Now that the Silver Birch excitement is behind us, it's time for a bit of a break. Back in a couple of weeks.
Meanwhile, you could...
...read some of the reviews: http://www.garsingtonopera.org/news/latest-reviews-0
...make a pledge to MEETING ODETTE, my new novel based (in a slightly off-the-wall way) on Swan Lake: https://unbound.com/books/meeting-odette
• 23 October: Brasserie Zédel, just off Piccadilly Circus - 0207 734 4888
• 3 November: Artrix Arts Centre, Bromsgrove
• 19 November: Burgh House, Hampstead
• 2 January: Lampeter House, Pembrokeshire
• 22 February: Leicester Lunchtime Concerts
(more booking details on the posters, left - click to enlarge)
...and/or ALICIA'S GIFT with Viv:
• 20 November: Barnes Music Society, The Old Sorting Office, London SW13 - email email@example.com
...and support JDCMB's Year of Development, here: https://www.gofundme.com/jdcmb
THANK YOU SO MUCH AND HAVE A WONDERFUL SUMMER!
Friday, July 28, 2017
And here she is: our SILVER BIRCH composer, the fabulous Roxanna Panufnik. You've heard a lot from me already about the words and the background, so I asked Rox some questions about how she wrote the music.
JD: How does Silver Birch differ from anything you’ve written before?
RP: The sheer size and range of vocal forces involved is amazing - such a lot to hold at the front of my brain whilst composing!
JD: How did you go about connecting with the subject and the story? I know I was way out of my comfort zone at first and wondered if you were too?
RP: Completely. I first wondered how I could empathise with a young man going to war, but the more Sassoon I read and meeting our inspiration Jay Wheeler helped me hugely to relate to our subject.
|Rehearsing the battle scene...|
JD: What have been a) the most challenging, b) the most rewarding things about writing it?
RP: I’ve never been very hot on unpitched percussion and this piece has required a huge amount of it! But with the help of my ex-drummer brother Jem and Garsginton percussionist Cameron Sinclair I’ve conquered my fear! I think the most rewarding thing would be the wonderfully positive reactions to the piece from those taking part in it - professional and non-professional.
JD: You met most of the singers and worked with them in your shed - how did that affect what you wrote for them to sing?
RP: For instance with Darren Jeffrey (estranged angry father, Simon) we looked at ways of injecting anger into the timbre of his voice without damaging it. With Sammy Furness (our hero, Jack), again, I needed his guidance with writing high up, at the peak of his range, when his brother Davey gets shot in battle. With the other singers it was a case of making sure that I wrote something that was comfortable enough in their voice that they could emote dramatically without worrying about the technical.
JD: The vast majority of our performers are adult amateurs, young people and schoolchildren. How difficult is it to write the music you want to write while keeping the technical level appropriate for them?
RP: It’s not at all difficult - I’m a terrible singer so I went by whether I could sing their parts or not! I also had a lot of support and guidance from Suzi Zumpe, who is responsible for training the non-professionals, and learnt hugely form her as I went along.
JD: I based some of the story on what really happened to Jay Wheeler, and he has been wonderfully helpful to me - I even used some of his words in the libretto, especially the “One chance” chorus and Jack’s “Got to look after my brother". Was it helpful for you to work with him too, and in what way?
RP: It was fantastically helpful to be able to ring him up and ask him what kind of things he heard in the midst of battle (more shouting and screaming than anything else) and running across the desert at night (his own heartbeat). I was also hugely inspired (and moved) by the photos he showed us of him in Iraq with his soldier friends, the place where they slept and also of him and his brother as little boys.
JD: I’ve got the bug for writing operas now. How about you? Shall we do another? :)
RP: Yes PLEASE!!And now, if you'll excuse us, we're off to our premiere!
Thursday, July 27, 2017
|Sam Furness as Jack, in Iraq shirt; Bradley Travis as Siegfried in WWI uniform|
We had the dress rehearsal yesterday. Today everybody gets a rest before tomorrow's opening night. (UPDATE: EXCEPT FOR ROXANNA PANUFNIK, WHO'S ON RADIO 3'S 'IN TUNE' LIVE THIS AFTERNOON.)
