English Touring Opera – Opera that moves. And indeed it does. Hailing as I do from Yorkshire I am from extremely warm towards a company that seeks to bring the Operatic art form to audiences outside of London. The company also breaks out of the institution of the Opera House, touring halls, theatres and similar venues from Exeter to Durham, Malvern to Snape Maltings and everywhere in between – although I was disappointed to hear that despite there not being a major Opera production from any other companies in my hometown of Hull since I was a small child, the council and theatres there didn’t permit the tour to extend to the banks of the Humber (local friends – what can we do together about this scandal?).
Of course any English tour however outreach focused must include London, where I attended the performance of Handel’s Xerses on Saturday 8th October. This production will be travelling the country (alongside others) until early next year.
The ETO set up in London at the attractive yet intimate space of the Hackney Empire theatre. A pre-show talk with James Conway (Director of both this particular production and of ETO as a company) explained the basis of the 1940s interpretation, which was first put on to great acclaim in 2011. Conway presented an artistic ethos that focusses on this importance of the narrative story and taking seriously the characters of the operatic narrative, and this approach was effective in making believable the complex and potentially silly plot of this work. So many plots in Opera border on ridiculous and it is important to sustain them with dramatic commitment. Xerses did so, with a balanced and quirky lacing of humour. The famous opening aria Ombra mai fu (Under Thy Shade) remains beautiful, but is transformed into an extended pun as it is delivered to the ‘beloved Plane’ instead of a Plane Tree, simultaneously delivering a poignant comment on modern political leaders’ obsessions with aerial warfare. Sibling rivalry is rampant and extends to a slapstick bedroom scene between the warring sisters and an amusing but terrifyingly intense dynamic between the royal brothers, Xerses and Arsamenes.
The technical aspect of this production deserves special mention, with a set that was minimal without ever feeling lacking and lighting the balanced well the creation of mood and warmth with its role in guiding the focus of the audience to particular aspects of the staging and musical dialogues. This is particularly impressive for a company that tours.
The cast included some excellent singers, particularly Laura Mitchell as Romilda, Galina Averina as Atalanta and Clint van der Linde as Arsamenes. Averina delivered the most technically impressive soprano work, with the power in her vocal capacity used at appropriate musical opportunities and not simply for the sake of it. She crafted a character who though silly and spiteful was ultimately pitiable and relatable, which is not an easy task. Clint van der Linde successfully conveyed the deep conflict and pain of a man whose wilful and at times vindictive older brother is also his Lord and King. Although Julia Riley as Xerses noticeably lacked power and projection compared to the rest of the cast, the Act II duet between Xerses and Arsamenes was very special, both in terms of vocal technique and the masterful communications that were delivered through the music about the nature of fraternal relationships, the emotions of frustrated and intense love, and the experience of injustice each endures. For Arsamenes these are injustices of hierarchy and the precedence of his brother’s birth; for Xerses it is the injustice of unrequited love.
The presentation of the story was unfortunately slightly marred by issues of intelligibility. I heard a number of individuals discussing the issue of struggling to understand during the interval, and this has been picked up on in other reviews – despite the diction being some of the clearest and most precise I have heard. The English Touring Opera chooses not to use subtitles as much as possible, I assume because subtitling unavoidably detracts attention from stage action and often leads to a distracted or partial theatrical experience. However within the Hackney Empire space the diction of anything sung behind the middle of the stage was sadly lost, and even given my substantial experience of the classical voice there were times when I only was able to catch the libretto because of Handel’s continued use of text repetition. I would encourage those who are less confident in understanding the classical voice to make sure they read up on the storyline before attending to facilitate getting their head around any moments that are partially obscured in this way.
This raises a problem for classical music that is much more general, since I have recently come to realise that the vast majority of people find it extremely difficult to parse words from classical singing, however good the diction is. I have recently been sharing a great deal of performances with people who are not accustomed to listening to the classical voice, and passages that find crystal clear are completely unintelligible to them. Furthermore a Catch-22 situation is generated since it takes a great deal of effort and concentration for those less accustomed to classical song to parse words and meaning from it, which distracts them from the musical or theatrical content whilst also potentially detracting from their enjoyment of the overall experience. Given that those with lower exposure to classical music are a great part of ETO’s outreach and target audience, and these are the people who find it most difficult to interpret the sung texts, I conclude that despite laudable and understandable artistic ideals it may be of significant importance for the ETO to reconsider their approach to subtitling in future productions. For this tour I hope that the acoustics of the other venues will be a little kinder to both the cast and those experiencing the classical voice from a fresher perspective, and more broadly I hope that musicians can find creative ways to solve the conundrum of accessibility and maintaining an optimum experience of the classical voice.
I came away from the ETO production of Xerses with my confidence refreshed in the future of Opera sung in English. I was sincerely impressed by the passion and vision delivered by ETO Director James Conway in his pre-show talk, and am sympathetic to the many exceptional outreach projects for which the ETO is noteworthy.
In each location of the tour the company is providing a free workshop to secondary school children allowing them to watch a rehearsal and go backstage to understand what is involved in putting an opera together. My own students benefited from this in London, and returned more deeply enthused with opera as an art form and more aware of its particular challenges and complexities. Alongside the three baroque operas touring this season are performances of Bach’s St. John Passion, bringing local amateur choirs from diverse backgrounds (gospel, university, community) together with the ETO team. This project involves groups in music-making larger than themselves and is also an exploration of the meaning of the St. John Passion in today’s largely but not entirely secular context, where music’s origins and its destinations have become apparently separated. The director is especially keen on access and diversity, for those who will not have experienced this music before, and who will find emotional, intellectual and other levels of personal fulfilment and enrichment through the opportunity to perform and be exposed to it.
Amidst generalised lack of funding for operatic projects and almost hysterical uncertainty surrounding the future of the ENO there is real reason to fear for English-sung Opera in the present moment. However ETO’s fresh, grounded and democratic approach to the art-form has significantly alleviated my concerns. I may even be so bold as to suggest that, whilst the eyes of the musical community are focussed on the plight of larger and longer-standing organisations, the future of opera sung in English may be moving in a completely different and very welcome direction.