Mezzo Rosie Clifford, The Bridgetower Quartet and I performed three wonderful summer sets at the picturesque Phyllis Court while the Henley Regatta rowed on behind us. What a beautiful summer occasion. Huge Thanks to Opera Prelude and Phyllis Court and to Annabel Vere, for her beautiful photographs.
We performed operatic duets, arias and string numbers to a very appreciative audience, with only a few interruptions from race results and steamer horns!
So...the cat is out of the bag.
Over the past 5 months I have been working on a new adaptation of La Traviata. Not only that, but after some intense auditioning I also won the part of Violetta - courtesan or rather, strip club beauty, in this new, highly charged, politically and sexually, version.
Creating an adaptation of any opera is a fine balancing act, and the only way to keep all the plates spinning is to start and end every decision with the core of the original story.
La Traviata is essentially a tale of perceived class difference and hypocrisy. Violetta is acceptable as an object of desire, and a part of the economy of lust, supporting wealthy older men as both an accessory and status symbol. However, as a legitimate love interest, a woman with needs an desires of her own - she is a dangerous upper-class infiltrator.
Keeping this core idea, what problems does La Traviata present if we transfer it to a modern day setting? If Violetta is a stripper, serving the richest and most influential men in contemporary society, which elements of the story seem outdated and unworkable?
The biggest issue for me was 'the 'daughter'. The idea that Germont's daughter's marriage might be at risk due to his son's dalliances seems too dated and unlikely, but also not 'big' enough. If a modern day man refuses to marry a woman on account of her family one might suggest that he isn't worth marrying in the first place... So what can we replace her with? What is so dangerous about Alfredo and Violetta's liaison?
The answer seemed obvious. In a world with a 24 hour news cycle, the danger is not the daughter's, but the father's. Germont's own career is on the line if the trail from Violetta leads back to him. A fitting idea is Germont is a politician as this just highlights his hypocrisy - people like Violetta are exactly the people he should be helping out of poverty and dependence; and he's happy to, but not if his son's standing and, more importantly, his own career are at stake.
There was another niggle for me. Researching for a lecture on Donizetti's heroines, I had come across the following quotation of Caroline Crampton of The New Statesman: "In many 19th-century operas, terrible things happen to a woman, she sings about them, and then dies. Sometimes, for a bit of variety, she will go mad prior to expiring in a grisly fashion. At the end, the principal male characters – who are likely all responsible in some way for her demise – will stand around her body and sing about what a tragedy it all is."
The idea of bringing Alfredo and Germont back into the opera as Violetta dies, in order that the audience might forgive them, just seemed so wrong. I didn't want them to be forgiven - either by Violetta or the audience. I wanted the audience to be outraged and Violetta to die angry. Anger is sometimes what changes things.
Now it was time to start work. Creating an idiomatic libretto that rhymes and is totally singable is no small task. There would be a lot of scenes like this ahead of me:
The libretto will be revealed on September 27th (and no more spoilers), but it was a big journey to turn Verdi's opera into a four-hander. A lot of cutting, rewriting and imagination later and we had this (excuse the added surname - printing error!) :
As part of WhoAreWe? at The Tate Exchange I worked for a week creating a mini concept performance of Menotti's The Consul, while interacting with guests and fellow artists to discuss themes of displacement, life as a refugee, and the powerful, destructive force of bureaucracy.
Here is a piece I wrote about the experience...
“Generally art comes after dinner when you’ve had a few cocktails and you’ve had your dinner, then you go to the theater or you go to the opera or you go to see a painting show because then you’re also going to get a cocktail at that time. You go to an opening and you look at the other ladies. It is always sort of a social function. In a certain way, I would say that we are the after-dinner mint of society rather than being the bread of society. Actually, I think it is very important that people, even business people, should realize that, first of all, they use us all the time, from morning until night. They get up in the morning, they go to take a shower and they whistle a tune, and who wrote that tune? A composer. They choose a necktie. Who designed that necktie? Somebody who studied even minor art. I mean, it’s not art, but still it is somebody who studied art. They go into their very modern office which was designed by an architect who has seen the paintings of Mondrian, certainly, and so on. And his wife has to choose a dress, and who has designed the dress? It is an artist, whose pencil they used. Practically everything that we touch or use in modern life has some connection with art. And I think that is very important that people should realize how much they need art in their life.” – Gian Carlo Menotti
Menotti wanted audiences to see art as more than a social event; as ‘the bread’ of society as he
calls it. Nowhere is this more clearly expressed than in his political thriller The Consul. Written in the wake of the Second World War, as borders sprang up across a divided Europe shared among the victors, in which people were left stranded and stateless, the opera tells the terrifying story of Magda Sorel, whose life is threatened by the bureaucracy that prevents her family from leaving the country and finding safety elsewhere.
