Showing posts with label ROH Linbury Studio. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ROH Linbury Studio. Show all posts

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Making fireworks at the Linbury

Alice Farnham takes the podium for The Firework-Maker's Daughter at the ROH Linbury from Thursday through to new year. I had a chat with her about talent, courage and luck - as well as how to change the conducting profession for the better. My piece should be in The Independent's Radar section today. Director's cut below.

Alice Farnham in action. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

There’s a satisfying sense of poetic justice in seeing the conductor Alice Farnham take the podium for David Bruce’s opera The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, the Royal Opera House Linbury Studio’s family show for Christmas. It’s based on Philip Pullman’s novel for children in which Lila, aspiring to be a great firework maker like her father, must prove herself and is found to have the three essential gifts: talent, courage and luck. Farnham herself has a good dose of them all. She is blazing a trail in a profession still – notoriously – too much a male preserve. And in her efforts to change that situation, she can certainly make sparks fly.

Educated at a school for clergy orphans near Watford, and then at Oxford, Farnham says that her passion for conducting goes back to “a lightbulb moment” at university: “I started conducting because as organ scholar I had to direct the college choir,” she says. “At first I was under-confident, but I suddenly began to find that actually communicating with other people was more interesting than sitting in a cold organ loft. Then I conducted the university choral society in the Fauré Requiem – and it was the first concert I’d ever done without feeling nervous.” 

She later studied with Ilya Musin in St Petersburg; the great Russian “guru” of conductors taught plenty of women. “He was criticised for doing so – but he took no notice,” she remarks. Back in Britain she began to build her career in a variety of ways, not least through work as an opera prompter, often at the Royal Opera House. Prompters used to – and sometimes still do – lurk under the front of the stage to cue the singers in with the right words at the right moment. “It’s one of the best trainings for an opera conductor,” Farnham says.

In 2013, watching Marin Alsop become the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, Farnham took on board the American “maestra”’s point that it was ridiculous, in the 21st century, that such “firsts” still needed to happen. The dearth of role models was clearly a problem; so, too, the sheer weight of numbers that appear stacked against women attempting to enter the profession. Farnham therefore conceived the idea of a course through which young female musicians of school and college age could try their hand at conducting for the first time. 

Morley College's director of music, Andrea Brown, herself a conductor, took up the idea. Since then it has snowballed: “We’ve held short courses up and down the country, some of them focusing on specifics such as contemporary music or opera,” says Farnham. By now around 60 young women have taken part: “Some have said to me afterwards that as a result they’ve become seriously interested in taking up conducting,” she declares.

It is possible, she suggests, that a greater number of women taking up the job will help to change what it means to be a conductor at all. “Why are these people so revered anyway? What do they do to deserve it?” she muses. She would like to see the profession become less despotic, as it has often been in the past, and “more about collaboration, nurturing and communication”. And maybe that’s all about new ways of making fireworks.

The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, ROH Linbury Studio Theatre, 10 December – 2 January. Box office: 020 7304 4000

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Swanhunter rides again

Wonderful talk the other week with Jonathan Dove about Swanhunter, which Opera North is currently doing at the ROH Linbury and is touring until 3 May. I love Jonathan's music, which manages to be engaging, original, interesting, compelling and atmospheric rolled into one, and it's always a joy to talk to him about his work. Not everything has gone into the paper, so here is the director's cut.

Being a contemporary classical composer can be an insecure business for some. But, it seems, not for Jonathan Dove, whom I catch for a chat just before he heads off to Hawaii, where one of his numerous operas is being staged. “I’m having rather an annus mirabilis,” he declares, mildly incredulous. Closer to home, his one-act chamber opera Swanhunter is coming to London for the first time: Opera North, which commissioned it, brings a new co-production with the theatre company The Wrong Crowd to the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio on 2 April. And this is just the beginning. 

