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Opera Republic(?) – Review: English Touring Opera – Tosca

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On Thursday 9th March I took ten Music GCSE student to see their first opera at Hackney Empire. To say these students are from a deprived social and educational context is an understatement – they live in a working-class area of London, and the demographic of their school shows that students available for Free School Meals, Pupil Premium is well above the national average (in fact 3-4 times the national average), whilst the number of students with English as a Foreign Language, Special Educational Needs and Disabilities is at a similar rate. I’ve had the absolute pleasure this year of leading their GCSE studies, and have found them to be absurdly talented in music. They are no less capable than students who will have many more opportunities than they have – one of the Y11s, for instance, has secured a scholarship to the Royal College of Music Saturday school.

I wanted to share my love of Opera with these students because I feel that Opera at its best stretches the musical and theatrical art forms to its limits. I wanted them to experience something that would be unlike anything they’d seen, and find out what their reaction was as much as anything else. From the outset I felt that this would be make or break. If their first experience was a bad one they wouldn’t come back a second time. I felt that top quality performance had to be combined with accessible prices and venue, and for that the English Touring Opera was the obvious choice. It also had to be something that could in some way give a reasonably meaningful flavour of this vast and diverse genre.

 

Tosca Exeter Northcott.jpg

Image Source : exeternorthcott.co.uk

exeternorthcott.co.uk

exeternorthcott.co.uk

The production for ETO’s Tosca was relatively simple (this is to be expected of a touring company for practical reasons). The stage was divided into levels which was sometimes effective, and at other times distracting. The smaller stage size (compared with other opera venues) did sometimes feel inhibiting in terms of action. There was less opportunity for movement and use of space during the deliver of arias, resulting in a somewhat more ‘recital’-esque feel, with less sense of integration between the theatrical/acting component of the opera and its musical presentation.

The singing was utterly top class, especially from Tosca herself. As there is a split cast and I didn’t manage to get my hands on a programme that evening I can’t be entirely sure, but I think we had the pleasure of Laura Mitchell. Her expression and the scope of her sound were exquisite. The set really came into its own for Tosca’s final fall, with the extreme height created producing an even more compelling ending than usual, although it wasn’t apparent why the guards would stand at the foot of a ladder and make no attempt to prevent her jump for a good number of minutes before it actually occurred.

The relationship between Tosca and Cavaradossi was youthful, playful and exciting. It was very accessible to the young audience I brought with me, being very much alive and believable rather than formal or scripted as can sometimes be the case in Opera. Scarpia’s coldness made good sense of his chilling behaviour, and at times his gestures were shockingly, blackly humourous.

For people who enjoy opera this is a production well worth going to. Moreover, for those who are new to Opera it is also an excellent introduction.

Going to the Opera with these students and seeing it through their eyes opened mine to what Opera can be like in an entirely new way. I had to make an number of decisions about how to prepare them and how much. I decided, against much popular advice, to prepare them minimally. I wanted the music and the genre to speak for itself, and I was conscious not to over-hype the experience or make the students feel in any way that they couldn’t be totally honest with me about how they found it, especially if they genuinely didn’t enjoy it.

Since the story of Tosca is such a rollercoaster I told the students how it goes up to the arrest only, and left the ending for them to discover as Puccini intended it. For other operas I probably would have given them the whole story, but it was a great feeling to watch 16-year-old boys jump out of their seats in horror when La Tosca grabbed the knife in the middle of Act II!

The students did all find Act I very confusing and a little boring, which is not surprising as Tosca Act I is largely ‘scene-setting’. I had to explain it to them a little more in the interval, but this shows how the sometimes overly-complicated plots and backstories of opera can be a genuine barrier. Act II re-engaged the students through its fast pace and action, and by Act III they were visibly overwhelmed by the music.

I sensed a mixed response at the end. Some students were uncharacteristically quiet and reflective. Others were excited simply by looking into the pit and seeing Double Basses and Tubular Bells for the first time, whilst a number of students commented with awe on how “loud” the singing and orchestra were. They couldn’t believe it had been achieved without microphones. After this my colleagues reported that they students were buzzing around school for a good week afterwards, telling their friends about the Opera. On the night a few of the students asked me how and where they could find cheap opera tickets, and if they were allowed to go on their own!

Tosca ETO.jpg

Image Source : englishtouringopera.org.uk

Much of the students’ ability to access and engage with this production was a direct result of the involvement of the English Touring Opera Education department. ETO puts on a large number of free pre-show talks and runs schemes for local singers, schools and children to get involved with opera as they move across the country. I cheekily contacted Education and Community Coordinator, Daniel Coelho, who went above and beyond for our students, even arranging for two members of the cast to speak to them ahead of their experience. Although unfortunately due to a traffic incident we were unable to attend this company’s dedication to opening the opera experience to all is at a level unrivalled by any scheme I have seen, not least because it reaches across the nation rather than being anchored to a specific opera house or theatre. The students arrived in time for the public pre-show talk and I am grateful to Director Blanche McIntyre for avoiding spoilers throughout! I asked her to advise our students how to cope if they were finding the opera difficult. Her response was kind and authentic. She reflected that people often make opera out to be more difficult than it actually is, and emphasised the importance of the story and emotions. Overall, she encouraged them to sit back and listen to the music, especially if everything else became ‘too much’.

I am thoroughly grateful to English Touring Opera for their commitment to high quality opera, low prices and their genuine ethos of outreach and education. Other companies, larger and wealthier and better recognised, could learn a great deal from them.


Alternative Futures for Opera sung in English? – Review: English Touring Opera – Xerses

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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.

 

Xerxes

Image Source: http://www.ft.com

 

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.