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!

The Singing Season

Not that the singing season ever went away, it’s a bit like football, the break gets shorter all the time; but we didn’t do Sing for Water this year because of A’s broken leg, so larynx and lungs feeling a bit under used.

So the good news is that Raise the Roof is back next week, and we’ve already started Summer All Year Long back into a regular schedule (although it may be disrupted by Arachne Press activities – or not, actually as some of the repertoire is London songs with the thought that we might have a musical interlude at some of the readings.) And we’ve signed up to sing the Vivaldi Gloria for the annual Christmas spectacular at Blackheath Halls, where rumour has it Wendy Dawn Thompson will be joining us as one of the soloists.  We love Wendy, she is great fun to sing with. I’ve already bumped into two people we sing with whilst doing the rounds of bookshops and venues for readings of London Lies, and anticipation is running high!

Plans are also afoot for another workshop with Lester Simpson of Coope, Boyes & Simpson for 1st December, and on a consumption front we are booked to go to the ‘Last Night of the Mini Proms’ where the lovely and talented Messrs Grant Doyle and Nick Sharratt with whom we have sung on numerous occassions, are singing (amongst other things) the Pearl Fishers Duet, which will be distinctly lush.

© Cherry Potts 2012

The Passenger

So the Wendy Dawn Thompson Fan Club (Blackheath Chapter) were out in force last night, Me and A, M and D (separately, we thought they were going a different night and bumped into them in the bar).  I have to admit I would not have gone to The Passenger if WDT (Vlasta) hadn’t been in it, and she must have had at least 10 lines!

I suppose my enjoyment of Opera is in its extremes of silliness even when being tragic, it needs to be over the top; I like to have a good wallow, and this wasn’t wallowing material.

I was reminded of my Dad saying that what makes a good musical is the book, no doubt quoting someone, but I forget who; and the problem with this opera is that the story isn’t quite strong enough to carry an opera, and the way the opera is constructed weakens it further.

We start on an ocean liner headed for Brazil.  Everything and everyone is white, cold, functional, emotionally distant:  Leise (Michelle Breedt), particularly, is distant with her husband Walter (Kim Begley), off on a posting as German ambassador to Brazil.  Her repetitive Yes, darling, telegraphing her discomfort.  And there’s the problem already, only a few minutes in.  She’s already in a state, before she sees the mysterious passenger.  So any dramatic punch, any disintegration of their relationship as a result of her uncovered deceit, is undermined.  I was deeply unhappy with the dumb-crambo (It can’t be credited as mime) when there were no words for Breedt to sing but the music continued – waving arms and opening and shutting the mouth ain’t acting, and there was some very odd slo-mo walking at times.)  And the ship-board stuff goes on and on, and goes nowhere and adds nothing.  A bold director would have taken the scissors to this – we could have lost all but about 15 minutes without any detriment to the plot or the music.

There is so little light that the shade is just grey mist, it can’t be dark because there’s no contrast, no relief.  Several reviews have made much of the setting of the back story in Auschwitz, some thinking it’s not an appropriate topic for an opera.  I’m reserving judgement on that; but in this instance, it didn’t work.

The set is magnificent, clever, almost witty  (I loved the snick the self-propelling hand rail on the ship makes as it connects.) – but it ovewhelms the action, I was distracted (though enchanted) by the engineering.

The score is eloquent, and played with conviction, although it is a bit heard-it-before hand-me-down Britten-Gershwin-late 50’s dissonance.  (Full marks however for the ‘migraine’ music of  xylophonesque clanging – that is exactly what a migraine is like.)  The male chorus perched above the action like dispassionate observers do stirling work musically, but have some seriously trite commentary (a translation issue??).

I found the mixture of speech and song annoying, the music behind a lot of the conversation largely redundant, adding nothing to the emotional colour or our understanding of the characters, and I detest ‘musical speaking’ (there’s probably a word for it) ponderous, well-rounded, exquisitely projected, but utterly false. Give me Handel recitative any day!

A recounted a story she heard on the radio – one of Churchill’s daughter’s telling of her father weeping over the death of friend in the presence of Stalin, and Stalin saying, (roughly) yes, it’s personal when it is one and known, against the statistics of thousands unknown.

The enormity of the holocaust requires a conduit, a someone we can relate to, and in The Passenger, this is Marta (Giselle Allen), the Polish prisoner Leise is desperate to break.  But we don’t get to know Marta until the second half.  Until then the prisoners are the thousands unknown.  The only moment of connection in the first half is a woman naming her dead children, keeping them alive by speaking their names.

I found it enormously frustrating, I wanted to like this work, I wanted to engage with the characters, and I couldn’t.  I think I was not alone, the queue in the ladies in the interval was silent and gloomy … I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that before!

