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