Showing posts with label Silver Birch. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Silver Birch. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

SILVER BIRCH BBC documentaries just went public

Pop over to the BBC Arts website and experience the story behind Silver Birch, the opera by Roxanna Panufnik and muggins for Garsington Opera!

In the chief film, some very, very clever technology has enabled you to experience in 360 degrees what it was like to be in the performance. There were 180 performers and you, the viewer, become Person 181. The BBC site tells you how to make the most of the tecchy element, but here's the general version...



On the same page you'll find three more short films: The Story of Silver Birch - how the opera came to be; The Veterans - four army veterans performing in an opera for the first time ever tell their stories; and Jay's Story - our military adviser and inspiration, on whom the character of Jack is based.

ENJOY!

Monday, August 21, 2017

Silver Birch roundup

Curtain calls...in front, Roxanna (right) and me, with Jay Wheeler in the middle

I've been away since just after the last night of Silver Birch, so I've only posted one of the reviews here so far. Here's a little selection from among the others. Silver Birch has been without a doubt the most wonderful experience of my professional life to date, so it is kind of nice to know it's gone over OK... Below, some extracts that appear on the Garsington website.

(Since I'm abandoning one's habitual English self-effacement and modesty here, I wouldn't mind adding that The Times review also called my libretto "powerful and poetic" and Roxanna's music "busy and imaginative", while the Financial Times said that the piece "should be a useful stepping-stone to something bigger"...)

Silver Birch
★★★★
"It's the terrific panache of Karen Gillingham's staging that really socks you between the eyes and ears. It was all superbly played by the Garsington Opera Orchestra, augmented by student instrumentalists and expertly conducted by Douglas Boyd."
Richard Morrison, The Times, 31 July 2017
★★★★
"...this was a real achievement."
Richard Fairman, Financial Times, 1 August 2017
★★★★
"A remarkable event with a vast community cast. There is a real sense of vision in this coming together, as clear in the unstoppable energy of the performers as it is in the excellence of the stagecraft displayed in Karen Gillingham's complex production."
George Hall, The Stage, 31 July 2017
★★★★★
"Panufnik and Duchen's achievement is to synthesise personal and poetic experiences, often harrowing and disturbing, into a work of beauty and hope."
Amanda-Jane Doran, Classical Source, 30 July 2017
★★★★★
"A work that is having an impact on performers and audiences alike, and which stands as one of the very best examples of this type of opera."
Sam Smith, Music OMH, 31 July 2017
★★★
"A chorus of roof-raising passion and purpose...directed with commanding skill by Karen Gillingham."
Helen Wallace, Arts Desk, 31 July 2017
"This was undoubtedly the most uplifting and moving evening I've spent in the theatre this year. It deserves many more outings - soon."
Susan Elkin, Sardines Magazine, 31 July 2017
Please also read this very moving piece by the mum of one of the participating schoolgirls, explaining how the experience has changed her life: https://rhapsodyinwords.com/tag/garsington-opera/

Friday, July 28, 2017

Meet our composer: ROXANNA PANUFNIK SPEAKS OUT


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

A few things you need to know about Silver Birch before tomorrow

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:
• Sympathy
• Empathy
• Chocolate

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

Silver Birch: sneak preview

Here's Garsington's introduction to Silver Birch, with director Karen Gillingham, conductor Douglas Boyd and choreographer Natasha Khamjani...

Five days until opening night!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

"Siegfried Sassoon was my great-uncle"

Baritone Bradley Travis in rehearsal as Siegfried Sassoon

What are the chances of this? You turn up to an adult community chorus workshop to do a session on the work of a particular poet, and someone steps forward and explains he is that poet's great-nephew. That's what happened at the Silver Birch devising workshops, and the said great-nephew of Siegfried Sassoon, Stephen Bucknill, is in the chorus for the run at Garsington next week. I took the opportunity to ask him about his links with Sassoon and what it's like to be in the opera.

(Photos are all from a rehearsal the other day.)

JD: Please could you explain in what way you’re related to Siegfried Sassoon? What awareness of his poetry and his significance did you have when growing up? And what does he mean to you today?

SB: My grandfather, Richard Gatty had a sister called Hester. She married Siegfried Sassoon in 1933, 15 years after the end of WW1. Unfortunately I never met Siegfried as he died in 1967, just before my second birthday. So I have no memories of him but can recall a family photograph of him in my grandparents house in North Yorkshire. Before she died, my grandmother, who had known Siegfried from the 1930s onwards, assisted the author Max Egremont with his Sassoon biography. My mother and aunt (who are both coming to Silver Birch) knew Siegfried in his later life and remember him vividly.


