Who are all these people?


We are a reading household (there’s a surprise) and an oft-quoted  exclamation, when one of us, uninvited, reads an extract from the current book to the other is ‘Who are all these people?’ I think it’s from a Peter Nichols play but I could be wrong – we are also very poor on attribution.

So it is something I’ve been thinking whilst we’ve been rehearsing Mozart’s Idomeneo. Assiduous readers of this blog will know that I’m not averse to plundering Homer myself, and Idomeneo is set in the aftermath of the Trojan war, so naturally I’m curious as to the source of the story.

This opera was first performed in 1781, and Mozart’s librettist Giambattista Varesco seems to have borrowed heavily from an earlier 1712 opera Idomenée by André Campra (I’m listening to it as I write) libretto by Antoine Danchet, who in turn borrowed from a stage play of the same name by Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon performed in 1707.

Idomeneo (Idomeneus) King of Crete (Grandson of Minos in case you are wondering) does appear in The Iliad occasionally, and comment is made on the vast size of his fleet (relevent to the plot!). He has a tricky journey home like so many of the Greek allies, and in order to be saved from drowning promises to sacrifice the first person he sees, who is, of course, his son – it wouldn’t be a Greek tragedy otherwise.

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Rehearsals: Preparing for a sacrifice

I’m not sure this is in The Iliad, but in all the other versions of the story I can trace he does  kill his son (Idamante in this version) either as a sacrifice, or by accident, and is then banished either by the Cretan’s themselves as a murderer, or driven mad by Poseidon.

So where do the women come in? Neither Ilia not Electra appear in Crébillon’s play, and Ilia seems to be a completely 18th Century invention, she is not mentioned in the Iliad, and the only person of that name I can find is a daughter of Aeneas who would presumably not have been born at this stage in events (hark at me going on like it was real…) In this version she is one of Priam’s many children, shipwrecked from one Idomeneo’s many ships, along with the rest of the Trojan captives. As for Electra – daughter of  possibly the unluckiest family in the history of time…

In case you don’t know, she was the daughter of Agamemnon (brother of Menelaus whose wife was Helen, married to Clytemnestra, sister of Helen – keep up!). He sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia (Electra’s sister) to get favourable winds to get to Troy in the first place. When he got home from the war, Clytemnestra killed him, and then Orestes, their son (Electra’s brother) killed Clytemnestra.  (according to Sophocles and Euripides, since you ask) After that it gets murky as to what goes on with Electra, but various options are open including her becoming a kidnapper, or a quiet marriage to a cousin, but in none of them does she end up in Crete in a jealous fit of pique at Idamante’s adoration of ‘Trojan Slave-girl’ Ilia, as she does here, and in the Campra version. Hey ho, that’s Opera for you, as if there isn’t enough going on already, there has to be someone driven mad by jealousy!

There are several editions of the Mozart opera in any case, with varying inclusions and omissions so I shan’t give you clues as to the ultimate fate of poor Electra.

Come along and find out what happens in our version, under the direction of James Hurley, and how we manage the sea monster (did I not mention the monster??)… tickets here

Singing in a veil


sisters2A new experience, singing whilst dressed as a nun. Apparently the costumes are borrowed from a production of Sister Act, and fit where they touch – A’s ‘cutty sark’ needs letting down about a foot so we don’t see her stripey socks until we are meant to. (I like the strategically placed light, it gives me a halo!)

The thing is, the veil makes it difficult to use your peripheral vision to sneak a look at Nick or the monitor for the beat. (It is also seriously HOT.)

The wimples have holes cut in to give our ears a bit of clearance,  and although I thought I could hear fine, I was complaining that hardly anyone was singing at one point – I now realise that the veil funnels your hearing so what’s in front of you is fine and you can hear yourself awfully well (not always a good thing!) but the rest is decidedly muffled. It was very trying getting notes from Harry and Jack against the orchestra running through something, I had no idea what was going on!

sister alexis

Sister Alix

It’s a bit scary how well a wimple suits almost everyone in the tenors and basses. Especially when they pull THAT face.

sister antonia

Sister Antonia

What a difference a floor makes


First stage rehearsal for The Adventures of Count Ory last night, and although there’s still some work to do on the seating, the stage is pretty much set up. Fantastic ‘stone slab’ flooring that will double as the town square and the castle. Bent-wood chairs have replaced the heavy cushioned metal ones that the audience get, which makes them easier to lug about (not that I do, but I sympathise with fellow cast members who are). The cafe tables are smaller, and have proper crockery, and it suddenly feels so much more real, but also profoundly confusing.