The opera highlights the pain caused by treating people as merely cogs in a bureaucratic machine. At no time in the 60 years since it was composed has it seemed quite as relevant as it does today.
Magda’s aria has never sounded so poignant:
To this we’ve come,
That men withhold the world from men
No ship, no shore for him who drowns at sea,
No home nor grave for him who dies on land.
To this we’ve come,
That man be born a stranger upon god’s Earth
That he be chosen without a chance for choice;
That he be hunted without the hope of refuge.
To this we’ve come. To this we’ve come
Opera and Conversation
In many ways opera undermines and defies conversation and communication. The volume, the power, the awkward height of the sounds, the difficulty of the music, the language barriers, the Opera House with its distance and darkness, its pretensions and unwritten rules; all these aspects of the Art make it a form to be marvelled at and exulted by
audiences, rather than conserved as a real means of engagement. Yet, for one week we brought the operatic medium into a shared space and asked the audience to converse with us – to learn our music and to share their own with us. This was a thrilling project and we did not know where exactly it would take us. There is, however, something fitting about opera as a medium through which to explore and condemn ‘hostile environments.’ The barrage of sound and the sheer vocal power of an operatic performer can be terrifying in its intensity. The pitch and volume, the frequencies the voice hits, make it an inescapable noise – almost like the cry of a baby – it demands attention. Often the conventional spaces in which opera is performed can seem daunting and hostile to those not learned in their etiquette.
In our first improvisations, we shifted Menotti’s music and text, making it more accessible and adding a sense of immediacy to it. We interspersed operatic segments with conversation as well as confrontation, provoking and shocking those we engaged with. We explored how this theatrical and almost cruel assault on guests and collaborators alike might heighten and change their relationship with the power of the sung text. We could not have predicted the effect we were to have on some audience members by taking opera outside of the opera house and outside of the typical audience-performer relationship.
During the week we saw tears, heard stories, saw shock, heard people’s horror and were constantly encouraged to take our work to more people.
Here are a few audience reactions:
Audience reaction 1 – On our first day, I talked to an ex-British Army officer, originally born in Zimbabwe. He was overwhelmed by the power of the voice as a vehicle for drama. He related his own experiences dealing with racism and his fear and disgust at the recent ‘Windrush scandal.’ He was surprised at the content of Menotti’s opera, and how powerfully it related to present events. We talked at length about how history seems to repeat itself, and how, perhaps, only Art with its power to move people and create empathy, can break the cycle. He shared his own music, writing a lullaby from Zimbabwe for us.
Audience reaction 2 – A Ukrainian man I talked with was fascinated by the politics of the piece and celebrated the work. He insisted angrily that we could not change anything though music. We talked at length about this. I agreed that opera was an unlikely vehicle for direct political change. Yet, I was able to point out how effective opera had been throughout the nineteenth century at confronting those in power with their own hypocrisy. We discussed how powerful the human voice is as an instrument and how inescapable the operatic sound is. While the words and the story work on the brain, the melody tugs on something much more primordial. We talked about our lullaby project, and I expressed how this represented that primordial, trans-continental element of music. We sing to our babies – no matter where we are from. We finally agreed to disagree – but this direct exchange of ideas could not happen in an opera-house context, and is exactly what the WhoAreWe? Project was supposed to elicit.
Audience reaction 3 – On our final day, I talked with a regular opera-goer. He was adamant that the work must be extended; a full performance must be created, and it should be taken to a bigger space. I was keen to explain that we really wanted to engage with our audience, and that a more conventional space might stifle this project. He suggested more open art spaces, such as the Barbican, or South Bank. He saw that the work could be both a moving narrative performance and a launch-pad for discussion and debate. He felt that this direct and controversial voice was exactly what the opera world needed to shake aging audiences out of their comfort zones and force them to see their political views in new lights.
As an artist, one of the most exciting aspects of this project was developing ways in which to share Menotti’s music, not only with audiences, but with the Community Gospel Choir members we worked with, many of whom had never experienced opera. Many people see opera and opera singers as cold, elite and un-singable. We proved that this was not the case. Hearing voices of all different kinds bringing Menotti’s score to life, proved to me that opera really can be for everyone. The choir members threw themselves into the music and into engaging with audiences and telling their own stories. They truly brought the project to life.
As a performer, I found that embodying a woman whose life has been torn apart by bureaucracy but who refuses to lose her dignity, both empowering and exhausting. While fighting the urge to make her a figure of despair and pity, the strength I gave her often, ironically, brought me to tears. As a personal journey, the work brought me closer to the struggle of refugees, and the draining terror of fighting for just a small space in which to live free. The desperation to not weaken oneself and remain strong in the face of adversity can create a state of psychosis in which the need to cry battles the determination not to do so.
