Saturday, 20 April 2019

Education is key: I chat to conductor Nicholas Chalmers about Nevill Holt Opera & its new theatre

Nevill Holt Hall (left) and the stables (right) which house Nevill Holt Opera (photo Robert Workman)
Nevill Holt Hall (left) and the stables (right) which house Nevill Holt Opera (photo Robert Workman)
Opera at the historic Nevill Holt estate started in 2005 (the hall itself dates back to 1300), initially via a relationship with Grange Park Opera, but in 2013 Nevill Holt Opera was started as an independent company under the artistic directorship of conductor Nicholas Chalmers. The young company's confidence has grown and in 2018 the temporary theatre within the 18th century stables at Nevill Holt was replaced by an outstanding permanent theatre. This season the company is performing Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, and I met up with Nicholas Chalmers to talk about the season, the new theatre and the company's distinctive vision for opera and education in the East Midlands.


Nicholas Chalmers (Photo Mark Pinder)
Nicholas Chalmers (Photo Mark Pinder)
Founding a new company is always a challenge, and from the outset the intention was to focus on the East Midlands for the audience. Whilst the location of Nevill Holt (near Market Harborough in Leicestershire) is relatively convenient for those in North London, the entrepreneur David Ross (who owns the Nevill Holt Estate) was interested in developing the local audiences in an area where operatic and music provision is poor. Ross also has an interest in a series of Academies in the area (through the David Ross Education Trust), which focus on music and sport, and so education was a big requirement also.

Nicholas Chalmers, who was on the music staff of English National Opera from 2008 to 2011, has a background in establishing companies of a similar scale to Nevill Holt, as he worked at Northern Ireland Opera with director Oliver Mears (now director of opera at the Royal Opera House) and is a founding artistic director of Second Movement. With Second Movement, Nicholas created Rough for Opera, the scratch night for opera which provides a place for composers and librettists to try new work out; Nicholas describes it as 'a safe environment to get things wrong'.

Thomas Ades: Powder her face - Stephen Richardson, Daire Halpin - Nevill Holt Opera 2018 (Photo Patrick Redmond)
Thomas Ades: Powder her face - Stephen Richardson, Daire Halpin
Nevill Holt Opera 2018 (Photo Patrick Redmond)
This was all experience on which he could build when creating Nevill Holt Opera, when there was pressure to establish the new company's artistic credentials early one. Initially Nicholas relied quite heavily on people he had already worked with but the company now has the confidence to broaden its operations and think about a bigger festival. Core to the company's beliefs is not just a three week season of opera for visitors from London, but providing artistic services and opera in a region which is underprivileged in the arts, to bring the community together. So there are activities all the year round, with significant education programmes and part of the company's remit is to provide opportunities for the academies in the area linked to the David Ross Education Trust. So that Nicholas has been creating a mini-Midsummer Nights Dream which involves primary schools learning songs from the opera and the secondary schools providing the lovers and the mechanicals, all coming together for performances and inviting the children and their parents to the dress rehearsal of the main stage production of A Midsummer Nights Dream.

Nevill Holt Opera has also been developing new orchestral partnerships, with the Royal Northern Sinfonia (which plays in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte this year) and the Britten Sinfonia (which plays in the Britten A Midsummer Night's Dream). And these are helping to extend the company's reach as when the Summer season closes, Nevill Holt Opera and the Royal Northern Sinfonia will be taking the production of Cosi fan Tutte to the Sage Gateshead (the Royal Northern Sinfonia's home) for two performances. Again, this is an area which is under-provided for opera, and Nevill Holt Opera will be taking its education programme to the area too.

Britten: Noyes Fludde - Nevill Holt Opera 2017
Britten: Noyes Fludde - Nevill Holt Opera 2017
Nicholas is developing a Mozart strand to the company's output (last year featured La nozze di Figaro), which will be accompanied by the Royal Northern Sinfonia, whilst the more contemporary pieces will be accompanied by the Cambridge-based Britten Sinfonia. Last year, the Britten Sinfonia accompanied the company's production of Thomas Ades' Powder her Face (directed by Antony McDonald in a production originally seen at Northern Ireland Opera), and the sinfonia also provided the orchestra for a December 2018 performance of Handel's Messiah with young artists.

The company's repertoire was deliberately developed to give opportunities for children and a children's chorus. This was developed with children from local schools, and over a period the company has built a relationship with the children and the schools. So that this year, rather than bringing in an established children's chorus for the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the company is using its own children's chorus built up from local children. Many of the adult soloists in A Midsummer Night's Dream are former young artists with the company, and counter-tenor Tim Morgan (who sings Oberon) is a local Leicestershire boy.

This education aspect to his work is clearly something which interests Nicholas, he is also running the youth opera at the Royal Opera House, working with children aged 13 to 18 with the idea of taking young kids who sang as trebles and ensuring that they keep singing when they get older. Opportunities for teenage boys to sing at secondary school level are poor and many just give up. Based on his experiences, Nicholas is creating a book of arrangements for youth choir which, when complete, will be available free on the Royal Opera House website with extra material, backing tracks and such like.