So, in no particular order...
1. Here is a beautiful article by Joanna Moorhead for The Guardian about Sister Jessica Gatty, Siegfried Sassoon's niece and god-daughter. I went to see Sister Jess thanks to her nephew in our chorus and her insights into Sassoon's personality and motivations were more than fascinating. They are not directly referenced in Silver Birch, but have informed both the story and Bradley Travis's portrayal of his spiritual presence at a deep level. Very pleased that Sister Jess's story has come to light too.
"I remember his hat was held together with safety pins,” says Sister Jessica Gatty. “And his movements were rather jerky. His driving was most erratic – if you went out in the car with him, it was perfectly possible to end up in a cornfield.” These are Sister Jessica’s memories of Siegfried Sassoon, the war poet with whom she had an intense friendship in the last decade of his life. She describes their relationship as “spiritual”.Read the rest here.
2. BBC Arts has been filming us for a documentary that will be posted online on their website, plus some interviews for Facebook Live. Here's the first of the films:
UPDATE, 3.30pm: And here's another film. This time it's me and Roxanna.
3. The word "opera" means "work". Oh yes. If you've never seen an opera company rehearsing, you mightn't realise quite how appropriate that term is. That's partly the idea, of course.
4. Siegfried Sassoon's presence in a contemporary war story not only integrates some of his poetry, but makes the point that the impact of war is as devastating in human terms today as it was a hundred years ago. Jack, our hero, is inspired by Sassoon's poems and turns to his words for guidance.
5. Jay Wheeler, the Iraq war veteran whose story has fed strongly into Jack's, has given Sam Furness his army dog-tags and shirt to wear on stage. He has also lent the youth opera company some of his own army "blueys" (air letters) which they receive in the "Letters from home" chorus. We are very touched that he has embraced the opera with such enthusiasm. He says it has been therapeutic and he'll be with us at the performances.
A number of our performers also have military backgrounds, families or other connections. Here is an interview on the Garsington website with some of them about what Silver Birch means to them.
|Roxanna at rehearsal, checking her score|
6. A few things that a composer and librettist team need:
7. "Never work with children or animals..." This is nonsense. They are wonderful. Here are some thoughts from the Primary company, our youngest performers.
8. The dog is called Poppy and she belongs to our lead tenor, Sam. This is her stage debut. Someone in our military company remarked that on a desert patrol they would always have a dog, often a black labrador; and another member of the chorus used to be an animal trainer for films and theatre, so she gave Poppy a quick coaching session. Still, resident canine often wags her tail when her owner starts to sing.
9. In the pit, alongside members of Garsington's usual orchestra, are 13 excellent young musicians chosen from local youth orchestras. Each has a professional mentor in the orchestra and plays alongside her/him. Roxanna has written simplified parts especially for them.
10. Our two boy trebles, alternating in the role of Leo, have never sung solo on stage before. They are adorable. Here is an interview with one of them, William Saint, on the Garsington website.
11. The beautiful animation of the moon is by VJ Mischa Ying. Watch out for snippets of Siegfried Sassoon's handwriting and also for what happens when Jack and Chloe say the password. Here is an interview with Mischa on the Garsington website.
12. The Foley team comes from Pinewood Studios and they, too, are working with some students. Look out for their contribution to the battle scene (you can't miss it, really...).
13. PRACTICALITIES for audience members:
• If you want to picnic, come early (the estate opens at 5pm) and eat before the opera. It starts at 7.30pm and there's no interval.
• Dress informal.
• If you're driving please leave PLENTY of time because it's the last weekend of July, it will be busy, and there are road closures in London because of a bicycle race, plus roadworks and speed restrictions on the various motorways. Garsington is very close to exit 5 of the M40.
• If you have sensitive ears, bring ear protectors for the battle scene. It's short, but loud.
• It can get chilly at Garsington Opera, so wrap up warm and bring a brolly.
14. It's totally sold out.
15. (UPDATE, 1.10pm) - Here are some thoughts from various participants in the company, available to read on the Garsington website at the links:
• The Primary company
Sunday, July 23, 2017
Here's Garsington's introduction to Silver Birch, with director Karen Gillingham, conductor Douglas Boyd and choreographer Natasha Khamjani...