Bradley Travis (Siegfried) and Sam Furness (Jack)
When I was growing up I had surprisingly little awareness of his poetry. I just knew that he was one of the war poets, and that I was related to him. We never studied his works at school. It only really dawned on me how famous he was when my sister Gemma contacted me in some excitement to say that she had seen one of his poems on the Underground. When I was next in London I saw the poem 'Everyone Sang' and it deeply moved me. Today, for me, he still provides a link with the past and an insight into the meaning, and effects, of war.


JD: How long have you been singing in the Garsington Adult Community Chorus? What attracted you to join it and what do you enjoy about it?  

SB: My wife Amanda is the Accommodation Co-Ordinator for Garsington and when she heard that Garsington were going to put on a Community Opera in 2013 she encouraged me to take part in it, as she thought they may need an extra tenor. Fortunately they did. The whole experience was amazing - hard work with many long rehearsals and often taking you well out of your comfort zone! The feeling of achievement, with relief and adrenaline after the performances of Road Rage is something I will never forget - and the main reason I had no hesitation in auditioning for Silver Birch.


Sam Furness as Jack, with "Chloe" and "Leo"

JD: What does it mean to you to be in Silver Birch? 

SB: Just very pleased to be involved again. I can't speak highly enough of the people involved at all levels in bringing the production together.



JD: What are its chief challenges and rewards for you as a member of the chorus? 

SB: For me, the chief challenges are getting the music right technically (it's not easy) and then being able to deliver it on the stage along with everyone else. The reward is the feeling of satisfaction when it all goes as it's supposed to!


Composer Roxanna Panufnik talks to the company

JD: Our hero, Jack, takes inspiration from Sassoon in terms of his daring, his disillusionment and in the end his decision that he must help those whose suffering he shares. Do you think the opera and the production is capturing - if tangentially, perhaps - anything of the spirit and/or journey that Sassoon underwent? 

SB: Yes I would say it does - in a very moving way.

JD: We chose several poems by Sassoon for inclusion. What do you think of those choices and do you like the way they have been used?  

SB: The poems seem to fit seamlessly into the opera. 'Everyone Sang' was the first Sassoon poem to deeply affect me, so I am delighted it has been given a special place at the end of the opera.

JD: Are you looking forward to opening night?? 

SB: Yes!

SILVER BIRCH IS AT GARSINGTON OPERA, 28-30 JULY. RETURNS ONLY!

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Friday, July 14, 2017

Silver Birch: 2 weeks to go

SILVER BIRCH IS SOLD OUT! The first night is two weeks from today, up at Garsington Opera, Wormsley, near High Wycombe. Keep trying for returns...

Here, then, is how it all happened.


The cast of Silver Birch take a leap into the unknown...

HOW WE MADE SILVER BIRCH


Roxanna Panufnik and I first met in 1994 or 1995, thanks to our mutual friend Tasmin Little, who introduced us one day at the Purcell Room. We had an unusual thing in common: in our twenties we were each dealing with the death of a parent. My mother died in February 1994 and Rox's father, the great composer Andrzej Panufnik, had been gone since October 1991. At that age most of your friends have not been through that experience, and it can be a lonely matter: some people stand by you, others run for their lives. The bond, therefore, was special from the start.

We've written several pieces together in the last few years. I adapted the words of the Padre Pio Prayer for a choral piece that the Genesis Foundation commissioned from Rox, and later created a sort of narrative poem for a commission from Chanticleer in San Francisco. This piece is called Let Me In and is a story derived from the Gnostic Somethingorothers in which the young boy Jesus restores a dead baby to life. I wrote part of the poem in iambic pentameter and focused on the images of mourning traditions in the ancient Jewish community in which the tale was set. Next came the Dance of Life: Tallinn Mass, for which Rox devoted months of care, effort and sensitivity to getting to grips with the Estonian language and setting it like a native - only to find that they wanted to do the recording in English. My job was to take the existing music, words and rough translation and make a singable English adaptation. (In two weeks.)

But the peach project would, of course, be an opera. First we latched onto a famous novel we both loved, made an outline...and found someone else had already nabbed the stage rights. Then we picked another classic book that would make a still more amazing opera, one that would attract punters from all over place. Could we get a commission? "Oh darlings, we love it, but our commissioning schedule is full up with [delete as appropriate] Famous Bloke, More Famous Bloke and Humongously Famous Bloke..." Worse still: "Yes! We adore it! We're going to commission it. ...We are going to commission it... We are definitely going to commission it... well, we'd love to commission it, maybe in three years if.....er...." [the rest is silence].

