Summer Opera - July 2011

Monteverdi L'Orfeo 29 & 30 July, South Creake, Norfolk

 

 

As the storm clouds have finally broken over a parched East Anglia, much to the relief of farmers and gardeners, Jennifer Hamilton has been occupying her time with waters of a more sinister nature.  She has even been to Venice, though this was not simply to look at the canals.  Her primary task was to discuss costumes with this year's designer Gidon Saks, the distinguished bass-baritone who has been singing Fasolt in Wagner's Das Rhinegold under Lothar Zagrosek at La Fenice.  For our production of L'Orfeo Gidon turns his attention, by way of a sort of busman's holiday, to costume design, as he has in previous summers when persuaded by Jennifer to give his voice a rest.  As an international opera star Gidon travels the world on a regular basis.  This gives him an opportunity to scour flea markets and antique shops for odd bits of material and little things that might just make all the difference to the appearance of someone on stage in our village.  His eye for colour and texture in just the right places is extraordinary and we are so lucky to have him as part of the team, not just to sew but also to share his life's professional experience with everyone taking part in the production.

 

Summer opera

 

How do we portray the River Styx in St Mary's Parish Church before dusk?  These things are always a challenge and our technical genius Tijl Wellens, whose partner Helene Bracke sings Messagiera in this production, has already been working on some ideas.  As Jennifer wrote in a recent e-mail to the cast 'I've just asked Ian [Sommerville - lighting guru from Scotland] about the possibility of making a sort of 'tank' (not with water!) in the middle chunk of the cat-walk stage - for the spirits to do their thing in - (a bit like being in a cage).  I'm hoping that we can pull out the centre and therefore lowest chunk of the catwalk in the interval so we have a chasm which is the river Styx.'  As official Company Manager, my role in these matters should be to limit Jennifer's fertile imagination, or at least restrict it to devising structures within our budget that pose no health and safety risks.  But when in 1997 we began these ventures we purchased some very durable portable (it weighs a ton!!) staging that is reputedly strong enough to support an elephant - some of our singers may be on the large side, but not quite that big.  The equipment has served us well over the years in a variety of formats ranging from the standard elevation of the back rows of a chorus, to providing a raised dance floor (Julius Caesar), a dungeon (Acis & Galatea), and Seneca's bath (Poppea, if I remember correctly). 

 

Summer opera

 

Whether we sing in Italian or English is not really an issue for us these days.  Our first production was Purcell, which was in English anyway, then we tackled Handel (Semele), which was also in English.  Handel's Italian operas translate relatively easily into English so that has seldom been a problem.  For our first Monteverdi, however, we baulked at attempting Italian because of time constraints, so we used an excellent translation by the late Anne Ridler, who generously gave her permission without charge.  That was ten years ago.  Today the music profession puts very different demands on young singers: the Yorke Trust is primarily an educational charity rather than a professional opera company, so these matters have to be given serious consideration.  Fortunately there are experienced language coaches and répétiteurs we are able to call on who share our philosophy and who are happy to give their time freely when they are able to.  Darren Hargan (Messiah 2005, Airman's Tale 2005, Bach 2006) is just such a person.  He cut his conducting teeth in South Creake at the start of his career and is now working with some of the world's top singers at the Zurich opera house.  Fluent now in several languages including Italian, he returns to South Creake to help with the training.

 

Summer opera

 

Our first stab at surtitles (Rameau) was a major step forward - an audience survey had suggested that we should be singing in the original language rather than in English.  But now we've done it once, Ian Sommerville's wife Susan is already up to speed with computerising a projectable summary of the text for the walls of St Mary's.  Again, this isn't so easy to manage before dusk, but we'll come up with a solution somehow.  Use of surtitles enables us not only to remain faithful to Monteverdi's natural word setting, but perhaps even more importantly, everyone on the course has to become accustomed to working in Italian.  When that vital telephone call comes through and a voice enquires, 'We'll be singing in the original language, is that OK for you?', the lucky young singer can reply with a clear conscience and accept his or her first date with a major company in the knowledge that their language skills are in a much better state than they would have been without a course in South Creake.  It has already happened!

 

Summer opera

 

James Halliday, our musical director, is undertaking the first full-length opera for which he will have been entirely responsible.  Having worked alongside some of the foremost experts in the Baroque world (currently with Emmanuelle Haïm in France) his own edition of L'Orfeo will reflect some of the latest scholarship.  He has also been enlisting some of the brightest instrumental sparks from France and Belgium to join him in the pit (well - we don't actually have a pit as such - the instrumentalists are virtually on-stage, which is much the best situation).

 

Summer opera

 

Which all goes to explain why we are able to say an enormous THANK YOU to our sponsors for help with this year's production.  An early offer of assistance of £5,000 from a private source enabled us to go ahead with plans and to promote the course as usual.  Recently we had a surprise donation from our Patron, who has always supported us in a number of ways, and we have also been successful in our application for a grant from the Radcliffe Trust for £3,000.  Our budget is in the region of £30,000, and we do virtually everything more or less from scratch in a mere three weeks.  If all our music staff, coaches, and technical team took a proper fee, the budget would be three times the sum.  This generosity enables us to offer the course to all participants free of charge other than a small contribution towards food costs.  In exceptional cases we are also able to offer a modest contribution to travel costs when necessary.

 

Rodney Slatford, OBE
Chairman

[Most of the images in this article are by Caroline McNamara and were taken
at Yorke Trust productions in 2008 and 2009. Darren Hargan's image is from
Easter 2006.]