“I like to feel useful,” Dove explains as we ponder the secret of his success. “And opera is something I like to share.” This at least partly accounts for his quantity of stage works for schools, families and community participation; they have included The Adventures of Pinocchio, The Enchanted Pig, and Tobias and the Angel, to name just a few, many of them received by audiences and critics alike with near rapture. Dove’s style is lyrical, fresh and, above all, genuine; he says he finds the matter of introducing young audiences to opera an inspiring challenge. “But whatever you do in that respect, Benjamin Britten always got there first,” he acknowledges, nodding to the prevailing influence of such works as Britten’s Noye’s Fludde and The Little Sweep.

After studying composition with Robin Holloway, Dove (now 55) learned the processes of opera from the inside, working as repetiteur, arranger and outreach animateur. “I first started to get excited about opera in my twenties, when I was playing the piano for rehearsals,” he says, “and before I started writing my own pieces I used to reorchestrate great operas like Wagner’s Ring cycle and Rossini’s La Cenerentola for what was then Birmingham Touring Opera. The idea was to take opera on the road. There’d be a bunch of us in a van, going around the country playing Rossini operas in sports centres. Opera can have a whole existence outside the opera house – you don’t have to have a proscenium arch and a full symphony orchestra, though it’s very exciting when you do.”

He wrote Swanhunter for Opera North in 2009: “The brief was to create something based on an idea of the north,” he says, “something for young people – the target audience is ages eight to 12 – and therefore not too long; and something that could be easily toured.” His regular collaborator, the librettist Alasdair Middleton, began the process by researching Nordic myths and homing in on the ancient Finnish folk-epic of the Kalevala.

Its hero, Lemminkäinen, must accomplish a set of apparently impossible tasks in order to win a beautiful bride: he must hunt the Devil’s elk and shoot the swan that swims around Tuonela, the isle of the dead. But he is killed and his body dismembered and thrown into the river. His mother fishes out the pieces, reassembles them and sings him back to life.

“It was that idea – that a mother might sing her son back to life – which stuck in my mind and wouldn’t go away,” says Dove. “It seemed an extraordinary and wonderful theme for an opera, especially one that might introduce the artform to some of the audience. It’s a story that celebrates the power of song as something magical, something that can heal and revivify.” 

This is the same story that inspired Sibelius’s Lemminkainnen Suite, its best-known extract being ‘The Swan of Tuonela’. But when Dove turns to the Swan, far from Sibelius’s dark-hued cor anglais solo, he begins its song “stratospherically high,” as he says, “descending in a cascade of harp ripples. Once I saw a child put his hands over his ears! It’s unearthly, and for people who are mainly used to hearing the human voice singing through amplification it can be interesting to see people producing these sounds without any mechanical assistance. As this will be some young people’s introduction to opera I want them to hear some of the extraordinary things the human voice can do.” 

Dove’s busy year intensifies in summer, when his enormously successful opera Flight, created in 1998 for Glyndebourne, comes to Holland Park Opera in the latest of its numerous incarnations; it has travelled the world from the US to Germany to Australia. “It was a life-changing piece for me to write,” Dove remarks. “I did what I’ve always tried to do, which is to write the piece I wanted to see. But I didn’t know whether anybody else would want to see it. It’s incredibly gratifying that it turned out they did.”  

And just as gratifying is the prospect of Sir Simon Rattle conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in Dove’s brand-new opera for children, The Monster in the Maze, in July. If this isn’t an annis mirabilis, I don’t know what is.

Swanhunter, ROH Linbury Studio Theatre, from 2 April, then touring until 3 May. Box office: 020 7304 4000

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Stockhausen disciple in a dangerous liaison

Luca Francesconi's Quartett opens at the ROH Linbury Studio tonight. Somehow I think this combination of Les liaisons dangereuses and a World War III concrete bunker may require some prior girding of loins, so to speak. Reviews of its other productions to date have greeted it with great acclaim. Here's a preview I wrote of it for the Independent's Radar section the other day. 