One day the phone rings and there's Rox. "You're not going to believe this," she says, "but Garsington just called."

Siegfried Sassoon.
Photo: Pictorial Press/Alamy Stock Photo/Poetry Foundation 
This wasn't to be any usual opera, though. Nor was it precisely a community opera. It had to be more than that: it had to be for everyone, with everyone - from a professional cast of rising opera stars to a group of primary school children, and for an audience of both seasoned opera-goers and complete newbies, aged 8 to 108. It needed to have a connection to World War I - but with 2017 a more practical choice of year than 2016, we wondered if perhaps everyone would be fed up to the back teeth with World War I pieces by then. That shifted the focus to the present day, yet the Siegfried Sassoon connection needed to be there, as Sassoon spent a lot of time at the original Garsington in Oxfordshire.

I came up with a story, but our doughty director Karen Gillingham came round and spent a gentle hour explaining to me, over tea and a purring kitten, why it wasn't going to work in the proverbial month of Sundays. So I threw it out and went back to the writing board. There was only one way to approach this new and demanding project: with a completely open mind. To go with the flow of collaborative energy. To see where it took us.

First it took us into schools to work on the Siegfried Sassoon poems and ideas about war, separation and challenge with teenagers and primary school children. Karen is an expert at getting huge groups of rowdy youngsters working together, listening to her and carrying out instructions. I watched it all, with writer-antennae at the ready. We wanted to find out what mattered most to them. What would they want in an opera? What would they miss if they went away to war? What might induce them to join up?

It was clear, very quickly, that they didn't want loads of soppy love duets. They wanted action. I also asked my nephew Luca, who was about 9, what he'd want to see in an opera about World War I, and he said, "Dog-fights in the air", which of course is easier said than done - but he is coming to the show on the Sunday and I hope he won't be disappointed with the battle scene, brought to life not least by the team of Foley artists - sound-effects - from Pinewood Studios.

The professional cast in rehearsal: Sarah Redgwick sings Mrs Morrell, Jack's former teacher

Most of all, though, all these young people said that their families were everything to them. What we needed was a family-based story. And one little boy in the primary school team said he would miss the silver birch tree outside his family's home, because his parents had planted it as a sapling and watched it grow up. The antennae began to buzz.

We spent an evening with the adult community chorus, again with our chosen poems. At this point a gentleman from Henley-on-Thames quietly explained that he is Siegfried Sassoon's great-nephew and offered to introduce me to his mother and aunt, who remembered Uncle Siegfried extremely well.  I spent a fascinating morning with them, listening to reminiscences of Sassoon himself: how he spoke, how he dressed, how he drove, why he was withdrawn and remote by the time they knew him, and how he had found spiritual peace at last in his conversion to Catholicism. We read some of his poems together - there, he had said, one would find the best of him. And we discussed why he went back into World War I - having survived crazy exploits at first that saw him nicknamed 'Mad Jack', then speaking out in the Declaration Against War about how the campaign was being conducted. He was confined to a mental asylum in Scotland for his pains. Yet then he returned to the war, because his men were suffering and dying and he felt the need to go back and help them through it. He belonged with those whose suffering he shared.

The adult community chorus in rehearsal. (Photo: Luke Delahunty)
But that wasn't enough. We have a present-day story. We need present-day soldiers. We found some.

I found one at Barnes station. We were waiting for a train late one night and he was on the platform. Weaving around, appearing semi-deranged. Wearing dark glasses, in the dark. He'd been in Iraq, and come back. His chief aid in readjusting, if you can call it that, was clearly alcohol. No help from anyone, he said. He took off his glasses. His eyes were red with blood, and I can still see now their wild, disconnected gaze. Sand, he said. You can't get all the sand out of your eyes. But he was proud, he said, of what he'd done to serve his country. He'd do it all again.

When we went on holiday in January 2015, a former armed forces guy was in the next hotel room. He was retired, but he'd been in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, driving army vans. He told me his story: a broken and bereaved family, a hopeless town where he was expected simply to spend his life working in the carpet factory, the longing for something more, to get away and see the world and do something bigger and better. The armed forces offered him both a salary and that opportunity. He saw plenty of terrifying things in Northern Ireland. What would be his advice to young people considering joining up, I asked. "Remember, there's no turning back," he said. "It's not a video game - you can't just press a reset button. There's no reset button on your life."

