performance is exciting enough. The real thrill is experiencing that in service of the piece rather than in service of the artist.

Things can go wrong, however. One of the important ways in which artists contribute to the audience's experience is how they, the artists, deal with mishap. This is connected to the overlooked connection not only empathetically but also physically between performer and audience, the key component of the value in the acoustic experience in music. Deal honestly with the stumble or the hindrance and an audience appreciates it; deal with it in good grace and with humour and the audience feel a strengthening of their connection and the value of the subsequent performance can improve. The opposite can poison the experience, though in unique circumstances great artistry might overcome it.

This all occurred to me in a week in which social media passed on tales of mishaps in central London performances. This time it had been a page turner falling foul of a pianist's temper in a song recital and the audience's gleeful reaction to a stage gag during an opera production so drowning the orchestra that the conductor had to re-start an aria. The abiding memory of these events is less what went wrong than how it was dealt with. I recall a couple of extreme examples in which opera performers have suffered injury during a performance or run of performances but, with voice intact and untouched, have gone on to perform making the unwarranted impediment into a virtue (I'm thinking of Robert Burt snapping a ligament during the Glyndebourne Fairy Queen or Joyce DiDonato (+ rest of cast, by default) performing in the Royal Opera's Barber of Seville in a wheelchair.

In such circumstances, the music - the work at hand - becomes less resonant than the manner of its delivery. This is a valuable thing to recognise as it reminds performer and audience alike that the re-creation of even the most familiar of repertory pieces is at the heart of the valued performance. It also signposts the way for the performer to deal with it: to acknowledge the peril and thrill of the situation on behalf of everyone in the room and yet, I suggest, to offer the composure and reassurance from the stage that brings an audience back to their experience through the work at hand.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Rough for Opera 14, Second Movement, Cockpit Theatre

Second Movement's Rough for Opera series is a vital part of London's operatic life-cycle. Of the spurt of showcase events throughout the capital in the past decade, Rough for Opera's is now something of a flagship, an exemplar. An established series, it exists as a platform apart from the work and artists on show. It also benefits from being professionally run, and from operating in a well-equipped theatre that can deal with manifold musical or dramatic whimsy.

This technical capability was conspicuously valuable for the first two works in a typically eclectic evening's programme. Two Sided Boy investigated the social pixelation of modern life, as a mother frets about her relationship with her son who is immersed in virtual reality. This piece shares technical and material themes with Nico Muhly's avatar-thriller Two Boys (ENO, 2011); the Q&A revealed ambitions for an unconventional additional role for mobile interaction with audience smartphones. Also in the first half, Anna Clock's Constellations created evocative sounds in tandem with Lauren Tata's live projection arrangements - imagine Olafur Eliason's Weather Project vibrating to a soundtrack.

After some discussion inside and outside the theatre, we returned for a more conventionally operatic offering, with Martin Ward's The Sinken Sun (pictured above). Putting the experience of a successful career writing for both lyric and straight theatrical stages, Martin (writing both music and text) has picked out an angle on his interest in the life of writer John Clare. This two hander takes a look at Clare from the perspective of the man and through the eyes of a contemporary reader, so opening up a point of view about the endurance of art, the communicability of spoken word - sung here, of course, the natural medium for the meter of Clare's text. With carefully prepared parts and good singing from the soprano (Billie Robson) and baritone (Paul Sheehan) and staging marked only with the most simple lighting and costume, the text and its rigorous setting were the constant focus. As pianist James Young pointed out, Martin Ward's music has a horizontal profile. The lyricism is in the lines. The harmony is rather wild, a reflection of the untamed countryside, the situation of text and opera, but the sung lines chart a course through it, aesthetically and narratively.

Song, stage and story may not be the operatic-component shooting match in 21st lyric theatre. The versatility - and reliability - of audio and visual projection is now a theatrical given. Additionally, the ubiquity of handheld devices and the reliability of connection mean that interaction may have some future in the theatre.

The challenge is to purpose this capability. The ever-present but unanswered question of showcase events, of which Rough for Opera is at the forefront, concerns the nature of opera itself. Yet "What is opera?" is actually a less interesting question than "What does this creative team consider opera to be?". Irrespective of the means to their end, it must be part of each creative team's working basis that they have a clear idea of the practical-aesthetic manner (as well as content) of how they connect with the audience. Rough for Opera have a sympathetic, open, interested and - judging fro comments and questions, informed - audience comprised not only of friends and followers of the performers; they also have the luxury of a clear-sighted mediator of the valuable Q&A sessions that succeed each performance, with Paul Barker finding value and questions alike in the work. The work on show at last night's typically provoking event stirred up the issue of the intent of each creative group's efforts once again and showed the importance of pursuing some sort of personal answers, if not consensus.