Masterclasses are strange things.
Who are they for? The audience - who want a sneaky peak at what it is to attempt to master a musical craft, or to revel in the discomfort of the student under pressure; The teacher - hoping to bask in the glory of nit-picking at the student or to revel in the joy of passing on a snippet of golden knowledge, and watch a performer grow; The student - hoping to build their craft, their confidence, and their repertoire; or all three?
Masterclasses are very strange environments - part classroom, part concert hall - they are pressure cookers and can work wonders or wreak havoc. This April, I was lucky enough to sing in two masterclasses that really opened my eyes and taught me excellent tips about singing and about musicality.
The first took place in the cosy, but much maligned, lecture room at the Cadogan Hall, at a very daunting 10:30am. This intimate space really enhances the opportunity to learn and makes the masterclass a real teaching experience. The audience is a fly on the wall of the practice room.
Most importantly, the masterclass was taken by the phenomenal Janis Kelly. As much an actress as a singer, with a reputation as an inspiring and career changing teacher, the chance to work with her was a real gift.
I performed E Susanna non vien...Dove sono. This aria comes from the second half of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro and captures the Countess' heartbreak, as well as her determination not to despair, but to beat her cheating husband at his own game.
Janis created a safe atmosphere in which to play with vocal technique. We discussed posture and getting more width in the rib cage, so that the body filled with sound as the music grew in volume. Rather than risk pushing sound out, Janis showed me how to pull sound in and fill myself with passion and power. This was a great pointer and one I shall work on in the coming months.
We also looked at the drama of the aria - how do you keep a sense of presence and urgency in such formal and restrained music? She directed me, using the space and creating the events of the opera in my mind's eye.
Finally we looked at breathing - keeping the whole mechanism flexible and flowing, with air moving at the right pressure and speed. It was incredible to see her sing and the way she used her body as an instrument.
The second masterclass took on a very different guise. It took place at the beautiful and hipster Shoreditch Treehouse, as part of Debut Opera's new Masterclass series. It was also, unusually, led by a world-renowned accompanist, rather than a singer - Iain Burnside. This took the pressure off fractionally, as I knew I would be sharing the scrutiny with my wonderful duo partner, Panaretos Kyriazidis.
I had chosen to sing Song of the Nightclub Proprietress by Madeleine Dring and I hear and army by Samuel Barber.
We started with the comedy number; playing it for laughs and interacting outrageously with the Sunday afternoon audience enjoying their drinks.
Then Iain laid his hands on it.
We made the whole performance more internal, and looked at key words, and how the alliteration in Betjamin's poem can be best brought out. We talked about the character's inner tragedy, and how sometimes, humour comes from simply being more natural and capturing the truth of a text and a situation. We pared our performance right back to excellent audience feedback.
Next we took on the Barber. This is a real barnstormer of a piece. We looked at cleaning up rhythms and at finding times to bring down the volume and power of the piece and make it more mysterious. Iain worked with Panaretos to find new colours in the piano part.
This was a fantastically insightful masterclass which really got me thinking about the choices we have to make as performers and how those can depend on a venue, a time of day or even a mood.
My fortnight of masterclasses was immensely enjoyable and hugely helpful - but it also taught me great respect for those who have international musical careers, but who take the time to go back to the roots of classical music and share their wisdom with the next generation.
This morning saw the second outing for my Donizetti and Jane Austen Lecture...Sense & Sensibility or Sensibility and Sense. For those interested, I thought it would be nice to publish the essay behind the lecture here, along with links to some of the videos etc. mentioned therein.
Sense & Sensibility or Sensibility & Sense
In this lecture I want to explore the idea of sentimentality and emotional response in the literature and opera of the 18th-mid 19th centuries. Authors and composers of the period alike, seem torn between two contrary beliefs. They seem certain, at times, that sentiment and feeling are the moral backbone of society, but change their minds wildly all of a sudden and argue that art that seeks a hyper emotional response is silly and has no place in the real
I will start by exploring some of Donizetti’s most famous works, looking at the role of reading, sentiment and being guided by the heart rather than the head in his comedies, and his tragedies. I will then seek to compare this dichotomy in Donizetti’s canon to a similar pattern emerging in English Literature, as the great tomes of sentiment penned by Richardson and his contemporaries, give way to the romantic comedies of manners which undermine the notion of wallowing emotion as epitomised in the work of Jane Austen.
