Saturday 26 September 2020

Opera as community experience: Thomas Guthrie on his new projects exploring classic Schubert, creating a new secret library and urban operas

Monteverdi: L'Orfeo - directed by Thomas Guthrie with Music and Theatre for All in 2019
Monteverdi: L'Orfeo - directed by Thomas Guthrie
with Music and Theatre for All in 2019

In March of this year I met up with Thomas Guthrie with the intention of talking about his directing projects for Summer 2020. Our meeting happened during the strange interim time, just before lockdown, when it wasn't clear quite how devastating the effects of lockdown would be. In the event, we had a great discussion about opera as community theatre [see the interview All opera is community opera]. But, having had projects cancelled over the Summer has not meant that Thomas has not been busy, and recently with his charity Music and Theatre for All he has announced a trio of large-scale initiatives, supported by Arts Council England, to continue working towards Thomas' belief in opera as a real community initiative.

Thomas Guthrie working on Music and Theatre for All's 2019 production of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo
Thomas Guthrie working on
Music and Theatre for All's 2019 production of
Monteverdi's L'Orfeo

Thomas founded Music and Theatre for All with three clear strands of interest, exploring classics from the canon in accessible ways (previous projects have included Monteverdi's L'Orfeo in 2019 with Robert Hollingworth and I Fagiolini, and Bach's motets as part of a larger project, Death Actually for Spitalfields Festival in 2014, see Hilary's review on this blog), creative community projects including participatory events, and producing entirely new work. The three projects that have just been announced are deliberately positioned to represent each of these three strands. Timescales are long, Thomas emphasises that Music and Theatre for All is a relatively small charity, and they will be producing this work over a number of years.

The three new projects are Schubert 200 (re-interpreting work from the classical canon), Urban Operas (community/participatory) and The Secret Library (entirely new work). And whilst there is an element of overlap (The Secret Library will have some participatory elements), Thomas is clear that the three are clear examples of the branches of Music and Theatre for All's work.

Schubert 200 aims to bring something of the original story-telling element back to Schubert's three great song cycles, with performances to coinciding with the works' 200th anniversaries, Die schöne Müllerin in 2023, Winterreise in 2027 and Schwanengesang in 2028. The performances will be highly engaging, visually creative with a use of puppetry and unusual instruments.

Urban Operas will bring participants together from across a UK borough during a year to create their own show from start to finish, involving local communities, school children, youth groups, choirs, local bands, dance groups, families and dramatic societies to work with professionals to develop a libretto based on local stories, create sets, costumes and designs, compose music and perform it, stage manage it and advertise it. The project is inspired by the Royal Opera House's acclaimed Write an Opera schema from 1985-2015, which led directly into Thurrock Community Opera's Ludd and Isis, which Thomas directed in 2010 to launch the ROH Production Park. The first Urban Opera will be in Lewisham, which is London Borough of Culture in 2022, but there are plans to roll the project out to boroughs across the UK.

The Secret Library will be a brand-new opera inspired by the true story of underground rebels fighters in Syria who created a secret library in 2014. The opera will be made in collaboration with Syrian refugees, through Together Productions' Sing for Freedom Choir and Orchestra of Syrian Musicians.

Culture will never die, it will simply change the means of transmission

Whilst there will be some participatory element to The Secret Library, the intention is to create a new work to be performed for the fee-paying public, whereas with Urban Operas it is the community, participatory process which is as important as the end result. Thomas has not named the composer or composers to be involved in creating The Secret Library, and this is deliberate. He would like the piece to have a strong element of collaborative story telling about it.

Thomas was talking to Peter Wiegold (who runs Club Inegales) about his Third Orchestra, which gives improvised performances which used pre-prepared sketches by Wiegold as the starting point and Thomas wondered what would happen if you used a character, story or narrative context as the starting point for improvisation. So he is excited to explore these ideas in an operatic situation, based on a prepared structure and leading to a devised piece. He cites as an example the musical Oh What a Lovely War! which now has a set form, but which grew out of improvisation with Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop. So Thomas wants to keep the process of creating The Secret Library as open as possible, so that the result is more about the story, the experience.

This leads us into a wider discussion about the creation of culture. Thomas feels that we currently have a problem with the ownership of culture; in the present crisis there are plenty of calls for government support otherwise culture, the arts will die. Thomas points out that culture will never die, it will simply change the means of transmission. Whilst it is important that we have a national theatre and national opera companies, do they actually need to be in their present forms, on the South Bank in and in the West End?

Schubertiades were not set cultural events but simply dinner parties

Puppet from Music and Theatre for All's Schubert 200 project
Puppet from Music and Theatre for All's Schubert 200 project

Returning to the subject of Schubert's song cycles, Thomas points out that whilst we have a rather set, marmoreal concept of these, they were originally just about story-telling and that the Schubertiades where many of Schubert's songs and song cycles were performed were not set cultural events but simply dinner parties! His concert for the Schubert 200 project is to return to that element of story-telling in the songs, to move away from our sense of particular cultural ownership of the song cycles.

Whilst there is room for complete performances of the song cycles with formally dressed performers and audience at the Wigmore Hall, an event which Thomas describes as 'valid, and occasionally beautiful', if we examine what the original performance evenings were, what Schubert intended, then we might get rather different results. For Schubert and his friends, the lied was about the poetry, and music was simply an ornament to the text.

So, for Schubert 200, Thomas wants to try and create a sense of spontaneity, humour and story-telling. Whilst he is referring back to the originally performances of the works, this will not be a costumed evening that tries to get people into early 19th century clothes. And he also points out that during Schubert's lifetime, people did not perform the song cycles complete; it was not until the 1850s that Die schöne Müllerin was given a complete performance.

