Saturday 21 October 2017

Not just a vanity project: Sophie Gilpin introduces HeadFirst's Festival of Love, Death and Sex

Samuel Pantcheff & Elizabeth Roberts rehearsing for HeadFirst Productions Don Giovanni
Samuel Pantcheff & Elizabeth Roberts rehearsing for
HeadFirst Productions new production of Mozat's Don Giovanni
HeadFirst Productions is presenting Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Pleasance Theatre (Carpenters Mews, North Road, London N7 9EF) as part of a Festival of Love, Death and Sex. Intriguingly Don Giovanni is being presented by an all-women team with director Sophie Gilpin (founder and artistic director of HeadFirst Productions, conductor Sonia Ben Santamaria and designer Anna Bonomelli. I recently met up with Sophie Gilpin, the day before the start of rehearsals, to find out more about what we can expect.

Having a female-led team is important to Sophie, she comments that frequently she notices she is the only woman in the room and this imbalance seems to have become the norm on operatic projects. Yet at networking events for under 30s arts professionals there are fare more women and Sophie feels that this reflects the disparity which there is between people running high level arts organisations and lower level ones, with women far more prevalent in the latter.

And Don Giovanni is such a male-orientated story, where women can be seen as passive playthings telling Giovanni's story. So Sophie wants to approach the work from the other way round, with the Don telling the women's story; strong independent women who can't help but be attracted to something in Giovanni. Sophie plans to start from there and explore; she promises 'nothing too mad', and adds that it is a very tough opera.

The setting will be contemporary, but there will be no technology on stage (so no iPhones). They have avoided a specific date, partly because in a specific setting the supernatural element can become a bit of stretch. Sophie feels that the dramatic stakes are only high if Don Giovanni's descent to hell is the real end-game, that Leporello's fear has to be genuine so that there is something upsetting about it.

Sian Cameron & Ian Beadle rehearsing for HeadFirst Productions Don Giovanni
Sian Cameron & Ian Beadle rehearsing for
HeadFirst Productions' Don Giovanni
She finds Don Giovanni interesting, seeing him as a megalomaniac type who knows his lifestyle cannot continue and feels he might as well do what he wants whilst he is young and virile. The main design element is a clock, giving the feeling of the count down to the end and she comments that there are lots of references to time in the piece.

She also finds the narrative fascinating as the opera is not traditionally structured with a beginning, middle and end, we very much start at the end of the story. This presents a director with a fascinating challenge, starting in the middle of a story.

The version being performed will largely be a traditional one, though there are cuts (no 'Il mio tesoro' and no shaving scene), and there will be discreet cuts in some ensembles and odd phrases in the recitative. This is partly because Sophie and her team are very aware that Don Giovanni will be the first classic opera performed at the Pleasance Theatre, so they are targeting a non-operatic audience. When asking friends who don't go to the opera, what it is that they do not like about it Sophie found that it was very much the length and the declamatory element which put first timers off.

They want the production to be both dark and funny, not too long, bold and exciting. Sophie wants to ensure that the performers make an immediate connection with the audience members, who will see the performers sweat and feel the characters are real human beings. And this is quite a challenge in a theatre..

The accompaniment will be by a small band, piano, cello, violin and clarinet (doubling bass clarinet) with the players being on-stage. There will be a separate conductor, which Sophie feels is important in this piece, rather than being directed from the keyboard. The company performed La Boheme in 2014 with the same instrumental ensemble, and both orchestrations were done by the composer Danyal Dhondy.

Puccini: La Boheme - Natalie Montakhab & Pauls Putnins - HeadFirst Productions 2014

Natalie Montakhab & Pauls Putnins
Puccini: La Boheme 2014
It was this production of La Boheme which started the company. Sophie had been desperate to put on her own work and had been in discussions with the tenor Ashley Catling about doing La Boheme and they pulled things together so that Sophie became a producer and director. Around La Boheme they did other events, including a concert as well as education work with children and with addicts (through rehabilitation charity). Then in 2015 Sophie and the company put on a six-hour concert for Nepal in Spitalfields.

Sophie feels that there is lots of exciting work happening in the opera world, but that much of it is in the smaller scale companies working in churches, pubs and found spaces. Sophie wants HeadFirst Productions to aim more at mid-scale performances in theatres. with high production values and paid work for the performers, an area where there are fewer companies operating. And Sophie aims at good singers for her soloists, with many of them covering their roles with bigger opera companies.

I ask about the economics of all this, and Sophie laughs. They managed to get some Arts Council funding for La Boheme in 2014, but for Don Giovanni the company is relying on trusts, foundations, sponsorship and, of course, income from the box office.

Doing Don Giovanni in the context of a 10-day festival means that they can do five performances of the opera and do other things on the non-Giovanni days.Thus removing the need for either the theatre to be dark or a second cast be engaged (which would be necessary for a 10 day run). And she feels that it is a nice way for opera-goers to be able to see other thing such as dance and physical theatre, and they are offering attractive combo tickets.

Sophie Gilpin
Sophie Gilpin
Sophie has been fund-raising for more than a year, and not quite reached target yet. It could easily be a full-time job, and she is not getting paid for her time but needs to raise the money in order for the cast to be paid. She comments that there is something of an inequality in arts funding, as £10,000 would go such a long way for a company the size of HeadFirst Productions, whilst being only a small part of a grant for a bigger company.  And, of course, the way the system works means that companies have to set projects up before they know that they have funding. And with the contraction of Arts Council funding, small trusts and foundations are getting over saturated with requests. Sophie thinks that she wrote around 100 applications, yet got only two or three positive responses. But she adds, that you know this when you go into the industry.

The other events in the festival include The Extraordinary Cabaret of Dorian Gray from Ruby in the Dust Theatre. This is a cabaret/musical theatre piece, and the company showcased the work in the spiegeltent on the Southbank this summer but this will be a new version. Sophie promises something vibrant and colourful. Other events in the festival include a master-class with the distinguished baritone Sir Thomas Allen.

Sophie is interested in both theatre and opera, that there is more opera on her CV came about more by chance than design. She did a theatre degree at Warwick University. This was an academic, written course but she was also involved in founding the Shakespeare Society. She had done ASM work as a teenager in opera, and this seems to have given her a way in and her first job was as a trainee director with OperaUpClose. She now does freelance work, and will be assistant director with Opera North later this year, whilst HeadFirst is for creating new work, and she is still very much interested in new writing in the theatre as well.

Further ahead, as a result of developing a connection with the restaurant Ponti's Italian Kitchen, HeadFirst will be doing a taster event at the London restaurant in October providing music at the end of dinner, and a similar thing in Sheffield in November. These will be aimed at a non-operatic audience, and in Sheffield the restaurant is based in an area where the arts provision is limited.

She sees HeadFirst as a theatre and opera company, and the festival enables them to extended their artistic network by doing plays and cabaret as well as opera. And it means that she can showcase work other than her own, which ensures that HeadFirst is not just a vanity project.

HeadFirst Productions - A Festival of Sex, Love & Death
The Pleasance Theatre, Islington
26th October - 4th November 2017
26th, 29th, 30th October & 1st, 3rd November
2nd November
27th October & 4th November
28th October
31st October
29th October

Elsewhere on this blog:

1 comment:

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