Five days until opening night!
Five days until opening night!
Friday, July 21, 2017
|'In sooth, I know not why I am so sad...' Antonio goes to the shrink.|
All photos by Johan Persson, courtesy of WNO
When I was 14 I went to a piano recital I've never forgotten. It was by a Polish pianist who had escaped the Soviet bloc and settled in Oxfordshire. He was a friend of my piano teacher, who said I simply had to go and hear this astonishing musician. A gentle figure, bearded and sympathetic, he played with a soft, persuasive tone, filled above all with love for the music, especially Chopin - I can still hear its atmosphere now. We went backstage, shook his hand, thanked him; he was kind to the music-mad schoolgirl I was at the time. About two years later he died of cancer, aged only 42. His name was André Tchaikowsky.
Unknown to me at the time, Tchaikowsky (or Czajkowski, assumed instead of his real name, which was Krauthammer) was a composer as well. His magnum opus, a piece that obsessed him for the last 25 years or so of his life, was an opera based on The Merchant of Venice. Having endured a traumatic wartime childhood that entailed escaping the Warsaw Ghetto and more (Anastasia Belina-Johnson's hair-raising account of his story in the opera programme is well worth a read if you can get hold of it - see also the trailer for the documentary above), Tchaikowsky had more than a vested interest in Shakespeare's story of prejudice and revenge on the Rialto.
The opera was almost finished at the time he died, but had been rejected - to his immense disappointment - by ENO. It was one of the team for whom he had played it, director David Pountney, who homed in on it a few years back and finally put on the world premiere at the Bregenz Festival in 2013; he then programmed it also at Welsh National Opera. The other day, WNO brought it to the Royal Opera House for a London premiere and last night I went to see it.
|Lester Lynch as Shylock|
The overarching musical style is of its time, with very busy orchestral writing mostly in atonal, bubbling, chattering, occasionally bumbling strands that make life interesting in the wind section, but rarely, in the first half, settle into anything clearly shaped. The coalescence and concentration of the string writing after the interval helps to lift act 3 to another level - and the orchestra was in splendid form, cogently conducted by Lionel Friend.
A strong cast delivered the piece with enormous commitment and often relish. Lester Lynch's warm and eloquent baritone was a fine fit for Shylock and the soprano Sarah Castle made much of Portia as an imperious, exceptionally cruel character, precise in tone and able to cut splendidly across the sometimes frenetic orchestra. Mark Le Brocq was outstanding as Bassanio, but his friend Antonio, in the person of the counter-tenor Martin Wölfel, had a more challenging time with a role that does not sound sympathetically written for its voice type. Lauren Michelle and Bruce Sledge did all they could with the ungrateful roles of the ungrateful Jessica [not really my namesake - JD] and the more than vaguely unpleasant Lorenzo: plenty of hard-driven singing, but little character development.
Keith Warner's production accentuates the fact that the play is about prejudice on every level: the anti-Semitism that has followed Shylock all his life and drives him to seek an unconscionable revenge; the failure of anybody to recognise in the accomplished "doctor of law" the figure of Portia, an actual woman (plus Nerissa as her clerk); and the racial digs at Portia's unfortunate first two suitors, with whom Warner seeks temporarily to lighten the mood in the Belmont maze, if with a bit of a sledgehammer.
|Martin Wölfel (Antonio) and Mark Le Brocq (Bassanio)|
It's tempting to feel that Warner has used that sledgehammer a bit too often to crack this complex walnut of a work. But there is good sense as well. Although it is the anti-Semitic victimisation of Shylock that emerges as agonising front-runner in this battle of the prejudices, Tchaikowsky and Warner alike wisely avoid adding or subtracting from Shakespeare's approach to it. Hideousness is present on both sides; judgment is not passed. These attacks each feed the other's poison. This is how it is. And was. And probably ever shall be.
So - it's not perfect. It's true, at heart, to the play and its complexities. It's also a lifetime's work that needed its creator's existence not to be cut short in the process. But it's good, extremely good, to have it on the stage at all. Plaudits to all who have made it live at last.
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