Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Rough For Opera #12, Cockpit Theatre

The Cockpit Theatre
home of Rough for Opera
Second Movement have been producing Rough for Opera try-out evenings for operatic works-in-progress for a few years now. It's a valuable platform for the creative team behind the extracts on show. Not only do they get the chance to try their work out in a performance context but the Second Movement team also host a Q&A session immediately afterwards. This is designed for feedback: the teams can not only find out what worked but also what the audience experience was.

Does that sound a bit obvious, 'what the audience experience was'? Here's the fun thing about Rough for Opera. Because the work on show is unfinished, or shown in part - or even an experiment in just trying one element of an operatic performance - the audience may have a genuinely unique experience to share in return. This might even bypass the intentions of the creative team, a view racing ahead of their own peculiar fork in the compositional road. Rough for Opera is not an open rehearsal where one assumes the performance is incomplete. Rather, the assumption that the performance is fulfilling its potential to date means that the audience share the same creative junction as the artists.

Last night we saw three pieces. Richard Dodwell and Josh Spear's He/Himselfie was less an opera than a multimedia and performance-artwork exploring male identity and stereotyping through some brave, expressionist-confessional theatre. Aaron Holloway-Nahum and Peter Jones' The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst attempted a treatment of the fascinating story of Crowhurst's participation in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, a seafaring circumnavigation exercise that goes awry. Finally we saw a triptych of compositions for the polished chamber group The Hermes Experiment (double bass, clarinet, harp, soprano) in which three composers' settings of metaphysical poetry were glued together with graphic score performances.

The Hermes Experiment rehearse in the Cockpit Theatre for Rough for Opera
Reporting on the content and quality of the performances is somewhat beside the point of the evening, as it's the experience and exchanges in the live situation that are most valuable. That said, it was terrific to watch and hear a high level of skill and commitment in the theatre, particularly the highly polished playing of the Riot Ensemble (for Holloway-Nahum) and The Hermes Experiment.

Q&As after each event were nice and brisk under the compering of Second Movement artistic director Nicholas Chalmers: though answers could be opaque, the value of having an exchange at all in a supportive forum such as this trumps all else. Rough for Opera is open to the public. It's cheap, surprising and earnest. The next one is 3 November.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Open Space Opera Conference with Improbable Theatre

What Are We Going To Do About Opera?

It was a beautifully sunny summer's day. So What Are We Going To Do About Opera? seemed like it might be a rather pessimistic title for a weekend's discussion about the industry. Does opera really need digging out of a hole, or some sort of loving, American style 'intervention'?

Well, not really. Most of the discussion at this event, hosted by Improbable Theatre at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, seemed really rather positive - if seasoned with the sanguine understanding that money and popular interest are in limited supply.

There was no sense of doom or genuine crisis in the industry. Many people came to see if they could find like-minded others with whom to get their ideas off the ground. This was not a shoulder-to-cry-on marketplace. Instead it turned out to be a forum of activity for those wanting to try out ideas and learn something about the directions in which the nature of opera in a modern society and with new technology might be headed.

There was room for those who were Disgruntled (Improbable's title for this series of conferences is 'Devoted & Disgruntled') to ask awkward questions. Two of the popular sessions convened over the weekend concerned the legacy of Regietheater, the influence of direction on the development of operatic production and issues surrounding English National Opera. These discussions and most of the others produced reports which have been submitted online at the website Improbable have curated about the event. You can read them here - or for a less formal view, just have a look at the Twitter activity of those attending, using the hashtag #DDOpera.

What Are We Going To Do About Opera?

My own experience took in discussion of mediated performances: the use of amplified/relayed sound and video. Convened by a pair of directors working in these media it was nice to hear that their intent was to use technology to assist the narrative of opera rather than using media for novelty's sake.

Indeed, narrative was a term I heard a fair bit during the weekend. Often people would default to narrative as a priority in trying to get productions of work both old and new off the ground.

I took part in a discussion about audiences - a big subject in which we only skirted the issue of front of house and extra-auditorium management.

The following day I heard discussion about the neglect of practitioners entering the profession in middle age. Opportunities for a leg up in the profession are heavily concentrated on young people (an 'emerging artist' is a clear euphemism for someone in their twenties) and there are difficult issues of sexism in opera too, largely as these are often found written into the repertory.

From there I heard the second part of a discussion about new work and some of the fudges, compromises and half-truths that are used to get new work written, performed and attended.

Finally there was a discussion on the nature of operatic film as a stand-alone genre. Between these discussions I had some informative, off-the-record chats about the nature of acoustics. One person was a researcher for a site-specific company that predicates its work on the available spaces (both internal and external). There was also a very interesting couple who work on the acoustic of dedicated performance spaces, work that often includes making them flexible for the use of different sorts of events, let alone different sorts of opera.

The weekend was organised using Open Space principles that allowed people to dictate the agenda themselves. This was managed very well by Improbable's Phelim McDermott who managed to be good humoured and inclusive; there were also valuable contributions from the Royal Opera's front of house staff and a months-old baby who, true to the sense of the conference, was much more interested in grinning than crying!

It was a peculiar weekend to have such an event as there were no fewer than four major house first nights on the Saturday, let alone the usual diaspora of miscellaneous operatic performances throughout the UK. It is worth remembering that for all our plan-hatching there were several hundred practitioners both in London and further afield who were just getting on with the job.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Ludlow English Song Weekend

I spent Sunday at the Ludlow English Song Weekend, a festival convened principally on behalf of the Finzi Friends but taking in all sorts of composers, performers and events that are pertinent to English song. Powered by the clearly indefatigable pianist, writer and broadcaster Iain Burnside the festival (as that is what it is) is clearly successful and building for the future. This year's was broadcast and recorded for the first time on BBC Radio 3.

I attended a pair of recitals. The first, titled Exalt and Crown the Hour, offset Finzi's cycle A Young Man’s Exhortation with English songs by largely living English-speaking composers. John Mark Ainsley has an inimitable way with song, at once conversational and yet artful - and probably answers all the question posed in the prior discussion about the nature of English song in a single performance of the Finzi cycle. Clare McCaldin was equal to the rather more exotic range of text and music in the interleaved contemporary songs, giving accounts of compositions by Martin Bussey and Geoffrey Allan Taylor, both present, as well as a gallery-galvanizing account of William Bolcom's The Crazy Woman.

After lunch we returned for the final concert of the weekend, His Name was Dream, celebrating the poetry of Walter de la Mare. John Mark Ainsley came back for his second recital of the day beside Marcus Farnsworth and Anna Huntley. Howells and Lennox Berkeley rubbed shoulders with a lovely Armstrong Gibbs set.

The weekend attracts a super audience who sit in the dry acoustic of the Ludlow Assembly Halls (or St Lawrence's Church) in total, attentive silence and then do all their talking over a cup of tea or perhaps choose to browse through the scores and books on offer in the foyer. In fact, it turned out to be a fine, sunny day in the end and many of us went out into the market between recitals to buy jam and cheese or just enjoy the sight of this pretty town that features explicitly or, moreover, implicitly in many of the songs to which we had been listening.