Saturday, 21 March 2015

An encounter with John Savournin of Charles Court Opera - a passion for Gilbert and Sullivan

Ruddigore - Charles Court Opera - Sir Despard (John Savournin) and Dick Dauntless (Philip Lee) Photo Bill Knight
Ruddigore - Charles Court Opera
Sir Despard (John Savournin) and Dick Dauntless (Philip Lee)
Photo Bill Knight
Charles Court Opera has just come to the end of a run of Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore, a Hammer Horror style production at the King's Head Theatre in Islington (see Hilary's review on this blog). The group is also celebrating its 10th anniversary, no bad innings for a fringe opera group. So I met up with founder, baritone John Savournin (who played Sir Despard in Ruddigore and directed the show) to chat about the company and its first ten years.

John comments that the idea of 10 years rather catches up on him unawares, and whilst so much has happened he can still imagine what they were 10 years ago. The group was founded very much as a platform for young singers to have an outlet in London and has just developed. John ruefully admits that they are now not all so young but the group is there to do good work for which they all share a passion, and whilst they are noted for Gilbert and Sullivan the repertoire is in fact broader.

John had an itch for directing as a teenager, but though he experimented with it, it was a singer that he studied at Trinity College in London. Describing his family as 'entrenched in G&S culture', when John met David Eaton (who remains the group's musical director) at Trinity, putting on a Gilbert and Sullivan concert there was a way of preserving his Gilbert and Sullivan links. They tried a Gilbert and Sullivan show at the Rosemary Branch Theatre in Islington and it was very well received. The resulting progress has been organic, but John says that it was not all planned carefully. They now have their boutique pantomime at the Rosemary Branch Theatre, seasons at the King's Head Theatre as well as elsewhere. There have been tours too, to Lanzarote and the new concert hall in Dublin.

They started with Gilbert and Sullivan and still have a passion for it, and more performances of Ruddigore are planned along with The Mikado. Whilst there is clearly an audience for Gilbert and Sullivan, John and his performers also enjoy performing the operas because they still find new things in them, and learn more about them each time they perform one.

Patience - Charles Court Opera - Andrew Tweedale as Saphir, David Phipps-Davis as Bunthorne, Amy J Payne as Lady Jane and Helen Evora as Angela, photo Bill Knight
Patience - Charles Court Opera
Andrew Tweedale (Saphir), David Phipps-Davis (Bunthorne), Amy J Payne (Lady Jane), Helen Evora (Angela)
photo Bill Knight
They have also done eight boutique pantos so far (with another planned for this Christmas), at the Rosemary Branch Theatre. These are pantomimes in a small theatre, 'everything in a 6 by 6 space' with music as the driving force. Like the company, the pantomimes have developed and the stories they use are now completely original, with a huge range of music. Once the run of Ruddigore is over John and David Eaton will sit down to plan this year's panto; quite a challenge having a completely blank page.

They group has performed other repertoire including Britten Turn of the Screw, and John is interested in broadening their repertoire whilst keeping the trademark Gilbert and Sullivan, and pantos (and John considers there to be a link between the two). They have loyal supporters always keen to come back. John sees this was something of a rarity with a fringe group, and their regular audience has become something of a family with many faces they have grown to know. For John the atmosphere is heart-warming and the annual pantomime performance are something of a security blanket. But this isn't just why they do it, they enjoy creating original work and having such a free rein. Their pantomime performances John describes as a mixture of music hall, burlesque and stand-up with the audience in close proximity, feeling the atmosphere. The performers very much do the pantomimes as an alternative to opera, and it is clear that they provide an outlet for different skills and performance styles (and very addictive). John is artistic director with David Eaton as the resident music director, and they jointly make artistic decisions. They have developed a strong working relationship, and a group of core performers.

Beowulf - Charles Court Opera in 2011 - Amy J Payne (Wiglaf),Catrine Kirkman (Princess Hrothmund), Simon Masterton-Smith (King Hrothgar), Kevin Kyle (Beowulf), John Savournin (Grendel's Mother) Philip Lee (Grendel),  Photographer: Richard Davenport
Beowulf - Charles Court Opera in 2011
Amy J Payne (Wiglaf),Catrine Kirkman (Princess Hrothmund), Simon Masterton-Smith (King Hrothgar), Kevin Kyle (Beowulf), John Savournin (Grendel's Mother) Philip Lee (Grendel)
Photographer: Richard Davenport
The group isn't John's only musical interest and he has a lively career as a freelance singer and regards himself as lucky with performances at Opera North and Scottish Opera. He also directs regularly, directing Barber of Seville at the Musique Cordiale Festival in the South of France last year and working with the National Gilbert and Sullivan Company. Future engagements include two further productions with the National Gilbert and Sullivan Company, work for Opera Holland Park's Inspire Project as well as Jonathan Dove's Flight there, directing Tosca in the open air and a return the Musique Cordiale Festival to direct Tosca.

A lot of his work outside Charles Court Opera can be traced to his activities with the group. Work in opera has come about because people have seen Charles Court Opera productions, and taking the company to the Gilbert and Sullivan Festival led to John developing a relationship with the National Gilbert and Sullivan Company. And it is similar for the other performers too.

The Three Musketeers - Charles Court Opera (2012) - John Savournin as Mother Superior. Photo credit Bill Knight
The Three Musketeers - Charles Court Opera (2012)
John Savournin as Mother Superior. Photo credit Bill Knight
Being a fringe company, finance is never easy and Charles Court Opera remains unfunded, so totally dependent on the box office. They are currently working on a friends scheme, but they are pleased that they can keep going on their existing basis.

Whilst John believes that Gilbert and Sullivan's operas always respond to the punch and energy which the performers at Charles Court Opera try to inject into them, he admits that he would not apply this approach to more serious works such as Turn of the Screw which the group has performed.  Even in Gilbert and Sullivan, John considers there to be a fine line between over the top and believable. He regards it as essential that the performance be truthful, and then characters can be as over top as you want, including breaking the fourth wall. After all the pieces were built to be entertaining. But with this freedom goes a care for fidelity to the text, which is rare nowadays with Gilbert and Sullivan performances. John usually only makes changes if logistics demand it (such has having only three maidens in Patience rather than the prescribed 'twenty love-sick maidens'.

Next month (starting 19 April) the group will be performing The Zoo in a double bill with Trial by Jury in a double bill in Sunday afternoons. And of course, in December there is their (as yet unnamed) panto to look forward to in December.
Elsewhere on this blog:

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