Saturday 28 March 2020

All opera is community opera: I chat to director Thomas Guthrie

Jonathan Dove: The Monster in the Maze - Simon Rattle, Andrew Rees, Yvonne Howard - Barbican 2015 (Photo: Alastair Muir/PR )
Jonathan Dove: The Monster in the Maze - Simon Rattle, Andrew Rees, Yvonne Howard - Barbican 2015
(Photo: Alastair Muir/PR )
The director Thomas Guthrie's name is one that has cropped up over the years, often attached to performances in more unusual venues, not to mention his parallel career performing with Bjarte Eike's The Alehouse Boys. So I was delighted to meet up with him recently. Ostensibly our conversation was about his production of Jonathan Dove's The Monster in the Maze at the 2020 Grange Festival, though with the on-going emergency this has now been cancelled, alas. But we also talked about a wide variety of other things, from how he came to start directing, to his love of working with non-professionals, the fascination of early opera and of course playing the violin with The Alehouse Boys.

Jonathan Dove's The Monster in the Maze is labelled a community opera; it tells the story of Theseus and the Minotaur using professional soloists, an adult amateur choir, a young persons choir and a children's choir, with an orchestra made up of professionals and students.  Thomas has a long pedigree with the work, he directed the UK premiere of it in 2015 with Sir Simon Rattle conducting at the London Symphony Orchestra and the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, and there were also premieres (with different directors and performers) in Aix-en-Provence and in the Philharmonie in Berlin.

Thomas loves working with amateurs, and comments that for him 'all opera is community opera', and when directing amateurs he does not deal with a work significantly differently. And he feels that non-professional performers often get to the heart of what, for him, opera is about - a community telling a story. After all we all want music to move us, to tell a story, and he thinks it is sometimes easier to achieve this with amateurs as they have nothing to lose.

Thomas in fact started out as a singer, and when he was performing with Robert Hollingworth's group I Fagiolini, they sang at the opening of The Sage, Gateshead. The centre of the building, its heart, is a workshop space and anyone can come and use what is a really community space. For Thomas this is, in many ways, how all organisations should be, with the community at their centre.

Performances like the ones planned for The Monster in the Maze, would involve people who may never have performed before. Such participation helps the art form, helps keep it honest, after all opera and all music is about communication so involving the community should not just be about letting people in and giving them a taste.

Verdi: Aida - Liceu, Barcelona (Photo A Bofill)
Verdi: Aida - Liceu, Barcelona (Photo A Bofill)
Thomas's approach, working with amateur performers, does not differ wildly from his approach when using a fully professional cast, though he would usually have longer working with the amateurs. Thomas recently directed Verdi's Aida at the Liceu in Barcelona, and had just one day working in the studio with the chorus, but the way he worked moment to moment, was the same as with amateurs. The process is about discovering how to communicate the text, responding to the moment and then doing it again better.

The sound from an amateur chorus can also be more electric, and Thomas feels that sometimes professional singers have to be reminded of this.

Whilst Thomas was studying at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) he had a 'brutal old-fashioned teacher' who made them understand what the craft is. Through this he has come to value traditional craft, the sense that there is a discipline to communication (and that too often we 'piss about'). It is the sort of training that he feels does not exist now, conveying the rules of what works on stage. And these rules are the same for amateurs and professionals. Of course, he adds, such rules are made to be broken; sometimes a child can break them in a most sincere way.

Thomas recently did a workshop with a youth choir, one of whose members was a blind, autistic girl of around 15 or 16 years old. Her effect on the other young people was transformative when they saw how, when she performed she let go and didn't care what other people thought.

One question fascinates Thomas, 'what opera singing is', do you have to train to be an opera singer? For him opera singing is like a baby crying; when a baby needs to be heard it can make a noise which carries, communicates and the child does not get tired. To do so it uses the more perfect vocal technique, breathing using the whole body. A baby is the least trained yet the most natural of communicators. And Thomas hears that same quality in singers like Maria Callas and Luciano Pavarotti.

Marco da Gagliano: La Dafne - Brighton Early Music Festival 2020 (Photo Robert Piwko)
Marco da Gagliano: La Dafne - Brighton Early Music Festival 2020 (Photo Robert Piwko)
One type of opera that Thomas is particularly associated with is the very earliest Italian opera. He has done a number of production of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo and recently La Dafne for Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF). La Dafne is a 1608 setting, by the Mantuan court composer Marco da Gagliano (1582-1643) of one of the earliest opera libretti for Jacopo Peri's now lost La Dafne from 1598.

With these early works you get a sense of opera as very high art, but also a strong story telling element. And that opera was exclusive and for a small group of connoisseurs meant that their position enabled them to experiment, and these early operas were all experiments. Such operas, using myth at their core, link through to contemporary works like Dove's Monster in the Maze and Thomas feels that myths are very much an externalisation of our own psychological goings-on. (At this point we have a fascinating side conversation about Robert Donington's theories about the importance of the Orpheus myth to the aristocrats commissioning these early operas in his book The Rise of Opera).