Then I met Jay Wheeler.

Jay is married to a friend of Karen's. He lives in Birmingham and now runs a military fitness company. But in 2003 he was a lance corporal during the invasion of Iraq. We got in touch and explained what we were doing. I went up to Birmingham to visit him and across one extraordinary afternoon he told me his story from start to present. Much of it has fed into Jack's story in Silver Birch. Again, there was the difficult family situation, the young people's dreams of escape and adventure, the need to prove yourself, to push yourself, to aim higher than life seemed to want you to.  His brother had joined up too. Neither of them expected to see action, but it was the luck of the draw: their division was the one whose turn it was to be primed and ready to go if occasion demanded. And occasion did.

There was much in Jay's story that we couldn't possibly include in a family-oriented piece: unfolding in front of my ears was an X-rated, Oscar-winning movie, structure and all. What he had been through, what he had endured, what he had had to do, the decisions he had had to make, the violence and horror of the taking of Basra, the aftermath that so many soldiers endured of PTSD, all of this is unimaginable to most of us. Many elements of his history have gone into Silver Birch: the motivating needs to prove himself to his father, to look after his younger brother ("Got to look after my brother. Always look after my brother," says Jack. That's Jay) and then the all-but-impossible matter of returning and adjusting to civilian life: all this came from our talk. Moreover, Jay, receiving the post intended for his brother, who was in another camp, used to run across the desert by night to deliver it quietly. That became a scene in the opera too.

Rehearsing the homecoming

Jay has been to hell - and come back. He has turned his life around. He has a successful business and a young family. He told me that everything he is today has been made possible by the experiences he had in the army. He's proved his own strength, not only to his father but to himself. Many are not as strong as he is mentally. Many of them fall apart after the horrors they've been in, become addicted to drink or drugs, end up on the streets or in jail. Despite everything, Jay has turned all the grit, all the determination, into a force for good. I have no greater respect for anybody I have ever met than I have for him. It is with more than merely enormous gratitude that we took him up on his offer of using his own army number for Jack in the drill scene.

Our two Chloes. Jack's little sister is the voice of hope,
and gets to sing duets with Sam Furness
I don't believe that people are built for war. Human minds and bodies are not designed to withstand attacking, destruction, chemicals, psychological breaking, fear at every moment. And we cannot solve our problems with weapons. To have been through all this physical and mental shattering and come through to the other side is something almost miraculous. Jack and his brother Davey return to their family needing to make sense of what has happened to them. It is only love that can save them in the end, not war. It's their connection to their family - especially their indomitable mother Anna and little sister Chloe - that sustains them. And it's their connection to their "brothers" in arms, whom they decide they must learn to help, that stands some chance of keeping them on the rails.

The other day I saw another Jack. I was walking to the Barbican past one of those little City public gardens, on a sunny July afternoon. A tall bloke in camouflage trousers with cropped hair and a can of beer. He was sitting on a bench, staring into space. And I wondered what he had seen, could still see and may be seeing forever.


Monday, June 05, 2017

Silver Birch: We are all connected



"One chance to do something brave..."

It's all happening. On Saturday I went along to High Wycombe to see a rehearsal of Silver Birch for the first time. The Garsington Youth Company and some of the Adult Community Chorus were in extremely fine fettle and working their socks off, together with the Garsington music staff, the repetiteur, our director Karen Gillingham, the designer Rhiannon Newman Brown, the Foley team from Shepperton Studios, our producer Kate Laughton and many more. I came back reeling a bit.

I'm a novice librettist. OK, I've put together other words to be sung or acted, but this is the first time I've been involved in a complete, fully staged, top-notch, bells-and-whistles creation of a whole brand-new opera. And of course if you've been going to operas for more than 40 years and writing about them and reviewing them for half of that, you think you know what it takes. Or...er...maybe you don't.

Here's a little of what it's really taking to make this opera, after it's been written. This is leaving aside the devising process, the research, the writing, the composing - more of that another time.

Suzy and Patrick working with the youth company
The singers have to learn their roles. That may sound obvious, but it includes, for Silver Birch, a lot of young people and amateurs, and they have been rehearsing every week since the new year. They've all been auditioned. They had to prepare for those auditions and some who prepared for the auditions would have been rejected and would have been disappointed, and people had to audition them and make those decisions and tell them who was in and who wasn't.

