Saturday 13 July 2019

'Slightly bonkers', I chat to conductor Ben Woodward about Fulham Opera's forthcoming performances of Die Meistersinger

Verdi: Don Carlo - Fulham Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Verdi: Don Carlo - Fulham Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Having performed Wagner's Ring Cycle and The Flying Dutchman, and three of Verdi's largest operas including Don Carlo [see my review], Simon Boccanegra and Falstaff, to critical acclaim, Fulham Opera is preparing to perform Wagner's Die Meistersinger in August 2019 under the direction of conductor Ben Woodward. I recently met up with Ben to chat about how a London fringe opera company had started to think big.

Ben Woodward
Ben Woodward
When I ask Ben why Die Meistersinger his response is that it fits Fulham Opera's usp, they do large scale opera in big spaces in a fringe way 'with far better singing than we deserve'. And, after all, Wagner's only mature comedy is marvellous and joyous and nobody dies. But when all is said and done, Ben is the first to admit that the concept of doing the piece as a fringe production is slightly bonkers, but Fulham Opera can do it. And Ben adds that the Keel Watson (who sings Hans Sachs) and Ronald Samm (who sings Walther) make a terrific combination. Whilst Samm has done Siegmund a lot, neither he nor Watson has sung their role before.

In fact, in every respect Die Meistersinger is hard to bring off on a small scale, and the production needs lots of people. That said, there probably won't be 40 in the chorus (all volunteers) and many of the choruses have been discreetly arranged for just four parts (SATB).  The orchestra will be reduced to 18 players (single woodwind, two clarinets, two horns, trumpet, trombone, nine strings and an electric keyboard for the lute) in an arrangement by Jonathan Finney who did Fulham Opera's version of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman.

The set demands are not too great, so do not present that much of a challenge to director and designers, but where and when it is set very much affects the costume budget (set in period all those mastersinger costumes come expensive), and in all likelihood Paul Higgins' production will be modern day. And Ben points out that the opera deals with issues which have great resonance with contemporary society.

With all the challenges, is it possible to do a fringe production?

Verdi: Falstaff - Keel Watson - Fulham Opera at the Grimeborn Festival
Verdi: Falstaff - Keel Watson - Fulham Opera at the Grimeborn Festival
Ben is confident, pointing out that it is simply a piece of theatre and that having found their Sachs and Walther they have solved one of the works most difficult problems. The two roles are some of the most difficult (and longest) parts ever written. It is a very chatty opera (Ben comments that it is unlike any other by Wagner) and any singer has an uphill battle to memorise everything (the role of Sachs has two hours of singing compared to Dutchman's hour). All the singers have their work cut out, and but the Fulham Opera team are all committed. When I suggest cutting the opera, Ben does not think this is feasible and asks where would you cut it?

Another challenge is the ending. Ben describes it as awkward, and admits that though he has come to terms with it it still feels wrong.

For the first time, Fulham Opera will not be performing at its home base, St John's Church in Fulham. Ben admits that doing Verdi's Don Carlo there was quite a stretch, and Die Meistersinger is even bigger so that when everyone is singing they would not fit on the stage at St John's. So the company scouted around and will be performing at the Greenwood Theatre near London Bridge whose pit will hold 25 players. The move has enabled the company to broaden its scope and ambition; the Greenwood seats 400 to 450 whereas St John's seats just 100. So everything is bigger, which Ben agrees is completely mad.

Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Zoe South - Fulham Opera
Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Zoe South
Fulham Opera
The financial burden on the company is not insignificant, and they are grateful to a selection of private donors whose generous recognition has enabled Fulham opera to increase its scope and ambition, and there has also been a grant from the London Community Fund (Cockayne Foundation). Rather than doing Crowdfunding they also have a 'Sponsor a Meister' campaign going. The singers have to come on to it with a leap of faith on a profit share basis.

And after Die Meistersinger?

By the end of Die Meistersinger Ben comments that he will be in need of a holiday, but he is putting together a two year plan. Of great interest to the company is that the works of Richard Strauss come out of copyright on 1 January 2020, so they are considering whether any of the operas could be arranged for smaller forces. Ben also admits to having Beethoven's Fidelio in his sights too.

St. John's Church in Fulham wants the company to go back for further operas, and the company is very grateful to the church for the immense support that they have received having been performing as there since 2009, and since 2011 as Fulham Opera. When they perform there the company effectively takes over the church, Ben describes it as 'the circus coming to town'.

When not at Fulham Opera, Ben is on the music staff of the Schleswig-Holsteinisches Landestheater in Flensburg, Germany, which puts on five musical shows per year, three operas, one operetta and one musical, so Ben's role includes having to conduct 10 shows of the musical Singing in the Rain, which he describes as fun. But he was also able to conduct one performance of Wagner's Der fliegende Hollander, 'standing on the podium of a German theatre conducting Wagner'. Next year the theatre is performing Verdi's Rigoletto, Mozart's Don Giovanni, Guys and Dolls, Carl Zeller's operetta Der Vogelhandler and Der Schimelreiter an opera by Wilfried Hiller (born 1949) who is from Schleswig Holstein.

The bug to not only make music but to create his own performances seems to have bitten Ben quite early.

Ben Woodward
Ben Woodward
By the age of 16 Ben was having great fun playing viola in the county youth orchestra (at the time Staffordshire had a marvellous music service and Ben's brother became a professional saxophone player), and he put on his own concert to raise funds for the church organ, organising a group of 14 to 18 year olds to play Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 with himself conducting. This was followed by Chetham's School and then Cambridge where, in his final year he mounted a performance of Bach's B minor Mass. He then went to the USA as musical director of a church, and in 2004 he mounted performances of Bach's St John Passion in Greenwich, Connecticut and New York. To do this he had to raise money, and did so simply by writing to people and they responded.

Back in London he was again in a church music director post but also promoting recitals. He conducted Rossini's La Cenerentola at St John's Church in 2009 with a visiting company. He describes it as a tricky opera to start with and he arranged it for six instruments and piano. Shortly afterwards Fulham Opera was born when one of the singers said let's do Das Rheingold.

Would he go back to The Ring?

Ben's answer is maybe, he certainly feels he has unfinished business with the piece. If they ever did the work again at Fulham Opera, Ben would add more instruments as for the 2014 cycle he accompanied the whole thing on the piano himself, but he feels the Fulham Opera performances certainly threw down the gauntlet. And, of course, Ben would love to do The Ring properly with full orchestral forces. He has done it so at Fulham Opera's orchestral repertoire weekends (and when we speak he is planning for their repertoire weekend devoted to Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk).

Wagner: Die Walkure - Fulham Opera
Wagner: Die Walkure - Fulham Opera
Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Fulham Opera at the Greenwood Theatre,  9, 11, 14, 17 August 2019 - Directed by Paul Higgins, conducted by Ben Woodward with Keel Watson/Steven Fredericks (Hans Sachs), Ronald Samm/Florian Thomas (Walther), Catharine Woodward/Philippa Boyle (Eva), Jonathan Finney (Beckmess) - full details from the Fulham Opera website.

Fulham Opera's Verdi Prize takes place at the Royal Academy of Music on 6 October 2010, and the closing date for entries by singers is 31 July.

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