The second half perked up a bit, (I know that’s the wrong word, but it’s how it felt – at last!) as we finally got some kind of plot line, and a modicum of tension.  The relationships between Marta and her small group of friends are sketched in just enough, and are the highlight of the production.  We are introduced to Tadeusz (Leigh Melrose), her fiance and the tool Liese uses to torment Marta. Breedt really goes for it in this section, and Allen and Melrose give as good as they get.

The evening never lifted itself beyond the barely two-dimensional, everyone was trying very hard, but the source material and the direction just wasn’t strong enough.


Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Requiem First Night!

Verdi Final Rehearsal - probably the Dies Irae by the looks on our faces! copyright Rose Ballantyne 2011

Well we’ve done the first performance, and we remembered when to sing quietly and went at it full throttle when it was required- at one point we were so loud I couldn’t hear what I was singing myself. From the depths of the choir you don’t get a clear picture of what the audience is hearing, but it sounded pretty good to me, and according to Leigh (O’Hara, our conductor and mentor) we are in the worst place for it sounding good, so it must actually have sounded stunning- possibly literally on the decibel front.

Wendy Dawn Thompson and Grant Doyle rehearsing Dido & Aeneas. Copyright Cherry Potts 2010

The soloists, Deborah Stoddart, Wendy Dawn Thompson, John Upperton and Timothy Dawkins, were all superb; Deborah’s voice just soared over the rest of us, and it must be really hard for soloists to compete with 200 enthusiastic amateurs giving it some welly.  Wendy, in a typically dramatic move, to match her dramatic voice, wore a flame red dress that stood out like an exclamation against the black everyone else was wearing.  That’s what I like about Wendy, she stands out: rather different from the rehearsal where after waving cheerfully at the choir, she stood with one hand in her jeans pocket and the other conducting herself, and John in his motorcycle leathers!
I was very glad that unlike the men in the choir I wasn’t required to wear a dinner jacket, it got very hot.
Talking to A this morning, we were reflecting on the difference in singing from a score rather than memory, as in the Operas, where we have to move at the same time and act, and that actually it’s just as challenging and exciting.

We were also talking about how a choir becomes a community, and how it was odd, despite the ‘scratch’ quality of Blackheath Halls Chorus (we come together only for specific events and its a slightly different group each time) that the community feel is still there. People you hardly know will come and confide their nerves, or ask for (or offer) help with bits that aren’t sticking to your brain. It also makes you feel very responsible, to Leigh for getting it right, for supporting other people in your section, for staying quiet and still when its part of the effect, and not turning the pages over too loudly! It’s a lot to think about.
Our three hour rehearsal in the afternoon was only the second time we had sung with all three choirs together, plus the orchestra, and it sounds very different from our smaller Blackheath forces, and even more so from our practice MP3 files from Choralia (a wonderful resource, may it long provide for people like me who have to hear the music to understand the score).  Many of the members of the Eltham Choral Society and JAGS choir have taken part in the operas so they were familiar faces, which helped break down the tribal divisions that might otherwise have intruded.  The buzz in the dressing room was extraordinary and when Leigh came up to warm us up, I think he was pleasantly surprised how much we could sing from memory.

How frustrating it is to think that this superb programme is under threat.

So – the latest on the cuts to funding at Blackheath Halls:
Unfortunately, Greenwich Council has now confirmed its decision to withdraw the entire annual grant of £71,352 as of 1 April 2011.

However, in response to the representations made to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee, the Halls has learned that the Cabinet has agreed to create a general budget of £42,000 to support the delivery of community based arts participatory projects across the borough.

Blackheath Halls hopes that it will be able to obtain some funding from this £42,000 allocation in order to continue the delivery of some of its community and education programme, although this will obviously be a much-reduced sum in comparison to the annual grant that has been provided to the Halls in the past.

In response to the Blackheath Halls’ petition, the Council’s Director of Culture and Community Services acknowledged that the end to their current funding agreement with the Halls “will impact on the service delivered by Blackheath Halls” and stressed that the Council was “keen to ensure that Blackheath Halls continues to play an active part in the cultural life of the borough”. Further discussion at a Council meeting on Wednesday 30 March 2011 at 7pm, which members of the public are welcome to attend.

How you can help

–      Come to  events and take part in workshops and programmes (including tonight and tomorrow for the final performances of Verdi Requiem… if there are any tickets left)

–      Become a regular donor

–      Attend the Council meeting on 30 March (please contact by noon on 30 March if you wish to speak at the meeting).

If you would like to support the Halls in any other way, such as through support-in-kind or volunteering, they would also be very happy to hear from you.  Find out more about Blackheath Halls.

Copyright Cherry Potts (and Rose Ballantyne for the info about Blackheath Halls and Greenwich Council) 2011