Wednesday 10 April 2019

Opera speaks to everyone: I chat to soprano Alison Buchanan about Pegasus Opera & their new double bill 'Shaw goes Wilde'

Philip Hagemann: Ruth - Alison Buchanan - Pegasus Opera in 2018 (Photo Sharron Wallace)
Philip Hagemann: Ruth - Alison Buchanan - Pegasus Opera in 2018 (Photo Sharron Wallace)
Under the title Shaw goes Wilde Pegasus Opera is presenting a double bill of one-act operas by the American composer Philip Hagemann at the Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music this week (12-14 April 2019), showcasing operas based on Oscar Wilde’s The Nightingale and The Rose and George Bernard Shaw’s The Music Cure, directed by Louise Bakker. The operas star soprano Alison Buchanan (who is artistic director of Pegasus Opera), baritone Peter Brathwaite (who sings in the premiere of my opera The Gardeners in June this year), and baritone Oliver Brignall. I popped along to rehearsals last week to catch up with Alison, and to hear a little of the music.

This is not the first time that Pegasus Opera has performed Philip Hagemann's music, the company presented another double bill of his operas last year, Ruth and The Dark Lady of the Sonnets [see the review in The Stage]. It turns out, as Alison explains, that she and Philip Hagemann are old friends. She sang in Zandonai's Conchita at the Wexford Festival in 2000 and Philip Hagemann and his partner were there and made contact with her. It turned out that Alison was moving to the USA as she was marrying am American, so the contact with Philip continued. She sang with his choir, and through his involvement with the Opera Index competition she met a lot of people. Through Hagemann Rosenthal Associates, Philip Hagemann and Murray Rosenthal are theatrical producers in the USA. It was their suggestion for Pegasus Opera to do Hagemann's pieces, and in fact they are sponsoring the production. For a small company like Pegasus Opera, Alison saw this as a way for them to be current, to perform material which had little UK exposure and, in the settings of classic authors, gives audiences an interesting way into opera.

Philip Hagemann: The Dark Lady of the Sonnets -  Pegasus Opera in 2018 (Photo Sharron Wallace)
Philip Hagemann: The Dark Lady of the Sonnets -  Pegasus Opera in 2018 (Photo Sharron Wallace)
Alison describes Philip Hagemann's music as tonal and lyrical. Shaw's Music Cure elicits music which is very witty (and from the excerpt I heard in rehearsal, delights in its references to other operas), whilst Wilde's The Nightingale and the Rose is a darker, fairy-tale. Hagemann started out as a teacher and is noted choral conductor, so he has a good understanding of voices and write well for them. One of his most famous pieces is a Christmas novelty number Fruitcake!

Alison was very struck by the effectiveness of Hagemann's writing in the double bill of his operas that Pegasus Opera performed last year, and she mentions the striking close harmonies for the female chorus in Ruth. And they got a good audience reaction last year. This year's operas are a similar mix, one lighter, one more serious.

Pegasus Opera was started by Lloyd Newton in 1992 as a way of giving Black and Asian singers opportunities to perform. Lloyd and Alison both sang in Glyndebourne's production of Porgy and Bess in 1986 and, as with quite a few of their fellow singers in the chorus, after the run finished went back to searching for work. So Lloyd created Pegasus Opera to make opportunities for BAME casts. From the beginning the casting has been multi-cultural, using a mixture of BAME and white casts. It was important that the company not be a 'Black opera company' but simply one led by a Black person, one which demonstrated that there was harmony in diversity.

The company's other recent productions have include Mozart's The Magic Flute, Delius's Koanga and Scott Joplin's Treemonisha.

Since Pegasus Opera was founded Alison feels that there have been changes, and the approach of a musical like Hamilton, with its uses of singers from a variety of backgrounds, continues to do a lot towards changing attitudes. But when it was founded Pegasus Opera was ground-breaking, and it did a lot of work demystifying opera for people who did not see the art form as 'something for them'. This of course was partly because if they went to the Royal Opera House they would see no-one like them. Yet opera, with good stories and good music, speaks to everyone.