Monteverdi: L'Orfeo - Helen Charlston, Dominic Bevan, Rory Carver - BREMF 2017 (Photo Robert Piwko)
Monteverdi: L'Orfeo
Helen Charlston, Dominic Bevan, Rory Carver
BREMF 2017 (Photo Robert Piwko)
Partly, Thomas' involvement in productions of these early operas arose because when he was a performer Thomas made lots of connections in the Early Music world. But he loves the challenge of staging an opera like Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, and finds that staging Verdi's Aida or reviving a Mozart opera at Covent Garden is a lot easier. Staging La Dafne in a week with very little budget was definitely a challenge, and one that he enjoys.

A lot of the work is about solving problems, how do we move an audience within these set paraments. Thomas directed Monteverdi's L'Orfeo at Princeton, and then at BREMF [see my review], and each time did it in a completely different way, coming up with different solutions to the problems.

As an example he mentions the opera's final scene, where Apollo descends and tells his son to cheer up, Orfeo was originally too happy and now he is too miserable. But Orfeo counters, what shall I do, I will never see Eurydice again and if I recover I will lose her a second time. This sort of frozen grief is one which is also addressed by works as diverse as Schubert's Winterreise and the writings of CS Lewis. When Apollo points out to Orfeo that Eurydice does still exist, she is in the stars, the weight in the music lifts off. And a performance of L'Orfeo needs to evolve this sense; there are a million ways to achieve it but it is important to do so.

As another example he mentions Purcell's The Fairy Queen, a production of which he was both directing and performing in. For this tricky piece (originally written to have an extensive spoken sections), it is important that when Hymen appears at the end, the marriage is the focal point which makes sense of the work. You could do it in so many ways, the marriage of ideas, or the marriage of the elements, but this needs to be the key moment.

For Thomas, another key question is how do you inspire the imagination while not telling audience members what to think. He has been accused of abrogating responsibility by not making decisions, but what he wants to do is open up a space.

Thomas originally trained as a singer, and his interest in directing came from that training. At one show where he was performing, he became frustrated at the director's lack of understanding of the craft. Singers were not getting help because of this lack of understanding. The result was a shambolic rehearsal period, a fun final rehearsal and a terrific show. Afterwards he wrote to the theatre, thanking them, but he was honest about the rehearsal process.

Instead of being annoyed they asked him to assist a director the following season, and this eventually led to his own production, Mozart's Der Schauspieldirektor, the first time he had directed and didn't sing as well. He worked out that directing was what he wanted to do, this was the first time he felt a feeling of vocation. Though there was a period when he didn't direct, there would be productions of The Fairy Queen, The Magic Flute and King Arthur, and then he went to the Royal Opera House as a Young Artist Director.

Amongst his heroes, Thomas includes the baritone Gerard Souzay, particularly his 1950s recordings, the baritone Simon Keenlyside who inspires Thomas as musician and a singer, Andras Schiff particularly in Schubert, and Thomas mentions his accompaniment of Peter Schreier in Schubert's Schwanengesang.

Thomas Guthrie with The Alehouse Boys (Photo Knut Utler)
Thomas Guthrie with The Alehouse Boys (Photo Knut Utler)
But we cannot finish without mentioning the other string to Thomas' bow, as he performs with the Alehouse Boys (director Bjarte Eike). The group's repertoire comes from the 17th century and is inspired by the period during the Interregnum when theatres were closed and freelance musicians performed in the back rooms of pubs, creating a real mix of musical cultures with a mix of multi-national performers in London. The Alehouse Boys came to Kings Place early on in their career, at a time when they still performed using music stands. They needed a couple of extra singers, and Thomas was drafted in to help, they all got on well and he has performed with them ever since. [see my review of group's 2017 disc, The Alehouse Sessions]

Thomas used to play the violin (including the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, and much chamber music), and he persuaded Bjarte Eike to let him get his fiddle out again. The Alehouse Boys performs very much like a band, but using 17th century material in their own arrangements.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Singing in Secret: The Marian Consort in Byrd's mass for four voices and propers for All Saints  - CD review
  • A particular place & time: Peter Sheppard Skaerved explores the 1685 Klagenfurt Manuscript with a contemporary violin by Antonio Stradivari  - CD review
  • Islands and seasons: pianist Tom Hicks in John Ireland and Tchaikovsky   - CD review
  • A seductive mix-tape: pianist Alessandro Viale's Minimal Works  on KHA - CD review
  • A Spanish tribute to Handel: L'Apothéose's delightful disc of chamber music on LBS  - Cd review
  • Lyrical contemporary: record producer Michael Fine's recent works for solo wind instruments and string quartet - CD review
  • Juditha resurgens: Hubert Parry's oratorio gets its first recording (★★★★★) - CD review
  • This crazy day: Joe Hill-Gibbins' new production of The Marriage of Figaro at English National Opera (★★★★½) - opera review
  • An entirely delightful way to spend an evening, two hours away from the doom & gloom swirling around us - Massenet's Chérubin at the Royal Academy of Music  - opera review
  • Composing gives him a way of looking at his faith through something less hard-edged than words: composer Paul Mealor chats about his latest disc  - interview
  • Before opera what? Matthew Locke's Cupid and Death and John Blow's Venus and Adonis from Early Opera Company (★★★★) - opera review 
  • Mozart & more: in Arias for Josepha, Sarah Traubel explores the arias written for Mozart's Queen of the Night, Josepha Hofer (★★★★) - CD review
  • Home

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