There are two points in a production where it becomes one step forward two back. It’s not just me, the principals are making meaningless noises at intervals. Fortunately I am not rattled by this. Eight operas in, I know these are just hiccups.

The first occurs when we go into production and have to start moving and singing at the same time. The second is now, when we get on the stage, because we are also working with the real amount of space, particularly around the entrances. This might seem insignificant, but we spent some time working out exactly how far we can come on stage as a body, without blocking audience view – this is a highly complex bit of choreography! How tall are the performers? Where is it safe to stand? No, we can’t see Nick’s beat if we have the door shut, so yes, we will miss the cue…

I’m still having to practice crossing myself correctly. (apparently I’d adopted Greek Orthodox and we’re going for Roman Catholic. Who knew there was a difference??  It’s something I’ve never done in my life before and being left-handed, using my right hand feels pretty odd anyway.

And then: How many chairs? Are you sure? Who’s moved my chair? Who’s supposed to have the other end of this bench? Where are the cigars? Shouldn’t there be more bottles? Ok, I know this is a cue coming up, but what am I meant to sing?!

Hooray Henries dress as Nuns and break into wine cellar


If that sounds like the plot of an opera, it’s because it is.

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Tue 15th, Wed 16th, Fri 18th Jul 19.00h
Sun 20th Jul 14:30h

The Adventures of Count Ory (think Tintin crossed with Don Juan) a cartoonish take on Rossini’s le Comte d’Ory is the latest production from the ever wonderful Blackheath Halls, and the creative team which is Harry Fehr, Nick Jenkins and Rose Ballantyne; and one of the reasons I’ve not been on this site in a while. (That, and trying to organise a festival for the winter solstice, launch a new Arachne Press Title, and plan the next one!)

Religious fever has gripped a small feudal town (Camberwick Green! With a Castle!) as the ‘Hermit’ a modern-day evangelical preacher comes to town. But all is not as it seems. Disguise and Deception  are the order of the day, and chaos quickly ensues.

Tickets are selling fast get your now

I’ll be one of the ones in a habit/white ties & tails/ combat gear /etc etc.

 

Orpheus and Eurydice at the Platform


Orpheus & EurydiceCome and watch/listen to English Pocket Opera Company‘s production of Gluck’s masterpiece, Orpheus & Eurydice. 21st – 26th January, at
the Platform Theatre,
Central St Martin’s,
Handyside Street
King’s Cross
London N1C 4AA
Short sharp and sweet, we’ll take you to hell and back, with the eccentric story of Orpheus I don’t think I will be accused of plot spoilers when I say that it is an opera that starts with a funeral and ends with a wedding. Love overcomes all. (Sigh).

We get to sing that immortal line Cerbrus the dog of Hell will crush your bones as well, (I keep wanting to sing crunch your bones, but will resist on the day, promise.) This is one of my top five favourite operas and has some of the best tunes in the history of the western world … how can you resist?

Weekday matinees it’s children in the chorus, Weekend, and the weekday evenings it’s amateur adults.

Each scene is designed by a different set designer, and its going to be innovative and entertaining. Come and enjoy.

tickets from the box office

Oh the weeping and the wailing


The trouble with having a brilliant time at Blackheath Halls prancing about singing is that inevitably it comes to an end. The party helps make the break, and it was good to hear from orchestra members how much they enjoyed the process too, and either wanted to know what on earth we did to Macbeth (because seated with back to action) or admiring the way we faded into the darkness as assassins (which we didn’t know we were doing.) Also good to chat to everyone and say thank you properly for what has been the best opera yet, and the bar was high already. I am unreservedly proud to have been part of this production, thank you Nick, Chris and Rose (and everyone else) for making it such a joy.