The soloists - whom I haven't yet seen in action - have to get to grips with brand-new roles while also being busy with whatever else they're singing at the moment - for instance, our leading lady, Victoria Simmonds, is currently singing Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni at Opera Holland Park. Our conductor, Garsington's music director Dougie Boyd, has his hands full conducting The Marriage of Figaro. And don't get me started on what language orchestral musicians use while practising, at home, a new work they've never seen or heard before.

The director, Karen, has to map out the drama and then rehearse it all. The choreographer, Natasha, is in charge of a small group of brilliant youngsters who suddenly launch into breakdancing in the middle of the drill scene. Rhiannon has to find a way to make the silver birch tree grow, among much else. During the course of the rehearsal, the adult community chorus members are summoned one by one for costume fittings - someone has to make those costumes.

The adult community chorus members are devoting lashings of time and effort to taking part. One of them happens to be Siegfried Sassoon's great-nephew (he was a great help to me in the background research for the opera) and for much of the time he is standing pretty much next to where Bradley Travis will be portraying Sassoon, or at least his ghostly presence.

The music staff are working flat out. Suzy Zumpe leads the music side of the rehearsal, teaching the youth company how to memorise the tricky details of Roxanna's score. "Nothing can grow in this soil" is a line that returns several times, the last note held a different number of beats on each occasion - she finds a trick to help them remember how many and when. And she sings all the female soloist roles herself when they need filling in, with her sidekick Patrick singing all the male ones and the repetiteur, James, bowling along through the piano score.

The stage manager and assistant stage managers are zipping around moving the post that represents the silver birch, adjusting markings, constructing and deconstructing things, and someone has already erected the substantial skeleton two-level set in this school hall. Cups of tea materialise, kindly brewed by one of the assistants. Someone has brought food for the staff's lunch, plus sustaining snacks. One person remarks that during the course of this week they've eaten their body weight in dried fruit.

Everyone has to get there and back. Rhiannon has been stuck on the M25 for hours. The team of three Foley artists (aka our sound-effects gurus) have come up from Shepperton, been to Wormsley to have a look around the theatre and now have come to High Wycombe to see how they will be integrated into the battle scene. And at this point Patrick absolutely excels himself as stand-in sound effects, doing fighter jets, machine guns, mortars and more with vocals alone.

The full score is spread out on a table, a giant publication that has had to be created, proof-read and printed. So has the piano score - the chorus members clutch copies printed with the magic name PANUFNIK in big letters on the front. Someone at Edition Peters had to organise all of that. Every rest, every semiquaver, every word has to be in the right place.

Natasha, who runs a small dance company that specialises in traditional folk dance as well as youth work, can see everyone is knackered and leads a cool-down session at the end of the afternoon. Now the kids' parents are presumably going to have to come and pick them up - indeed, a couple of proud mums have been watching the proceedings for a while. Meanwhile Kate has to organise absolutely every practical detail of absolutely everything, yet seems utterly unflappable and even finds time to drop me back to High Wycombe station.

Final scene. That post in the middle is the silver birch, growing tall and strong.

I do have to take notice and learn some lessons. It's too late to change anything in my text, but I've now twigged that it's really, seriously not a good idea for singers to have a word ending in "t" directly followed by one beginning with "d" and that a few unintended consequences can include the command: "Let's go from 'Driblet'". The kids are unfazed by this, but I quietly sink through the floor.

Over at Garsington, it will be all go, too. People have to work the booking mechanisms, send out the tickets, tell people about the trains, set out the picnic tents, stock the bar, direct the parking. The audience has to find its way to Wormsley. Will they come out at the end singing the Silver Birch Song? I think so - I can't get it out of my head.

We are all connected. All these people, hundreds and hundreds of them, are connected by the one purpose of making this new opera reality. Everyone is connected. Everyone could potentially have their life changed in some way by this thing. To say "we're all in it together" is not enough. This is not a "community opera": it's a community. To stage any opera would mean creating a community, even if the opera has existed for 400 years. This one happens to be new. And it happens to be ours.

I'm not sure I'll ever be quite the same again.

Silver Birch by Roxanna Panufnik is on at Garsington Opera on 28, 29 and 30 July. Get your tickets here.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

So what is a "People's Opera" anyway?

Sam Furness (tenor), who sings our hero, Jack
Exciting times here as summer approaches and the Garsington Opera team gears up for the world premiere on 28 July of Silver Birch, the new opera by Roxanna Panufnik with a libretto by me plus some Siegfried Sassoon poetry.

 There's a supposition doing the rounds, though, that Silver Birch is a "community opera", but in fact we've called it something else: a "people's opera". And for a good reason.