If all of that has left you wondering what in the world I am talking about; perhaps Norina’s aria from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale:
Here Norina laughs herself silly over the romantic novel of knights in shining armour pining over their lovers that she is reading, claiming boldly that she too knows how to wind men around her little finger. She shows an amazing lack of sympathy. Rather than a doe-eyed emotional or sentimental reaction to the text, she seems to interpret it as a pre feminism feminist call to action – ‘women, confound and control your men’ – something which she proceeds to do for the rest of the opera.
There is something wonderful but strange in this refreshing response to romantic literature. Wonderful in it’s potential for comedy and the power it gives to a heroine, but strange in that, within one of the most over-dramatic and flamboyant forms of theatre, we are presented with the idea that an emotional response to art is not a useful one. Norina’s flippant response to the world of romance appears to be the one we are supposed to have.
Furthermore, a strange tug is created when her lover, the hapless and aptly names Ernesto (too earnest indeed), wails his heart out in lyric romantic style:
He laments his friend’s betrayal and the loss of his love, but the audience watching can do so such thing – despite the formal and tragic intensity of the music. We know that he has not been betrayed and the joke is not on him, but on Don Pasquale. While the music draws us towards sentimentality, being in on the joke, we are unable to wallow with the quasi-hero. His sentimentality takes on a sense of overblown silliness, despite its lyric beauty.
A similar pattern can be seen in Donizetti’s earlier opera L’Elisir d’Amor. We meet Adina reading the story or Tristan and Isolde:
She hardly takes the powerful story of passion, violence and ultimately death in the way Wagner does! Rather than show sympathy or empathy or react with sentiment and emotion, she turns around quite matter-of-factly and jokes: “That potion sounds great, I wonder who makes it?” One is almost reminded of the famous Victoria Wood interpretation of a trip to Macbeth “Some terrible woman kept washing her hands saying she'd never get them clean. I felt like shouting 'try swarfega!'”
The story Adina is reading elicits a practical and satirical response from the heroine, while the hapless hero falls for the story hook-line-and-sinker and vows that he must immediately find a love potion just like Isolde’s. His naïve sentimentalism leads to the subsequently chaotic plot in which he is duped into buying cheap wine; selling himself off to the army in order to afford the pleasure. Only to be rescued by Adina who has an entirely practical solution for winning back his love.
Too practical to believe in fairy-tales of love potions, worldly wise Adina tells the quack doctor Dulcamara that her feminine wiles are all she needs to woo a man. He’s quick to agree.
Once more we see swooning at the power of romantic fiction being sent up, and yet, the most powerful musical moment in the opera comes in a very different guise:
This is one of those arias that is forever taken out of context, assumed to be tragic in its passion, and wallowed in. A little like O mio babbino caro – forever assumed to be about a dead baby – I had an argument with an opera lover about it the other day, they simply could not believe it was not tragic in any way at all. It’s not hard to hear why such arias are misinterpreted. The passionate legato and the enveloping tenor sound, the mournful bassoon gives a plaintive rustic tone at the start. The focus on the word ‘lagrima’ throughout gives the idea that the tears in the aria are the most important things; when actually Nemorino is rejoicing in having seen his beloved cry for him. The music leads us down one path of emotional response, while the content and the context warn us to beware of beauty and sentiment. This is the double bind of comic opera. Beautiful and luxurious music demands an emotional and sensory response, and Donizetti undoubtedly would have wanted this moment in the opera to be an unadulterated pocket of pure feeling; and yet throughout the rest of the show he mocks this very meat that literally feeds him, asking, as he does, that we respond to art without losing our minds in the process, and sending up excessive sentiment.
Donizetti tragedies (and those of his contemporaries) on the other hand seem to cry out for the opposite audience reaction in every way – asking for a level of emotional response that a modern audience might find difficult to give.
As Caroline Crampton of the New Statesman put it in her largely positive review of the Royal Opera House’s recent feminist re-imagining of Lucia:
In many 19th-century operas, terrible things happen to a woman, she sings about them, and then dies. Sometimes, for a bit of variety, she will go mad prior to expiring in a grisly fashion. At the end, the principal male characters – who are likely all responsible in some way for her demise – will stand around her body and sing about what a tragedy it all is.
In a scene which lasts almost 15 minutes Lucia, covered in blood emerges from her wedding bedroom having murdered her unwanted husband in a fit of madness. Having lost her mind she shocks the wedding party by enacting out an imagined wedding with her true love Edgardo, before imagining her own brother (the villain of the piece) to be him. The next thing we hear in the opera is that she has died of ‘madness’ though we’re not told exactly how.
Donizetti provides a pathetic spectacle and asks his audience to suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in romantic tragedy, overcome with pity, sympathy, sentiment and grief. He asks us to share the response of the assembled party of wedding guests confronted with the spectacle of the beautiful mad girl.