Transforming a Cold War dystopian drama into a visionary, immersive opera is a task that might well defeat the faint-hearted. Not so Luca Francesconi, the composer of Quartett. Much acclaimed upon its premiere at La Scala, Milan three years ago, the work sets Heiner Müller’s 1980 play of the same title as an opera for two singers plus a cutting-edge mix of live and pre-recorded instrumentation.

The play is based partly on Les liaisons dangereuses by Laclos, but takes place in a concrete bunker in which the protagonists are the last people left alive after World War III. They convey multiple realities as Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil undergo an intense succession of role-play. Francesconi has created a range of music to match and John Fulljames, the Royal Opera House’s associate director of opera, has been tasked with the work’s first UK production, about to open at the ROH’s Linbury Studio. 

“It’s an extraordinary play – dark, ambiguous and open in terms of the way it’s staged,” says Fulljames. “The drama goes from the most intimate to the most epic and the most political: these two trapped people are somehow the entirety of humanity. The political ambition as well as the emotional ambition of the work is extraordinarily high.”

Francesconi, the Italian former pupil of Karlheinz Stockhausen, radical pioneer of electronic music, has made the most of today’s music technologies, using them to enhance and transform the work’s message. Two orchestras are involved: one plays live, and the second is pre-recorded, sampled, treated, and then, Fulljames suggests, its sounds seem to slide over the heads of the audience: “The aural landscape and what it demands technically creates a new possibility for opera,” he says.

“I think it’s that second orchestra that makes the audience feel as if they’re immersed in the middle of the piece, even though they’re watching it at a distance,” he adds. “They are implicated within it, trapped in its soundworld. That is a very different idea of what opera is, rather than the traditional architecture where we sit in our seats and it takes place over there...”

The pre-recorded orchestra also adds the element of hope that is absent from Müller’s play. “The live orchestra is very much associated with the two people in the bunker, but the pre-recorded one is more environmental, representing what’s happening in the outside world,” says Fulljames. “It’s the waves, the wind, amoebas, other life forms which will keep growing and reproducing. Life inside the bunker is dying, but Francesconi finds hope in the idea that the universe, the ecosystem, will carry on breathing.”

Despite all this innovation Quartett is, in Fulljames’s view, a deeply operatic experience. “Opera has always worked best when it’s raw and visceral, dealing with emotional extremity – and this one does,” he says. “I think anyone who enjoys operatic storytelling will get a great deal from it.”

Quartett, Royal Opera House Linbury Studio, 18-28 June. Box office: 020 7304 4000

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Triumph of the Spirit

Viktor Ullmann's opera The Emperor of Atlantis, written in 1943 in Terezin, is a centrepiece of English Touring Opera's new season and opens at the ROH Linbury Studio on Friday. Here's a slightly longer version of the piece I've written about it for today's Independent. Before the first performance some early evening events will include a short interview that I will give with Anita Lasker Wallfisch, cellist and survivor of Auschwitz, where Ullmann, his librettist and most others involved with the creation of this opera met their deaths.

Also, do see ETO's video about the opera:

In 1944 the Nazis released a propaganda film entitled The Führer Gives the Jews a City. Terezin, in north-west Bohemia, was the place in question: it had been turned into, supposedly, a show-camp, a smokescreen to blind the world to what was really going on in the other concentration camps. The film – an elaborate hoax – showed artistic individuals within Terezin engaging in creative activities, giving concerts and even putting on their own operas. It did not disclose the grimmer reality that more than 50,000 people were crammed into living quarters designed for 7000, where thousands were dying from starvation and disease. 

Much of Prague’s Jewish population was deported to Terezin, including a number of brilliant musicians and intellectuals; and, perhaps in a terrible irony, they were indeed able to pursue their creativity with what facilities were available. But after their deaths – many of them in the gas chambers of Auschwitz – the musical achievements of Terezin’s inmates, including the composers Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas and Hans Krasa, lay forgotten for decades, until in the 1970s efforts began to be made to rediscover them. 