A "community opera" is generally about the experience of those taking part in it, who in many cases are not auditioned. This "people's opera" is about the audience too: whether or not they are seasoned opera-goers or first-timers at a performance, the show should be equally enjoyable for all.

We do have a wonderfully large community involvement, but everyone has been auditioned and there is a strong professional core.

The Learning and Participation department has led the project, with Karen Gillingham, head of the department, as director; 180 people are taking part in the performance, including children from local primary schools, members of the armed forces, the Garsington adult community choir - and also a truly fabulous solo cast of some of the best young singers in the country.

Victoria Simmonds (mezzo-soprano) is our strong-hearted Anna
It will be performed on Garsington's main stage, with the company's music director, Douglas Boyd, conducting it himself.

So it is, really, for everyone and about everyone. It's all about all of us working together. That's one reason we love it so much, and we hope you will too!








Jack 
Sam Furness
Anna
Victoria Simmonds
Simon
Darren Jeffery
Siegfried Sassoon
Bradley Travis
Mrs Morrell
Sarah Redgwick
Davey
James Way
Conductor
Douglas Boyd
Director
Karen Gillingham
Designer
Rhiannon Newman Brown
Composer
Roxanna Panufnik
Librettist
Jessica Duchen
Movement Director
Natasha Khamjani

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Latest on 'Silver Birch'

The Silver Birch youth company in rehearsal

The Oxford Times has run a preview of our Garsington opera, Silver Birch (music by Roxanna Panufnik, libretto by me). Read it here.

THE horrors of the First World War will meet the tragedy of modern day conflicts in an opera starring more than 180 people from across the community.
Silver Birch, a people's opera, is Garsington Opera's new commission for the 2017 season and is a story of courage and aspiration.
Building on the Great War poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and the testimony of a British soldier who served in the Iraq War it will star local people aged from eight to 80.

Here's what I've said about the process so far..

It is not only the fulfilment of a dream; this creative process, deeply collaborative at every level, has been entirely new to me , and it's one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences I've been lucky enough to encounter. The theme is the impact of war on soldiers and their families, tying together Siegfried Sassoon's World War I poetry and the experiences of those serving in modern warfare. It is designed to appeal to opera regulars and first-time attenders alike. It is fast-paced and action-packed; emotions run high and Roxanna Panufnik has written some incredibly beautiful music, as well as letting her hair down a bit in the battle scene!"
Jessica Duchen, Librettist

Saturday, March 25, 2017

SILVER BIRCH: Come to Garsington and see our opera!


Booking is now open for SILVER BIRCH, the new 'People's Opera' by composer Roxanna Panufnik, with a libretto by muggins. It's not only the fulfilment of a dream; this creative process, deeply collaborative at every level, has been entirely new to me, and it's one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences I've been lucky enough to encounter.

Performances are on 28, 29 and 30 July at Garsington Opera, Wormsley, near High Wycombe. You can book online here. 

The theme is the impact of war on soldiers and their families, tying together Siegfried Sassoon's World War I poetry and the experiences of those serving in modern warfare. It's designed to appeal to opera regulars and newbies alike and of all ages. It's fast paced and action packed, emotions run high and Rox has written some incredibly beautiful music, as well as letting her hair down a bit in the battle scene...
Inspired by the timeless themes of war and relationships affected by it, the opera draws upon Siegfried Sassoon's poems and the testimony of a British soldier, who served recently in Iraq, to illustrate the human tragedies of conflicts past and present. Jack joins the army to silence his father's taunts for his love of poetry. Joined by his brother Davey, their devastating experiences turn the whole family's world upside down. Supported by the power of their mother's love as she tries to hold the family together they, like Sassoon himself, seek to help those whose suffering they share. 
Jack 
Sam Furness
Anna
Victoria Simmonds
Simon
Darren Jeffery
Siegfried Sassoon
Bradley Travis
Mrs Morrell
Sarah Redgwick
Davey
James Way
Conductor
Douglas Boyd
Director
Karen Gillingham
Designer
Rhiannon Newman Brown
Composer
Roxanna Panufnik
Librettist
Jessica Duchen
Movement Director
Natasha Khamjani

We have:

A cast to die for (see above)
Some wonderful child soloists
Garsington's adult community chorus, which happens to include Siegfried Sassoon's great-nephew
A large choir of local children
Youth dance
Foley artists from Shepperton film studios
Digital animation by VJ Mischa Giancovich
Members of the Armed Forces

Book soon because there are only 3 performances and space is limited!