While it is hard to tell how much of Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor Donizetti or his librettist Salvadore Cammarano really digested or even read before embarking on recreating this Scottish Literary Tragedy as Italian opera, it is interesting to note Scott’s description of Lucy’s (Lucia’s) temperament:
Yet her passiveness of disposition was by no means owing to an indifferent or unfeeling mind. Left to the impulse of her own taste and feelings, Lucy Ashton was peculiarly accessible to those of a romantic cast. Her secret delight was in the old legendary tales of ardent devotion and unalterable affection, chequered as they so often are with strange adventures and supernatural horrors. This was her favoured fairy realm, and here she erected her aerial palaces. But it was only in secret that she laboured at this delusive though delightful architecture. In her retired chamber, or in the woodland bower which she had chosen for her own, and called after her name, she was in fancy distributing the prizes at the tournament, or raining down influence from her eyes on the valiant combatants: or she was wandering in the wilderness with Una, under escort of the generous lion; or she was identifying herself with the simple yet noble-minded Miranda in the isle of wonder and enchantment.
Lucy is a romantic fiction addict, drawn in by sentimentality. Unlike Norina and Adina she meets a sticky end as she becomes embroiled in her own romantic tragedy. Her reading has taught her to luxuriate in her misery rather than teaching her a practical way out of such a mess.
We see a similar outpouring of over sentimentality in Donizetti’s La Favorite. The story of Fernand and Leonor, the loving monk and the King’s mistress who through a series of unfortunate and coincidental events, marry, only to be torn apart by Fernand’s jealousy, before Leonor, at last forgiven, dies beneath the cross of the monastery of ‘exhaustion’.
Perhaps it is the ludicrous plots and sentimental absurdity that has made Donizetti tragedies so much less palatable than his comedies and histories for modern audiences. The beautiful music is gorgeous and enjoyable but the ludicrously long and elaborate solo set pieces become rather tedious if you are too modern-minded to really submit yourself to the catharsis of the sentimental over-emotional minefield on which these dramas are enacted.
La Favorite has fallen out of the standard repertory and even Lucia di Lammermoor is barely performed in comparison with Donizetti’s big comedies, and in past years huge directorial liberties have been taken with the plot to try and rationalise it, feminise it, provide backstory and reasons for the madness and death. Particularly in Katie Mitchell’s lates production for the Royal Opera House, which has been equally lambasted and lauded. Just before we take our break I’ll leave you with the ever amusing comments of Rupert Christiansen on the matter:
Stroppy, duplicitous, and sexually aggressive, Mitchell makes Lucia a curiously modern figure, more Ruth Ellis than the fey Romantic heroine depicted in the music. Donizetti and his librettist quite carefully and plausibly chart her descent into madness – but Mitchell has chosen to ignore this, inventing a gratuitous plot line in which Lucia is desperately trying to abort Edgardo’s baby, enlisting the help of her maid Alisa and some kinky sex games in disposing of her wretched blameless husband.
Some might find this intriguing; I found it merely perverse – and heavy-handed too. As with most of Mitchell’s recent work, the audience’s imagination is allowed no leeway: everything has to be spelt out literally. The spectre that haunts Lucia’s dreams wanders ominously through every scene; the love duet in the second scene becomes graphically (and ludicrously) sexual; and our noses are rubbed in the grisly details of Lucia’s miscarriage.
Trying to make sense of a Donizetti tragedy does not really work. The Norina, or Adina response is not the one we need to have to truly enjoy a Donizetti tragedy. We need to indulge in some raw sensibility.
And...if you were wondering what I meant about misinterpretations of O mio babbino caro...I recommend watching this:
An obsession with how, and what to read is something many of Jane Austen’s heroines share. It seems Donizetti was not alone in being unsure of the value and use of overly romantic, fantastical and sentimental literature. In this second half of the lecture I want to explore how Austen’s novels simultaneously praise and upbraid the Romantic and Gothic literature that preceded and coincided with her own works. I want to show how, like Donizetti, Austen celebrates story-telling while simultaneously putting it in its place in the real-world order of things as something not to be mistaken for real life.