This autumn English Touring Opera is taking up the cause of one of the most substantial works forged in these extraordinary circumstances: Ullmann’s hour-long opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis). In a new production by ETO’s artistic director and chief executive James Conway, and paired unusually with a staged Bach cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, it will be seen at the Royal Opera House for the first time (in the Linbury Studio), and will then enjoy its first-ever UK nationwide tour. 

Over the past 15-20 years the composers of Terezin have started to be widely recognised, though usually their works appear in programmes themed around Terezin itself. Now Ullmann’s opera will be required to stand as a mainstream work in its own right.

The libretto is by a gifted young poet Peter Kien, who was also imprisoned in Terezin. It is a black comedy poking fun at a dictator who faces a predicament when Death goes on strike (the original title was Death Abdicates). No prizes for guessing which dictator it satirised. That makes it all the more remarkable that the work reached its dress rehearsal in 1943 before the authorities spotted the nature of its content. Once they did, the performance was cancelled, the opera was banned and those involved were put on the next transport to Auschwitz. Ullmann and Kien met their deaths there in 1944.

Before Ullmann was forced into his last train journey, he gave the opera’s manuscript to a friend, a former philosophy professor, for safekeeping. Its survival seems miraculous. Yet it was only in 1975 that it was performed for the first time, in Amsterdam. The first British production was at Morley College in 1981.  

Ullmann more than deserves wider recognition. Born in 1898 in Teschen, Silesia, he was from a family of Jewish background that had converted to Catholicism; both he and his father served in World War I, and the young composer’s experiences in the conflict between Austria and Italy fed into The Emperor of Atlantis

He became a composition student of Arnold Schoenberg in Vienna and later of Alexander von Zemlinsky in Prague; his repute as a conductor soon grew as well, though he was dismissed from his post at a theatre in Aussig an der Elbe for selecting repertoire that was too adventurous. Fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933, he established himself in Prague as writer, critic, teacher and lecturer until he was deported to Terezin in 1942. His output includes many excellent art songs and chamber music, as well as an earlier opera, Fall of the Antichrist

James Conway of ETO first directed The Emperor of Atlantis some years ago in Ireland; he felt it produced a powerful impact. “Ullmann was a fantastic composer,” he declares, “and I think Peter Kien was a beautiful and poetic writer. The opportunities to perform operas that have a truly poetic script are few – usually in opera, the words have to serve music and narrative. Here narrative is less important, while a visionary quality is more significant, involving political, social and spiritual discussion about life and death. It’s a brilliant depiction – perhaps of aspects of Terezin, but, even more, of a state of being.”

The music is a fragmented and eclectic mix of cutting-edge contemporary style, jazz influence and pastiche: “It literally goes from Schoenberg to vaudeville in the space of two bars,” says the conductor Peter Selwyn, who is at the helm for the tour. “It has moments of extraordinary lyrical beauty. And suddenly the drums come in and you’re whisked away into a showpiece number.”

The Bach Cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, has been specially orchestrated for almost the same forces that the Ullmann employs – including the saxophone, but minus the banjo – to unify the two soundworlds. “The Ullmann finishes with a chorale, so the evening will end with a mirror of the way it began,” Selwyn points out. “The Bach cantata concerns the triumph of the spirit and of humanity in the face of death and despair. And the triumph of life over death is the message of the chorale at the end of the Ullmann. That’s the message that we would like the Ullmann to have, bearing in mind the circumstances of its creation.”

“I want the evening to have a consonance about it,” says Conway. “There’s something about dying that declares the richness and integrity of life, and that declares we do not go nameless to death. That effort to take away names and histories we will resist. This opera is a beautiful testimony to the artistic lives of people at Terezin. Even though I insist that the piece has a life independent of the Terezin context, one can’t ignore it. And at the end of the piece I wish there could be applause for Ullmann, Kien and the performers who were taken and murdered before there could be a premiere.”

The Emperor of Atlantis, English Touring Opera, Royal Opera House Linbury Studio, from 5 October 2012, then on national tour until 17 November. Full tour details at