Tuesday 26 June 2012

Co-operating towards opera

Co-Opera Company, 2011 seasonI recently I met up with soprano Kate Flowers, one of the co-founders of Co-Opera Co. to talk about the company and its forthcoming season at the John McIntosh Theatre in the London Oratory School.

Kate Flowers's career was on the up, she'd made her Covent Garden debut and her London Coliseum debut, she was appearing at Garsington in Rossini's La Gazetta and was about to go to Nantes for Powder her Face. Then she had to go into hospital for a routine thyroid operation. It turned out not to be quite routine, but something good would come of it. Co-Opera Co. An opera company which helps opera singers get experience.

After the operation she lost her voice and it took nearly five years to get back both the voice and her confidence in it. Partly to find out if she could still do it, and partly to see if she still wanted to, she took a small role in a touring production.  The answer to both the questions was yes. But on stage, with predominantly young singers who had been in the business only a couple of years, she was shocked to find that she was performing with a singer whose first time ever it was on stage. That singer was planning to sign up for college again, simply because it was the only way she stood a chance to get stage time. And she wasn't the only one lacking the basics.

Over a long, rather boozy, evening in Dublin she shared stories with the lighting designer and production manager, Paul Need. He had had similar experiences and they decided to do something about it. They created Co-Opera Co. And opera company which helps young singers and whose ethos came out of something Kate did when planning the very first season. She opened her address book and contact all those friends in the business. Co-Opera Co is based on the co-operation of members, Kate's contemporaries, who give up time to work with younger performers.

Kate comes from the generation of opera singers who had moved opera from stand and deliver. Peter Jonas had taken her under hiswing at college and her first production was directed by David Pountney. Her experiences had made her realise that it was important to pass some of this on. The voice is important, supremely so, but what everybody else is doing on stage is important too. So she decided to start giving something back and doing some training, but this developed into a full blown series of workshops.

Co-Opera Company, 2011 season
Contacting friends such as Tom Allen, Yvonne Howard and Felicity Lott, they agreed to help. One of the first people involved was Philip Langridge, who came knocking on Kate's door and was involved from the start, complaining after six hours of workshop that he hadn't had enough time. In early 2008 they ran a series of workshops in the London Buddist Centre in Bethnal Green. These covered every aspect of opera production and, such was the enthusiasm and quality of the young singers, that they decided to go the whole way, and do full blown opera productions. So in May 2008, Ashley Dean directed Albert Herring and William Relton directed La Boheme, with Tim Murray and Nicholas Cleobury conducting. The operas were rehearsed and produced in three weeks, on virtually no money. That first year they performed in London and in Portsmouth but subsequent years they have done bigger tours.

The tours are important. Partly to give the young singers experience touring with the vagaries of facilities available in different theatres. It is a challenge to young singers, learning to go on tour, showing them what its like to sing in other places. The company has gradually increased the amount of touring, with seven venues and ten dates in 2010, 25 performances in 12 venues in 2011. In some smaller places, it is tricky taking two productions as the audience is not seen as big enough for two evenings, but they are being asked back. And in 2012 they will be touring two new productions, Don Giovanni and Hansel and Gretel as well as reviving last year's Magic Flute.

But also, the touring dates can make a small profit which is ploughed back into the company. The operas are put on with a tiny budget, Kate quotes proudly that they can create a new production for just £22,000 all in, one that looks and sounds good. In fact the whole company operates on a tight budget; the members who tutor the young singers are paid and some of the young singers pay something to take part. The company operates without any outside funding, so relies on profits from touring and the contributions from participants to pay for the costs of the workshops and the opera productions. Their financial situation has been improving so that they have been able to steadily reduce the amount asked of participants. For the first time, soloists in the touring operas will not be asked for a contribution. In fact, the cost to the singer would seem like a good deal as for the sort of coaching and workshops Co-Opera provide, outside fees are not cheap.

They have around 350 to 400 singers applying to take part, many more good singers than they can use. So that in 2012 they are doing an extra training production. Over an intensive three week period, 30 singers will rehearse and put on Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Nights Dream. This will be directed by Jacquie Crago a voice coach who, since the Co-Opera Co was founded, has done vocal workshops with the singers, doing important work helping the singers release tension and learn to simply be on stage without doing anything.

The company's system of using members, experienced professionals, to coach the young singers ensures that that younger singers learn by working with their seniors. Kate has strong memories of working with Peter Pears when she was a young singer and feels that it is important the the modern crop of young singers get the same experiences. It also has the added advantage that the young singers can sometimes come to the notice of people and make an impression. As much as anything else, it is about making connections.

This years productions will use a total of nearly 80 singers, who will get training, coaching and experience. Less experienced singers, who are not ready for solo roles, are used in the chorus and all solo roles are covered. Currently they do an intensive season in August with touring in the autumn, but next year there is a possibility of working over a longer period.

London performances take place at the John McIntosh Theatre in the London Oratory School, a lovely venue behind Chelsea Football Ground which Kate feels deserves to be better known.

Don Giovanni is on 22 and 24 August, Hansel and Gretel is on 23 and 25 August, with touring to Wolverhampton, Yeovil, Croydon, Darlington, Bury St. Edmunds, Epsom, Manchester, Wellingborough and Buxton. Further details for the Co-opera Co website.

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