OPERA Making progress
A new opera company is a collaboration of practitioners and friends determined to pare away the mystique and present the art for its audiences. Simon Tait met OperaGlass Works
I t’s not unheard of for leading cultural practitioners to take their artform by the scruff of the neck and shake it into a modern context – in lm Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D W Griffith did it almost a century ago to create United Artists so that actors and directors could have more control of what they did rather than working to the diktats of a larger corporation – but it’s rare. More often groups of actors/ singers/writers/dancers/musicians will gather in a pub, complain about their lot, vow to change, and in the cold light of day prefer to stick with job security.
OperaGlass Works, however, is very likely to change the way we appreciate opera for ever, with a philosophy that might well adapt to theatre and other performance. And it has been created not by a group of callow hopefuls, but a team of senior practitioners in the midst of successful careers. OperaGlass Works’ first production is Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, opening at Wilton’s Music Hall next month.
The team is taking no pay for its work, and has been compiling its plans over time, with the company formed a year ago. There are no offices. They meet in coffee bars around Lon- don and in their homes. And the key, they say, is that they are all friends who have worked together before, and who each brings their own set of contacts and skills. Between them they have raised every penny of the £100,000 it is costing to produce the opera.
Selina Cadell is familiar to television viewers, most recently in Doc Martin with Martin Clunes in which she plays Mrs Tishell, but less well known is her role as head of drama at the National Opera Studio, as a coach at the Royal Opera House and English National Opera, and a director of both opera and drama.
Eliza Thompson is a composer, music director and producer, who works in lm, television and theatre, and has often worked with Cadell as co-producer.
Laurence Cummings, harpsichordist, conductor and early music specialist, is the music director of the London Handel Orchestra.
The lead character of Tom Rakewell will be taken by the young tenor Robert Murray who has sung with every major opera company in the country.
The set is designed by Tom Piper who is perhaps the most sought-after set designer in the country, and is the former associate designer with the RSC who helped create its new museum. Costumes are by Rosalind Ebbutt who created the costumes for the cur- rent ITV blockbuster Victoria.
OperaGlass Works is what it suggests: a transparent organisation that gets to the “bare bones” – Thompson’s phrase – of the art form without dispensing with the magic. We meet in a coffee house in Haverstock Hill near the private house being lent by a patron for a fundraising concert performance of the opera for which they are preparing.
We have wonderful opera in Britain now, but the way it is produced with lavish sets and costumes adding noughts to the ticket prices leads to the adjective “elitist”, Cadell says. It is almost as if the audience is being al- lowed to witness performances rather than being performed to.
“Great opera houses have historical productions that have gone on for many, many years, which I think actually constrains casts, they’re not really part of collaborative process” she says.
“They y in and do two days’ rehearsal, they don’t have a particular bond with the company, they don’t necessarily want to pick up the hand- kerchief where so-and-so picked it up before, but they don’t really have the time to find their own way through. That’s one element, having worked in opera for 20 years, that needs changing. Singers need to be more empowered to discover their own projects and make them happen.”
Another problem that needs to be addressed is that word “elitism” she says. “It’s ridiculous because music speaks to something that has nothing to do with the brain and needs to be free of those constraints. Along with elitism comes money, so we also feel that what we want to do is bring exquisite opera to small spaces at lower prices to a new audience. There are lots of opera companies around and they are good, but we’re talking about bringing quite famous people, a rather stellar cast”.
Thompson adds that there is another way of putting on opera. “There’s quite a lot of pub opera and country house opera, but this is something different again, perhaps more in the strain of theatre productions, smaller scale, very well done, and the key is that it is a collaborative exercise”.
Stravinsky’s 1951 opera The Rake’s Progress is the composer’s attempt to bring the 18th century into the 20th, with a libretto by W H Auden and Chester Kallman, and based on Hogarth’s series of paintings now in the Sir John Soane’s Museum.
The company chose Wilton’s for its intimate nature, and because Thompson and Cadell had collabo- rated on Congreve’s The Way of the World there two years ago – they considered a Shoreditch church, but would have had to provide the front-of-house, an extra expense. The 19-piece orchestra is the young play- ers of the Southbank Sinfonia whom Cummings will conduct from the harpsichord in 18th century style, playing on-stage. Ebbutt’s costumes are not period, certainly not elaborate, but are elegantly suggestive of the early 18th century; Piper’s set is spare but subtly descriptive. The production will run for six nights, and ticket prices will range from £15 to £23.
The company’s approach is to strip the opera of its mystique to make it more tangible for the audience, as Murray, who plays opposite the Royal Opera House’s newest star soprano, Susanna Hurrell, explains. He was introduced to 18th century music by Selina Cadell at the National Opera Studio, and has since made it a speciality. But the modern script has been a challenge.
“It’s slightly off centre” he says “but it seems to suit everything we’re trying to do. You need to really engage with the words so you can get it over to the audience. A com- mon misconception is that you need to put a modern spin on an opera to give it a contemporary feel, but as we’ve delved into exactly what was written and committed to it – it’s amazing how many stage directions there are to do with engaging with the audience – we’ve found the way into the work without updating it. That’s very important, and it can be tricky.”
Eliza Thompson underlines the point. “There’s a slight sense in conventional opera of the Emperor’s New Clothes, adding new layers to something that really doesn’t need them. What might be new is that we’re not doing anything to it. I hope we can engage with the whole score and embrace it – have these doors to the work open rather than closed, and what that enables is on-going choice, a live feeling.”
Rake’s Progress is at Wilton’s November 17-25, go to www.wiltons.org.uk/ whatson/362-the-rake-s-progress