This is perhaps most clearly shown in the actions of Catherine Morland, the heroine of Jane’s first (and last) novel, Northanger Abbey. I say first, and last as she completed it in 1803, but it was not published until after her death in 1817. Catherine is in love with Mr Tilney, she is also in love with reading, especially the Gothic horrors of The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Ratcliffe. Fortunately for Catherine, Mr Tilney is also a Ratcliffe fan, and being possessed of a sense of humour he decides to have a little fun at Catherine’s expense, describing in great detail the ghost story that might befall her in her bedroom in Northanger Abbey that very night:
“No, certainly. We shall not have to explore our way into a hall dimly lighted by the expiring embers of a wood fire—nor be obliged to spread our beds on the floor of a room without windows, doors, or furniture. But you must be aware that when a young lady is (by whatever means) introduced into a dwelling of this kind, she is always lodged apart from the rest of the family. While they snugly repair to their own end of the house, she is formally conducted by Dorothy, the ancient housekeeper, up a different staircase, and along many gloomy passages, into an apartment never used since some cousin or kin died in it about twenty years before. Can you stand such a ceremony as this? Will not your mind misgive you when you find yourself in this gloomy chamber—too lofty and extensive for you, with only the feeble rays of a single lamp to take in its size—its walls hung with tapestry exhibiting figures as large as life, and the bed, of dark green stuff or purple velvet, presenting even a funereal appearance? Will not your heart sink within you?”
“Oh! But this will not happen to me, I am sure.”
“How fearfully will you examine the furniture of your apartment! And what will you discern? Not tables, toilettes, wardrobes, or drawers, but on one side perhaps the remains of a broken lute, on the other a ponderous chest which no efforts can open, and over the fireplace the portrait of some handsome warrior, whose features will so incomprehensibly strike you, that you will not be able to withdraw your eyes from it. Dorothy, meanwhile, no less struck by your appearance, gazes on you in great agitation, and drops a few unintelligible hints. To raise your spirits, moreover, she gives you reason to suppose that the part of the abbey you inhabit is undoubtedly haunted, and informs you that you will not have a single domestic within call. With this parting cordial she curtsies off—you listen to the sound of her receding footsteps as long as the last echo can reach you—and when, with fainting spirits, you attempt to fasten your door, you discover, with increased alarm, that it has no lock.”
“Oh! Mr. Tilney, how frightful! This is just like a book! But it cannot really happen to me. I am sure your housekeeper is not really Dorothy. Well, what then?”
Sure enough, that night Catherine’s imagination leads her to fear not only a chest in her room, but a cabinet of a similar description to the one Mr Tilney outlines, in which she finds a scroll of papers, only to discover in the morning that they are laundry receipts. Her novelistic fantasies then lead her to believe that Mr Tilney’s father is keeping his death wife locked up in her apartments like a wild animal. This is, of course, the plot of a later famous work by Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre). It’s almost as though Austen lightly teases the gothic romances of the previous century, while Bronte uses Jane Austen’s fantastical silly plot to compose a great work of gothic romance.
Regardless of this, Austen’s heroine, Catherine, is proved exceptionally foolish. While Austen goes to great pains to exonerate novel reading, she seems to have much to say about how to read and the usefulness of such reading for living in the real world. Furthermore, by placing all of this reading within a novel, she too, like Donizetti, plays with our notions of what art is and why we need it.
But why the obsession with how to read, and reading’s value? We know that Jane herself was an avid reader of all manner of fiction, with a particular love of Burney and Richardson. In fact, her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, wrote that her knowledge of the works of Samuel Richardson “was such as no one is likely again to acquire . . . Every circumstance narrated in Sir Charles Grandison, all that was said or done in the cedar parlour, was familiar to her; and the wedding days of [characters like] Lady L. and Lady G. were as well remembered as if they had been living friends.” Many scholars also argue that Austen’s most famous work Pride and Prejudice takes its name from a speech given by Dr. Lyster in one of the final episodes in Burney’s Cecelia.
The whole of this unfortunate business, said Dr Lyster, has been the result of PRIDE and PREJUDICE. […] if to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you will also owe their termination.'
Richardson and Burney are often considered the father and mother of the modern novel, and Austen their daughter. Yet in many ways their styles could not be more different.
The lengthy, single-minded novels of Burney and Richardson, in which a single female is beset by attacks to her virtue, like Donizetti’s far fetched tragedies, have barely withstood the test of time. However, we forget that, even at the time of publication they were pretty over the top and while very widely read, they were also very widely snubbed.
Pamela, Richardson’s first epic tells the story of a virtuous maid who is beset by advances from her noble employer in the wake of his wife’s death. Pamela holds out against him, until he finally proposes marriage and all ends well. Richardson’s novels were published serially, and were as popular in their time as television series such as Game of Thrones, or House of Cards. While modern day audiences take to Twitter to express their wonder at the latest instalment of their favourite Netflix saga, there are tales of churches ringing their bells for Pamela’s fictional wedding to her would be rapist. Reader reactions to both Pamela, and the tragic epic that Richard penned next, Clarissa, were sentimental in the extreme. There are accounts of ladies swooning when Clarissa is finally raped by her pursuer, the evil Lovelace, and of grown men going into spasms of grief at her death. However, there were also contemporary critics, who saw all these reactions as preposterous, and the stories themselves as virtue signalling tomes of exaggeration, that were thinly veiled titillation posturing as moral medicine.