The company has a big education component, they go into schools and take talented singers into the community. Last year they worked with groups of children, pensioners, the mentally and physically disabled, working on singing folk-song arrangements over a period of months and then brought all the groups together to perform at a concert at Lambeth Town Hall, alongside an African drummer. It was a joyous event, and a major piece of community engagement.

They have invited members of the Lambeth Youth Orchestra to join the orchestra for the forthcoming double bill. The youth orchestra ran a competition, and the prize was a place in the orchestra for the double bill, and the young people will get an honorarium too. This, like all the education work they do, is about partnership. And there are further education initiatives in the pipeline.

Looking ahead for the company, Alison would like to continue do operas which are not done in the UK, and ideally they would like to commission an opera. Alison herself sings recital programmes by composers from the Black diaspora, and she would like Pegasus Opera to be able to explore this repertoire and perhaps develop a festival. She feels passionately that concert halls need to develop the sound-scape, there are far to many fine composers that we have never heard of.

Alison grew up in Bedford and started out by joining the choir of a high Anglican church, where the men from the choir included masters from Bedford School and they would take her off to Kings College, Cambridge to hear the choir there. She took part in both the Junior and Senior Guildhall and won competitions including the Maggie Teyte Competition. She became the youngest person ever to sing in the main Glyndebourne Chorus when she sang in Porgy and Bess. She studied as the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and went on to become a young Artist at San Francisco Opera, where she made her debut as Mimi in Puccini's La Boheme. Through the British pianist Clive Lithgow she met Sir Colin Davis and developed a friendly relationship with the conductor, who engaged her quite a bit. She describes herself as being very lucky and having had great opportunities.

Pegasus Opera - Celebrate Windrush, A Musical Voyage - Lambeth Town Hall, 2018
Pegasus Opera - Celebrate Windrush, A Musical Voyage - Lambeth Town Hall, 2018
She was just thinking of winding her career down a notch and concentrating on teaching when Lloyd Newton got cancer. She had been on the board of Pegasus Opera, and Lloyd asked her to take over the company. She said no, it was too difficult, I live in America. But in his will he repeated his wish, so she is now artistic director of the company, and they solve the distance problem by doing board meetings via Skype!

In the back of her head, she had entertained the idea of running a company but some time in the future, and did not feel ready for it now. The reality is very daunting but very rewarding. And the accolades received by a soprano diva are taking second place to the rewards from the company's educational programmes, such as the looks on the children's faces when they perform.

Pegasus Opera performs Philip Hagemann's The Music Cure and The Rose and the Nightingale at the Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, 12-14 April 2019. Further details from the RAM website.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • 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
  • Italian charm with a French accent in Vivaldi's La Senna Festeggiante from Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo  (★★★★) - concert review
  • A stylish My Fair Lady at the Komische Oper in Berlin (★★★★) - opera review
  • Making Bach's music visible: the St John Passion staged by Peter Sellars with Simon Rattle and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (★★★★) - concert review
  • More than just Costly Canaries: Bridget Cunningham on re-capturing Handel and the importance of research  - interview
  • Bach CD round up: Violin, piano, harpsichord, organ - recent instrumental discs - CD review
  • A stirring revival: Hubert Parry's Judith in a triumphant performance from William Vann, the Crouch End Festival Chorus and London Mozart Players at the Royal Festival Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • Esa-Pekka Salonen: Cello Concerto (★★★★) - Cd review
  • Beyond Frankenstein: I chat to Emmy award winning sound-designer and composer Mark Grey - Interview
  • Brilliant re-invention: Handel's Berenice from London Handel Festival & Royal Opera (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Unrelenting darkness and miasma in the East End labyrinth: premiere of Jack the Ripper at ENO (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Home


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