Tuesday 10 November 2015

Towards creating new opera - the Helios Collective's Formations masterclasses

On Friday 6 November 2015 I went along to Formations, the first of a series of masterclasses being organised by the Helios Collective in which three short new operas are given supportive coaching by luminaries such as Stephen Unwin, David Parry, Kasper Holten, and Stephen Barlow. These culminate in performance of the three operas at the Arts Theatre on Friday 13 November. The three operas being considered were The Exile by composer Solfa Carlile and librettist Gillian Pencaval, Io Transfigured by Daniel Chappell and Dominic Grove, and Glasstown by Leo Geyer and Martin Kratz.

Friday's masterclass was the first of the sequence, and was led by composer Robert Saxton. Each opera was performed and then Robert Saxton commented and engaged in discussion with the composer and librettist, often further inviting comment from the performers, director and those watching the performances.

The Exile was the first scene of an opera based on an episode in the life of James Joyce, when he and his wife Nora parted. The four characters were Joyce, his wife Nora, the owner of the bookshop Shakespeare and Company, and the character Stephen Dedalus (from Portrait of the Artist as Young Man) who acted as Joyce's conscience. The opera was sung by Isolde Roxby, Lucinda Stuart-Grant, Kieran White and Aaron O'Hare, directed by Lewis Reynolds and conducted by Noah Mosley.

Io Transfigured  was a modern interpretation of the myth of Zeus and Io. In this, Zeus meets Io in a nightclub and the seduction is a near rape which concluded the section of the opera performed. The two lead characters are given shadow companions of a contrasting type, Ted and Stella. The opera was sung by Aaron O'Haare, Lucilla Graham, Letita Perry and Antoine Salmon, directed by Cecilia Stinton and conducted by Noah Mosley.

Masterclass in Progress - Robert Saxton and members of the cast of Io Transfigured
Masterclass in Progress
Robert Saxton and members of the cast of Io Transfigured
Glasstown was one scene from a longer opera, in which four of the stories invented by the Bronte children were told. Each scene is a story told by one of the children, Emily, Anne, Charlotte, Branwell and the production combined music, theatre and dance not only using singers and dancers but having the musicians moving too (and playing from memory). The singers were Heather Caddick, Rose Tachniewska, Rachel Maby and Tom Morss, the dancers were Eloise Hymas, Nicola Migliorati and Thomas Snee. The opera was directed by Ella Marchment, choreographed by Jaered Glavin and conducted by Leo Geyer.

The musicians for all three were Katy Ovens (flute), Michael Newman (cello), Oliver Till (piano), Sacha Rattle (clarinet) and Tim Rathbone (violin).

It is always unnerving having your work performed in public for the first time, and even more so when you know that the audience is going to dissect it afterwards. Robert Saxton was admirably supportive in his comments, whilst always getting to the nub of details which could be improved. He was clearly concerned about text, and in all three operas he identified moments when the text did not come over with clarity. The advantage of the masterclass format was the ideas could be tried out, and for each of the operas we had the fascinating procedure of taking short sections and re-scoring them, working out other possible ideas. Another area for consideration was the way the voices were written for, especially the sense of whether the composers had given each character sufficient individuality.

The Exile impressed for the imaginative way the libretto introduced the two extra characters, particularly with Stephen Dedalus as Joyce's conscience; and with Solfa Carlisle's confident handling of orchestral forces. Io Transfigured again impressed for the use of two pairs of characters, an earthly pair and a heavenly pair; Daniel Chappell's music included some highly imaginative clubbing music whilst successfully evoking the emotional content of the drama. Leo Geyer's Glasstown was an amazing piece of total theatre which generated a great deal of discussion about what could and couldn't be done in the way of combining music, dance, singing and everything else.

The masterclasses continue all week, with the final presentations on Friday 13 November at the Arts Theatre, when I hope to be present to report back.

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