Having lots for the chorus to sing really gave us the freedom to show what we are capable of – even the drunken spoofs at the party were in proper harmony this year, (if not absolutely the right key) usually I feel sorry for Rose’s neighbours.

Undertakers convention in Kiev

Undertakers convention in Kiev

Howsoever, very glad not to be donning black polo-neck, combat trousers, heavy boots and woolly hat today – all that stuff is on the washing line, it looks like we’ve just got back from an undertakers convention in Kiev.

I can’t settle to work today so I’ve made a vat of Gazpacho (too much to fit in the fridge, which is going to be a problem…) and started sifting through the nearly 3000 photographs from Lena Kern (official photographer this year) They are absolutely brilliant, and there are actually several of me this year, usually (apart from the year Tony Stewart did the photographs) there’s only  one or two. I will post my favourites later. The accounts can be put off for (yet) another day.

There is a groundswell of opinion amongst the chorus and some audience members that we ought to have recorded the performance. Nick, if you are reading this – maybe we could at least get the chorus back together and just do our numbers? Guaranteed 60 sales!

© Cherry Potts 2013

The performing bug


It’s the last performance of Macbeth on Sunday and from previous experience I know we will have withdrawal symptoms.  I think it was after Elixir of Love that we bumped into fellow chorus members at the Maritime Museum and practical had a keening session on the subject of how bereft we felt.

Years ago I was asked for my most unreachable ambition.  I said I wanted to sing on stage. I remember saying not a solo at the Met,  just in a chorus in something amazing. Well, thanks to Blackheath Halls community singing programme, I’ve done that many times now. The very first was the South African Township choir Mbuwala and that, and the community operas led to taking part in Re:Wind a very challenging piece which we sang at the Royal Festival Hall – that definitely met my criteria!

So we are already pencilling in the next project Elijah? Othello? In the meantime we are singing next Saturday (20th July) with Vocal Chords at St Saviour’s Church in Honor Oak in Love Songs to the Planet. 2pm-5pm. After that not sure, but lots of readings to keep me performing including the Towersey Festival.

Musical storytelling


Last night, before the performance Chris Rolls (director) reminded us that it is easy at a second performance to think, right I’ve done that now, and to slacken off a bit.

Don’t let it get comfortable, he said. Good advice.  We didn’t. However the advantage of having done a full performance with audience was that this time round, I was more aware of what I was experiencing, and of when to rack it up a bit more – for example, the Hell is Gaping chorus, after the death of Duncan, I have always found very moving and upsetting, in dress rehearsal I had quite a lump in my throat. This time I was angry – fists clenched, I’m going to tear the throat out of the B*st*rd who did this, kind of thing. The joy of live music – you can (literally in our case) get inside it and explore. One of the most satisfying moments for me in the whole opera is the silence at the end of that chorus, when sixty plus people have worked their way, a semitone at a time, up to the third Strike him Dead, – and there is room for us to realise what we are saying before going into more ‘appropriate’ outcry to God. The echo is subtle but wonderful.

Alix, Suzanne and I are billeted in the men’s dressing room because we only have a couple of minutes to change from assassins to courtiers and can’t leg it up the stairs and back in the time. I have to admit it’s rather refreshing – only two people fighting for the mirror (and it isn’t any of the three of us) – and we are all sitting around reading scores, discussing performances we’ve been to or taken part in, other choirs we sing with, and how much of everyone else’s parts we know.  We agreed that we could probably take over the witches scenes if we had to, and portions of Lady Macbeth – we can hear Miriam perfectly through two walls and a corridor – there was much laughter at the idea of a minimalist version with only bass and tenor voices, singing all the parts, but only for the bits we know – I don’t think there are any serious contenders, though we might have a go at the after-party!