Fielding even wrote an entire novel in response to Pamela, his Shamela of 1741, sees the heroine of Richardson’s novel exposed as a wicked ex-prostitute snaring her poor master into bonds of marriage. His satire teaches a very different set of morals for women:
I received your last Letter with infinite Pleasure, and am convinced it will be your own Fault if you are not married to your Master, and I would advise you now to take no less Terms. But, my dear Child, I am afraid of one Rock only, That Parson Williams, I wish he was out of the Way. A Woman never commits Folly but with such Sort of Men, as by many Hints in the Letters I collect him to be: but, consider my dear Child, you will hereafter have Opportunities sufficient to indulge yourself with Parson Williams, or any other you like. My Advice therefore to you is, that you would avoid seeing him any more till the Knot is tied. Remember the first Lesson I taught you, that a married Woman injures only her Husband, but a single Woman herself. I am in hopes of seeing you a great Lady,
Already authors were disputing the value of works such as Richardson’s, their black and white moral certainties, their depictions of complete virtue or utter vice.
Perhaps what is most enduring about Austen’s novels, what has led to so many adaptations, films, Television series, is that they are very, very real. While the nice girls of Austen’s novels do seem to always reap the rewards of good marriages to wealthy men they love, they are not without their foibles…pride, prejudice, hyper active, imaginations, being too easily persuaded, romantic fantasies, etc. Austen is dedicated to exploring relationships as they truly are, and from that comes genuine and lasting humour.
o what has all of this to do with opera? Well…what we see is the emergence at the end of the eighteenth century and the start of the 19th, is a new freedom for art to satirise itself and command a new sort of audience response. This is not to say that sentimentality was being done away with, but rather, alongside the poignant, the horrid, the sentimental and gothic, was arising a new voice in literature and opera that asked for a different audience or reader response. Rather than the standard idea of art as a means of catharsis, experiencing such high emotion and sentiment as to keep you sane in real life, art is becoming a window to real life, which is far more complicated, far more populated, and really rather funny.
In Donizetti and Austen we see some of the first attempts at real artistic truth: a new form of art that frees the reader to use their sense and not only their sensibility to appreciate and judge the characters with whom they are presented.
The Royal Albert Hall is always an exciting place to go, and never more so than when a show you co-wrote and starred in is nominated for and Olivier Award. By now most readers will know that we didn't win, however, competing against two sensational productions from The Royal Opera House we knew we couldn't lose, and it really was a fantastic experience.
The Oliviers is a real celebration of the diversity, quality and magi of London's most entertaining, moving and thought-provoking theatre.
Here are a few pictures and snippets of the night:
When I first sat down outside a coffee shop in Highbury and Islington for a quiet latté with Adam Spreadbury-Maher, Artistic Director of the King's Head Theatre, I could not have dreamt that in just under two years time I would be attending the nominees' reception for the UK's most prestigious theatre awards, The Oliviers, as the co-writer and star of a show that had just been nominated for Best New Opera Production.
Our re-imagining of La Bohème is a passionate and provocative retelling that speaks to modern life, and which celebrates the timelessness of not only Puccini's music, but his characters. The entitled young white men, Rodolpho and Marcello, 'struggling' in the arts but with cash to fall back on; and the penniless women, Mimi and Musetta, whom they love, and who genuinely have to fight for existence - dependent on others.
Mimi's poignant death in Puccini's original is a social disgrace. TB was a disease that killed the poor who could not eat, or heat their homes, and who lived in squalor. While it might seem controversial to reinterpret her as a heroin user, killed by her addiction, this is a perfect mirror. Addiction is a social disease that we try to turn our backs on. It is often caused by desperation and a feeling of hopelessness, felt by those whom society rejects, or who fall through the cracks in the system. It results in homelessness and isolation, and turns its victims into social pariahs in much the same way TB did over a hundred years ago.
To be nominated for an Olivier for telling this story through Puccini's wonderful score is an honour, and it also shows what small companies can achieve through opera when they choose to be bold and tell stories that really affect audiences and pull on the heart strings.
I would like to thank everyone who was involved with this production, from the dedicated stage manager to the excellent casts; the creative team to the box office and behind the scenes admin gods and goddesses. Good luck to us on April 8th!