Nevill Holt Opera education workshop with Nicholas Chalmers
Nevill Holt Opera education workshop with Nicholas Chalmers
The advantage of a company like Nevill Holt Opera is that small companies can easily and quickly adapt so that education programmes can be tailored to suit circumstances, and he points out the example of Opera North which has an amazing education programme. Yet, though different companies have strong education programmes each is different, and Nicholas feels that there needs to be a greater degree of joined up thinking, that companies need to work collectively to come up with a country-wide policy. In the light of the poor provision in music and the arts education from central government, the gaps are often filled by education programmes from small companies and Nicholas feels that increasing the amount of collaboration and pooling resources would help.

Part of the role of education, Nicholas feels, is to show children the options open to them. So rather than dumbing art down, we should not be embarrassed by the art form and show that good art, telling a good story, is something to aspire to. So, whilst it is important to have entry-level events, it is also crucial to bring people into contact with the upper echelons of the operatic art and show that if they are willing to engage with it, they can be transported.

There are also commercial realities to programme the season. Many of the audiences for the mini-Midsummer Night's Dream regarded the piece as rather contemporary and hard on the ear. Yet a piece like Thomas Ades' Powder her Face, which the company performed last year, sold out. Nicholas admits that he has learned a lot of commercial lessons from David Ross and that running the company is about finding the balance between pushing artistic boundaries and sound commercial decisions.

Verdi: Rigoletto - Nevill Holt Opera 2017
Verdi: Rigoletto - Nevill Holt Opera 2017
Nicholas feels that the new theatre is the perfect size for Mozart operas and this strand of programming will be continuing. Yet the acoustic, with its intimacy and its sympathy with making the text clear, works with contemporary opera too.  Baroque opera is another area where the company might go as the theatre is an ideal size for this too.

One of the issues with any opera is length, with a festival like Nevill Holt Opera operas cannot be too long. Nicholas is realistic and admits that you have to see the complete evening as a total experience which involves the time before hand, to eat and drink and explore the stunning gardens, and the long dinner interval. All this means that the length of the musical performance is crucial, and longer operas are inevitably trimmed.

This is true of Cosi fan tutte, which is being performed in Adele Thomas' production which was originally given at Northern Ireland Opera in 2017 This was Thomas' first opera production and she has gone on to direct Handel's Berenice for the London Handel Festival at the Royal Opera House [see my review].

Within two or three years of the company's founding, David Ross was talking about a new theatre and this came to fruition in 2018, designed by architects Witherford Watson Mann in conjunction with theatre designers Sound Space Vision. When Nicholas and I talked, the building had been nominated in the Midlands category for the early stages of the RIBA Stirling Prize, and they were expecting a visit from the RIBA.

Nevill Holt Opera - the new theatre (Photo Robert Workman)
Nevill Holt Opera - the new theatre (Photo Robert Workman)
Nicholas describes the theatre as a beautiful insertion into the 18th century stable year, satisfying all the restrictions placed on it by English Heritage - they couldn't build above the roof line because the view from the village had to stay the same, and they could not expand the footprint. But they could dig down, which is how the new theatre seats 400 as opposed to the old theatre's 340, and they have increased the pit from 34 players to 50 players. The result pairs the original 18th century brickwork walls with modern wooden insertion. The acoustics and technical design are outstanding and Nicholas feels that it real projects the sound of young voices, and you can hear the text. The project came in on budget and on time, and it works. Nicholas describes the result as joyous.

Nevill Holt Opera 2019
  • Benjamin Britten - A Midsummer Night's Dream - 12,13, 15, 16 June; Director Anna Morrissey, conductor Nicholas Chalmers, Britten Sinfonia
  • Mozart - Cosi fan tutte - 26, 27, 29, 30 June; Director Adele Thomas, conductor Nicholas Chalmers, Royal Northern Sinfonia
Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • The topsyturvydom effervesced: HMS Pinafore from Charles Court Opera (★★★½) - opera review
  • A very human St John Passion: Solomon's Knot in Bach without conductor and from memory (★★★★) - concert review
  • Piano day: two venues, three pianists, two pianos - Sunday morning at Wigmore Hall and Sunday evening at Conway Hall - concert review
  • Barrie Kosky’s imaginative production of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story returns to the Komische Oper, Berlin - music theatre review
  • Small-scale delights at the edge of Handel’s London: Chandos Anthems & Trio Sonatas at St Lawrence Whitchurch (★★★½)  - concert review
  • The stars shine in Verdi's La forza del destino at Covent Garden despite a rather disappointing production (★★★½) - opera review
  • 'Costly Canaries': Mr Handel's Search for Super-Stars at the London Handel Festival (★★★½)  - concert review
  • In search of Youkali: the life & songs of Kurt Weill at Pizza Express Live  - concert review
  • Opera speaks to everyone: I chat to soprano Alison Buchanan about Pegasus Opera & their new double bill Shaw goes Wilde  - interview
  • A musical encounter between two traditions: classical guitarist Christoph Denoth's exploration of tango - Tanguero: Music from South America  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Barrie Kosky’s production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide at Komische Opera, Berlin
    (★★★★ - musical theatre review
  • Neapolitan extravagance and a strange wedding present: Handel's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo  - (★★★★concert review
  • Home

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