Another cracking moment last night, which I  really relished was our assassins’ scene. Standing on the main stage looking down the vast length of the performance space to the orchestra the far end (all fourteen of us) and thinking, right, let’s fill that, as we sing Tremble Banquo, meet your fate, and hearing our voices bounce off the back wall – very satisfying – another of those excellent little silences to fully appreciate both the music and the storytelling. I grow to appreciate Mr Verdi’s skill more with every rendition, and respect Nick Jenkins’ skill in interpreting and controlling the musical  juggernaut that is Macbeth. I spend a lot of time thinking, wow, that’s clever, as another little nuance is revealed to me. Again, LIVE music: I bought a recording when Macbeth was first announced as this year’s opera  and wasn’t terribly impressed, I’ve played it constantly since and I’m still not impressed, and these are people you’d have heard of singing it; by comparison, almost any live performance lifts my spirits, engages me, and makes me really think about what’s happening musically. It’s not just about sitting in a big dark room with nothing to distract; no, the difference is that even the best recording is only stereo (for people with two ears, as Kenny Everett used to say) whereas live music is three-dimensional, you can mentally explore the shapes and turn them upside down and inside out if you want to; and no two performances will ever be the same.

So those of you coming to Macbeth on Friday and Sunday, be prepared for something unique.

© Cherry Potts 2013

Macbeth first night shakes the walls


I don’t know how I didn’t notice in rehearsal, but when we are waiting in the dressing room, we can not only hear the overture, we can feel it, the drums and brass rumble through the floor and the walls shake slightly. I can only assume that they’d been holding back a bit until now! Not quite bringing the house down, but darn close. After a moment’s concern over the age and fragility of the building I settled in to enjoy the sound and feel of ‘hell gaping.’

If you haven’t got tickets for the rest of the run, sorry, you are too late – we are sold out.

Nick Jenkins (Musical Director) had a huge grin on his face each time I checked for a cue, so I think he was happy. And Chris Rolls (Director) was very free with his hugs afterwards, so I think he was happy too. We certainly were: I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed an evening of performing so much, this is right up there with Eugene Onegin three years ago.

One of the (many, many) best things about the BHH Community Opera is getting to know professional opera singers, directors and musicians on a personal level, so it was great to see in the audience (and speak to later) the lovely Wendy Dawn Thompson (Orpheus in our production of Orpheus and Eurydice four years ago), and the delightful John Flinders, (a regular repetiteur for BHH choral productions, who is already looking forward to Elijah with Edward Gardner OBE at BHH next year.) We make new friends every year, and it speaks volumes for the quality of the organisation of Rose Ballantyne and the real feel of community and team work the process engenders that we regularly see former principals and directors in the audience of the latest production.

Special thanks to Jill for the VERY WELCOME beer in the bar afterwards!

Reading at Brixton BookJam: Opera first night nerves


First night nerves not about the Book Jam, but about the Opera which starts tonight (there are a very few tickets left – you’ll be sorry you missed it!)

CP at BookJam 5 copyright A AdamsI was a bit uneasy about yet another night out in a week of performances, but thought, what the hell, I’ll ask to go on early. Which I did. I really wanted to stay and listen to the rest of the stories, but really, really needed one early night. A shame, I love being read to, and there was some really interesting work going on. People talking to angels in telephone boxes, unwilling May Queens, and monsters swimming through concrete, just my sort of thing! I read Cloud Island, in a carefully edited version that kept it to the five minutes allocated (unlike other people, who shall not be named, who royally took the p).

CP at Bookjam1 copyright A AdamsI’m not really nervous, excited more. I keep thinking I ought to go and have a lie down before we have to go (reminds me of the party at the beginning of Gone with the Wind, with all the ladies lying about in their underwear) but I’m too keyed up for it to do much good, which might be why I’m blogging! It’s going to be sweltering in the dressing rooms, and we have full battle dress for the first few scenes then a two-and-a-half-minute quick change into evening wear – getting the boots off is the hardest bit. I bet you thought being in an opera would be glamorous, didn’t you? We are pouring sweat and trying to look like an elegant crowd of courtiers. I did find myself singing the right thing while struggling with a vital prop in the dress rehearsal on Sunday, and thought, Right, we’re ready then! Up until then if anything other than straightforward happened I would forget to sing. To think I considered not doing the Opera this year. As IF.