And at the Schubertiades in Schubert's lifetime, people would also bring different instruments along. So, Thomas' performances will include a range of instrumentation, and they will be using puppets during the performance. He sees puppets as great story-telling tools, and they have the advantage of taking the attention from the singers. 

The song cycles will be performed in German with English surtitles, and Thomas has used this solution before as he feels that it is important for people to understand every word. Thomas admits that there is an element of 'fringe performance' about the events, he feels that it is important to be aiming for music making of the highest quality whilst at the same time exploring the essence of the works and making something rawly energetic, visceral and more human. Thomas is certainly not interested in dumbing anything down, hence his interest in the original German words. 

As a marker for their intention of striving for the highest musical result, they will be recording each of the Schubert song cycles. Thomas has already worked on the Schubert song cycles and done arrangements of the pieces, but he wants the process of creating the works for Schubert 200 to be spontaneous and he sees the recording process as being a way to explore the works, to see how free they can be and what works. So the recording becomes part of the creative process rather than the end result. 

This is what opera should do, explore a real situation at the extremity of human emotion

The Secret Library in Darraya, Damascus, Syria (Photo Lauren Mulcahy)
The Secret Library in Darraya, Damascus, Syria (Photo Lauren Mulcahy)

The idea for The Secret Library came about after Thomas heard a radio programme, BBC's Crossing Continents about the library created in Syria by rebels in Darraya who journalist Mike Thompson had been in contact with [you can hear the programme of the Music and Theatre for All website]. It leaped out at Thomas that this is what opera should do, explore a real situation at the extremity of human emotion. In the radio programme, a journalist made contact with the group that created the secret library. This was in quite a middle-class suburb of Damascus which had been overtaken by the rebels and thus under siege for four years by Syrian government forces. The area was bombed every day, and the inhabitants tried to keep things going but a lot had to happen under the ground, away from the bombs.  They started the underground library, and people would make dangerous trips to rescue books from bombed-out buildings.

This story resonates in a number of ways, books are dangerous, full of stories, culture and knowledge, but also books as a survival tool. In the programme, a dentist who had not finished his training had to read in the library to learn what was necessary before he could continue to practice, whilst snipers on the front line would while away the time reading books! One sniper described how he had been reading a wonderful book, which he recommended to the interviewer, Shakespeare's Hamlet.

So they have an ordinary yet extraordinary story for the opera, and there are lots of ways that the opera could go and Thomas is keen to explore as many as possible. But he is aware of the need to involve the Syrian refugees in the process as it is not his story to tell.

To these children, opera is a natural way of doing a show

Death Actually: Music and Theatre for All at Spitalfields Festival in 2014
Death Actually: Music and Theatre for All at Spitalfields Festival in 2014

The template for the Urban Operas with their community involvement in all aspects of creating opera, draws on Thomas' work directing Thurrock Community Opera's Ludd and Isis for the launch the ROH Production Park in 2010, and this in turn drew on Thomas' experiences with the Royal Opera House's Write an opera Scheme which gave teachers tools to take their class through the process to write their own opera. Thomas went on the course, and went on to lead it. Unfortunately, the Royal Opera House pulled the plug on the course in 2015 as it was perceived as too expensive for the number of people affected, a decision which Thomas calls short-sighted. As the course trained teachers to create operas with their own communities, the number of people affected by the course is unquantifiable, and Thomas refers to a teacher in Lewisham who attended one of Thomas' courses and is still, each year, doing an opera with the leavers from his school; to these children, opera is a natural way of doing a show.

Thomas finds it exciting and uplifting, taking teachers through a process and then going to see what they come up with afterwards, with performances involving only children, no adults at all. These events would always be unbelievably wonderful, done with such fun, wildness and imagination.

It is this process that Thomas will be using in Lewisham to create the first of the Urban Operas, and which he then plans to take to other boroughs. The format is flexible, and Thomas envisages Urban Operas as encompassing spoken work, steel bands, and dance, and they will give people for creativity, performance, and design.

Any conversation with Thomas Guthrie is an engaging and uplifting experience, as he clearly passionately believes in the power of culture within the community, and I look forward immensely to the results of these new projects.

On Monday 26 October 2020, at 6pm, Thomas Guthrie's Music and Theatre for All will be hosting an on-line fundraiser, which will be live-streamed on YouTube. It will be presented by Alexander Armstrong (who is also a trustee) and there will be guest appearances from Roderick Williams, Robert Murray, Gwyneth Herbert and Joelle Harvey,  plus a song from the Schubert 200 project and the premiere of an Those Were The Days.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Richard Strauss, Coleridge-Taylor, Mahler: Elizabeth Llewellyn & Simon Lepper in outstanding form at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • 'A strange profession' - looking forward to John Bridcut's film, Bernard Haitink, the Enigmatic Maestro - feature 
  • From Early English epic to music-theatre: Toby Young's Beowulf with the Armonico Consort and AC Academy choirs - CD review
  • Composing The Red Shoes: I chat to Terry Davies about creating the score for Matthew Bourne's ballet based on Bernard Herrmann's music - interview
  • Joel Lundberg's Music from a room - CD review
  • Intimate and forward-looking: Niccolò Jommelli's Requiem from Italian forces - Cd review
  • Of clocks, time and the hive mind: Martin Bussey's Timeless Figure and We Sing/I Sang at Tête à Tête  - opera review
  • The Heath Quartet at Wigmore Hall: late Bach and middle-period Beethoven  - concert review
  • Orchestral showcase: Simon Rattle conducts Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen on LSO Live - CD review
  • A one-man Paradise Lost and an uproarious contemporary operetta: Tête à Tête brings live opera back to the Cockpit  - opera review
  • The Telling's #HomeTour: soprano & playwright Clare Norburn on the challenges & rewards of creating on-line content & writing new plays  - interview
  • Home

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