Saturday 16 April 2022

From the Shenandoah Valley to Kensington Gardens: I chat to Ella Marchment about her new role at Shenandoah Conservatory & directing the UK premiere of Mark Adamo's Little Women

Ella Marchment with the other founders of SWAP'ra, Madeleine Pierard, Anna Patalong, Kitty Whately and conductor Jessica Cottis at the 2018 gala
Ella Marchment with the other founders of SWAP'ra, Madeleine Pierard, Anna Patalong, and Kitty Whately, and conductor Jessica Cottis at the 2018 gala

Ella Marchment is a woman of many hats. I first came across her as the founder of Helios Collective when in 2013 they presented a triple bill called The Bear goes Walkabout with Walton's The Bear alongside two specially commissioned operas by Philip Ashworth and Joel Rust. And they premiered my opera The Genesis of Frankenstein in 2015. 

Since then she has founded the online project Opera Harmony, in direct response to the pandemic, co-founded the Opera Festival of Chicago (of which she is artistic director), co-founded SWAP’ra, a charity that supports women and parents working in opera, and she is currently an associate professor and the director of opera at Shenandoah Conservatory, and will be directing the UK premiere of Mark Adamo's Little Women at Opera Holland Park this Summer. At Shenandoah Conservatory, she is directing a quadruple bill of rarely performed operas by Germaine Tailleferre [see my article] which opens on 22 April 2022.

Ella Marchment and Mark Adamo
Ella Marchment and Mark Adamo
I recently caught up by Zoom with Ella who was in the midst of rehearsals at Shenandoah Conservatory. First of all, where is the conservatory? It is in Winchester, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley, around 75 minutes from Washington DC . It is very much Civil War country, as Winchester switched hands countless times during the Civil War. Shenandoah Conservatory is part of Shenandoah University which dates back to 1875 when it was founded as Shenandoah Seminary. Ella describes Shenandoah Conservatory as somewhat similar to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama as it is an arts hub that covers music, music theatre, dance, design and more, except that Shenandoah Conservatory is in the countryside.

Ella's appointment there is relatively recent, and she admits that she did not expect to end up there. Her recent career has been a mix of directing, being associate director and artistic director.

Her position at Shenandoah Conservatory is director of opera but she is also assistant professor and she does some teaching, including acting and movement for singers. The conservatory has not had a director of opera for 25 years, and Ella was brought in partly to focus on opera. This is one of the reasons why she chose the Tailleferre operas for this year's opera production. The four short operas are later works, each written in the style of an earlier composer. Ella points out that if you listen to Tailleferre's earlier operas, her vocal style is very avant garde, whereas these later pieces are more conservative, yet still recognisably Tailleferre. In her youth, Tailleferre was seen as a leader of modern music, but then she reversed tack because she needed the money and started writing more conservatively, writing for films. Ella sees that there is a sense that Tailleferre 'lost her voice' as she got older, because of financial need.

She admits that rehearsals are a challenge (they can only rehearse in the evenings, and designer Madeleine Boyd is in the UK), but she is 'having a blast'. The operas are perfect for students, and she has a cast of 19 covering some 25 roles, which makes the pieces perfect for student performance and enables her to use the maximum number of singers possible. The operas are also short, which makes them easier to rehearse, and the vocal style is lyrical with catchy tunes, but there is text also, so an emphasis both on music and acting. They have taken some liberties with the operas, and each now has a finale which involves all the singers, and there is a short piece by each of the composers Tailleferre was emulating, Rameau, Rossini, Offenbach and Charpentier.  Ella is also using two orchestras! This makes scheduling complex, but means that both of Shenandoah Conservatory's orchestras are able to play in the programme, sharing the operas out between them.

Looking ahead, Ella wants to build contemporary music at the conservatory. The USA is building its own distinctive genre of contemporary opera, taking themes from everyday life that encapsulate the spirit of being American. And many of this have either not been performed in Europe or are seen rarely. Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking debuted in San Francisco in 2000, but did not have a UK performance until 2018. Tom Cipullo's Glory Denied is regularly performed by companies in the USA but is rarely (if ever) done in Europe. Mark Adamo's Little Women debuted 25 years ago and is only now making its UK debut this Summer when Ella directs it at Opera Holland Park, though there have been a couple of previous UK near misses.