Last night was the night. Panaretos Kyriazidis (MD), Helena Jackson (Associate Director) and I were at the Off West End Awards to see if the production of Tosca which I co-wrote and starred in would pick up the Off West End Award for Best Opera Production. We were up against some excellent and fierce competition - Hampstead Garden Opera's critically acclaimed production of L'Incoronazione di Poppea and Baseless Theatre's revolutionary site specific reworking of Cosi fan tutte. Whoever would come out on top, the vision and dedication it takes to create and perform in accessible and interesting new opera productions should not be underestimated. It takes an incredible amount of hard work and talent to reimagine well-known opera's successfully - but perhaps more than either of those, it takes bravery.
Opera can be a bit of a 'sacred cow.' In the past 30 years, we've seen the magical halo that protected Shakespeare from adaptation melt away, and the bard has never been so relevant or so popular. You just have to look at Nicholas Hytner's Julius Caesar, currently playing to sell out audience's at The Bridge Theatre to see that; or to go back to the naughties and watch Baz Luhrmann's iconic Romeo and Juliet - the film that made Leonardo da Caprio's name. None of these mad impositions have undermined the Globe's beautiful traditional approach. There really is room for both!
Yet still, slicing away at opera, paring it back so it can fit into smaller venues and modern costumes, and can be produced on less eye-watering budgets, is often frowned upon by industry aficionados.
I often wonder if they think fringe opera is somehow trying to undermine or destroy them?
Nothing could be further from the truth. Fringe opera exists to challenge audiences to reassess a form they thought they knew, or to bring new audiences (often aligned to a particular small local venue) to the form in general. It exists so that operas and their plots can be interrogated from modern perspectives without the expectations of £500 ticket bearing, Stalls-seated opera bods being disappointed. It exists so that the microscope can be held over the great characters and stories in opera and revelations about them can be - well - revealed...
All of this is not done to damage full-scale performances, but because in a fringe setting the risks are less, the audience are closer, the expectations are different and there is no 80 voice chorus to try and shift around a massive stage.
So I want to take a moment and celebrate all the Off West End Opera productions that took place in 2017 and raise a toast to all those that will come - the good and the bad - they are proof that Opera is alive and kicking.
In fact, I want to celebrate all Off West End and Fringe Theatre. Last night was a real feast of diversity and difference and a celebration of theatre that pushes at the boundaries and challenges the status quo. So, while thousands of miles away, Hollywood celebrated the Oscars, and the LA red carpet was walked by the stars of the present; last night in Deptford, a very short red carpet to The Albany Theatre may well have been trodden by a few of the stars of the future.
And on to the all important question - who won? Well...as you may now know...WE DID.
Huge congratulations to everyone involved with Tosca at the Kings Head Theatre.
When Adam Spreadbury-Maher and I first conceived of this retelling of Tosca in a phone conversation in my bedroom, we couldn't have foreseen the incredible journey it would take us on. This show even put me in hospital (the shamefaced tenor accidentally broke my nose on day two of rehearsal and I had to have it realigned just 24 hours before the first preview), but it was all worth it.
The list of names of those to be thanked is so long it probably doesn't bear repeating. However, everyone who works at The King's Head is the thank for last night's award; the hugely talented casts; the exceptional musicians; the audiences who cheered us on and of course. Puccini himself. While the purists might have found the work challenging and cried out that it diminished the music which he wrote, I cannot help but think that Puccini himself would have celebrated last night with us.
We arrived to torrential rain - not the idea start to a week rehearsing and performing on Greece's sunshine island, but a huge relief to the locals, who must have thought we were some sort of band of English rain gods, having had no rain all winter - the venue for our performance was the extraordinarily beautiful Ναός Αγίου Πέτρου Δομινικανών, or St Peter's Church, right on the coast overlooking blue seas and billowing storm clouds.
It's both an intensely spiritual church and an archeological site. The acoustic is that of an ancient echoing monastery, the scene was set for a magical and ground-breaking performance of Puccini's all female opera, Suor Angelica, in which I was singing the title role.
The Greek Orthodox Church, historically, has a musical tradition of unaccompanied male voice sing-chanting. Staging an all female opera, with piccolo, piano and organ in an orthodox venue was pushing social and religious barriers. Not only that, but as the first opera to be staged on the island, we would be opening up cultural horizons. It was huge privilege to be part of this adventure.
For both shows we had full houses, plus extra people standing at the back. Over two days we shared our work with over 600 people, many of whom would never have seen an opera before, and including the priest of the church and Heraklion's mayor who stated to local news: "The success of the event proves that there is a public in our city that thirsts for quality cultural events throughout the year. It is our duty to offer them and in this way to attract visitors to Heraklion, even during the winter months."
This project was a huge achievement for me personally. The role of Suor Angelica is iconic within Puccini's canon. It requires a huge amount of vocal flexibility from celestial pianissimi to frenzied musical screaming as she pleads with first, her ice-cold aunt and finally the Virgin Mary. It was a magical week and I believe the results were outstanding.