Thursday 28 May 2015

A tea party to celebrate Alice's return to the Yucca Lawn

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Opera Holland Park - 2014,  photo credit Alex Brenner
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Opera Holland Park - 2014,  photo credit Alex Brenner
Will Todd’s opera Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was originally commissioned by Opera Holland Park as a follow up to their previous family opera, which was a production of Tobias Picker’s The Fabulous Mr Fox. Alice was successfully premiered in 2013 and returned for further performances in 2014. Now the production is returning again in 2015, with many of the original cast still in their roles in Martin Duncan’s production. The production is performed out of doors on the Yucca Lawn in Holland Park, but will be heading indoors in November when the production transfers to the Linbury Theatre, at the Royal Opera House. Such is the success of the opera that a studio recording has been made and is being issued on Signum Records.

Opera Holland Park had tea party on Tuesday 26 May 2015 to celebrate both the recording and Alice’s return to the Yucca Lawn for the third year. Chatting to all those involved in the production from producers James Clutton and Sarah Crabtree (from Opera Holland Park) to composer Will Todd, cast members Fflur Wyn (Alice), John Lofthouse (March Hare/White Knight), Keel Watson (Caterpillar) and conductor Matthew Waldren, it was noticeable how enthusiastic all were about the piece and how much it was clear that they cared for it, feeling that it is very much their piece.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the tea party - Opera Holland Park - 2014,  photo credit Alex Brenner
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the tea party - Opera Holland Park - 2014,  photo credit Alex Brenner
This year, Fflur Wyn is doubling singing Alice with the title role in Opera Holland Park's production of Delibes' Lakme (which also features Matthew Waldren in the pit), but Fflu will still be singing as many Alice performances as possible. She says that she loves Alice, finding both the music and the libretto strong and in an imaginative production. For her, as for the other cast members, the music is imaginative and accessible yet not patronising or dumbed down. In fact, she finds that the children come out of the performance humming the tunes which is a mark of its success.

Talking to Will Todd, he was emphatic that part of the work’s success has lay in the strongly supportive atmosphere that Opera Holland Park developed, including putting more than adequate resources into its creation. Will feels that as a composer he works best when relaxed, and the whole process of developing the piece helped him bring out his best so that even the last minute changes such as the addition of linking songs for the Victorians (characters who link the scenes and usher the audience around) brought strong material from him.

Will Todd is perhaps best known for his Mass in Blue which merges his two musical loves, jazz and the English choral tradition, but his style is far wider than this including works which he feels are just as strong but which have not managed to achieve the same popularity. With Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Will seems all set to have another popular success. His style is naturally melodic and he did not make any conscious decision to write down, instead the family element in the work comes from his care over the length of the scenes and narrative clarity. He confessed that he has always found the Alice books a little weird; the individual episode are strong but he did not think they added up to a narrative. For Will, an opera needs to give the audience a reason for being there and particularly for a family audience he felt that the narrative could be stronger. So in the opera the familiar Alice story has been put into the context of a quest for Alice which means that there is a strong narrative thread to draw people in and a satisfying denouement. From the outside the piece can look very simple, but Will Todd feels that this does not mean that it has to be simplistic

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Opera Holland Park - 2014,  photo credit Alex Brenner
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Opera Holland Park - 2014,  photo credit Alex Brenner
The opera is performed as a promenade production with everyone, cast, musicians and audience, moving round the Yucca Lawn. Soprano Fflur Wyn, who sings Alice, was highly complimentary about the imaginative nature of Martin Duncan’s production and Leslie Travers designs. This isn’t the first one of Martin Duncan’s productions that Fflur Wyn has been in, she was in his production of Offenbach’s Vert Vert at Garsington last year and sang in later performances of Jonathan Dove’s Pinnochio in Martin Duncan’s production at Opera North.

Working with children can be a challenge, particularly when the production is so informal and the audience can literally touch you, and children have no compunction at letting you know what they feel. Martin Duncan was very concerned in the production to ensure that the cast all conveyed the reality of the story, the characters are in their own world and there is no sense of irony. The success of this means that, at the end when Fflur Wyn talks to the young audience members, they have clearly been on the journey with Alice and believe her to be a 12 year old girl.

But the intention behind the opera was always to appeal to both adults and children, and when he was writing it Will Todd was concerned to include essential detail in the orchestra even though it might not be heard. For Will there is a clear narrative thread running through the orchestration, with characters’ leitmotifs being repeated and in fact some of these details were sketched out as he composed rather than being applied later. Clearly this has paid off, because everyone was looking forward to the indoor performances at the Linbury Theatre in November, when the indoor acoustic will bring out more of the orchestral detail.

Not that the production has never played indoors, on bad days they transfer to the Opera Holland Park main stage, but Fflur Wyn commented that they had been very lucky with the weather in the last two years and had hardly ever been indoors. It is a very physical production, everyone moves and the Victorians sing a semi-improvised songs to piano accordion accompaniment as they usher the audience between scenes. The outdoor setting does provide some magical visual coups but of course, when in the Linbury Theatre there will be the addition of a whole lighting plot. Playing out of doors does have its drawbacks even in good weather, and when warm the cast could often end up sweltering (particulary Robert Burt who plays the heavily upholstered Red Queen). In fact the outdoors has interesting effects, with the wind and humidity making acoustical changes and of course on windy days it was difficult to hear the orchestra which meant that everyone had to rely simply on conductor Matthew Waldren. The recording was, of course, made indoors in a recording studio but it was recorded as live in long takes to try to keep the energy of the original

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice and the roses - Opera Holland Park - 2014, , photo credit Alex Brenner
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice and the roses - Opera Holland Park - 2014, , photo credit Alex Brenner
By the end of this year, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland will have notched up 50 performances over three years, plus a studio recording and a transfer to the Royal Opera House. Not bad at all for a contemporary opera, which does at times sound contemporary, in a world which can be very unforgiving to modern opera which fails to deliver. But of course, the younger audience members do not necessarily realise that contemporary opera may be difficult, and they are drawn into the narrative. The crazy topsy turvy world of the narrative also meant that Will Todd felt he had a freedom to be himself and simply write music which worked for the situation whether it be melodic, or more complex contemporary harmonies, or jazz.

If you haven't already seen the opera, then do beg or borrow a child and get along to Holland Park. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland will be playing from 16 July to 1 August 2015 (see the Opera Holland Park website for exact dates), and will then be at the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House from 5 to 7 November 2015. And of course you will will be able to buy the disc from Signum Records later next month (June 2015).

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