A masterclass at Shenandoah Conservatory: tenor David Butt Philip and students
A masterclass at Shenandoah Conservatory: tenor David Butt Philip and students

So, Ella wants to build an audience for and train singers in this repertoire. This means that for the first two years of their course, singers will concentrate on canonical works, but for the third year they will work with new opera which means being able to work with living composers. And plans include bringing over English Touring Opera's recent children's opera, Back into the World by Rebecca Hanbury and Alex Groves. The piece is about going back out into the world after the COVID shutdown and It celebrates themes including teamwork, diversity, friendship, and inclusion. The performances will be part of a Conservatory wide week where students put on their own projects. Ella acts as a faculty advisor/mentor but the students build their own projects, and one of the students is writing on operas for children and this will be a perfect opportunity for her to get involved in a practical way.

Ella's path to her role at Shenandoah Conservatory was somewhat roundabout. She was running the opera festival in Chicago and was assistant director on a Juilliard School tour which was quite long so she was working with them a lot. She enjoyed the sense of community and energy, and took a conscious decision that she wanted to work more in education. She saw the Shenandoah Conservatory job on LinkedIn and, at the time, thought that Director of Opera would be very much like directing an opera company. Unfortunately, the job search was cancelled due to COVID, and she accepted another post. Fortuitously, this ensured her continued right to work in the USA, which meant that when Shenandoah Conservatory re-started the job search she was able to apply.

The advantage of her post at Shenandoah Conservatory is that she is more integrated into the school, and as an associate professor does some teaching. But she is also able to factor in other directing work, such as this Summer's Little Women at Opera Holland Park.

Ella Marchment & James Clutton (of Opera Holland Park) at the 2019 International Opera Awards, which Ella directed
Ella Marchment & James Clutton (of Opera Holland Park) at the 2019 International Opera Awards, which Ella directed

She confesses that she is excited to be directing Little Women, and has wanted to do so since the quartet from the opera was included in the SWAP'ra gala in 2018 [see my article]. The opera is done everywhere in the USA but has received few European performances. Yet the story is one that most women know and identify with (and Ella likens it to EE Nesbit's The Railway Children). This year will be both Mark Adamo's 65th birthday and the opera's 25th anniversary. Adamo is creating a 25th anniversary edition for Opera Holland Park, with revisions to the orchestration and more music in the prologue.

I was wondering how Ella felt, as a non-American directing such an iconic story but she points out that she is an adopted American, living in Civil War territory, and after all everyone in the USA (except Native Americans) are immigrants. When in England, Ella is aware of her mother being South American/Chinese but in the USA, you are who you are. It is, however, important that she has spent time in the USA and calls it home now. Living there means that she has been able to meet with Mark Adamo and discuss the opera, she can go to Concord, Massachusetts where Louisa May Alcott wrote the book; she describes these as fortuitous benefits of being in the USA. And for Mark Adamo, the opera is not so much about a particular place and time as about a lovely between members of a family.

Another challenge is that, of course, the story involves a group of young (teenage) girls, who must be sung by more mature women, though Ella credits James Clutton at Opera Holland Park with some very imaginative casting. And she also points out that people's playing ages can be different to their real ages, it is all about the energy. The beauty of the Opera Holland Park theatre is that the singers can be close to the audience, though Ella and designer, also Madeleine Boyd will need to work round the set for Opera Holland Park's double bill (of Delius' Margot le Rouge and Puccini's Le Villi).

Ella Marchment's production of Rossini's L'inganno felice at Wexford Opera Festival in 2019 with Peter Brooks and Rebecca Hardwick
Ella Marchment's production of Rossini's L'inganno felice at Wexford Opera Festival in 2019 with Peter Brooks and Rebecca Hardwick

Ella has a busy few months ahead. The Tailleferre quadruple bill opens at Shenandoah Conservatory on 22 April. She will also be reviving Rossini's L'Inganno Felice for Chicago Opera Festival (the production was originally done at Wexford Festival in 2019 see review in Opera Today), then in June she arrives in the UK to work on Little Women which opens on 22 July. She comments that apart from meeting a friend at Heathrow (both were in transit), she has not been in the UK since 2020!

Further ahead, she will be taking over as artistic director of an American organisation, another job that Ella is able to work into her schedule as Shenandoah Conservatory. And at the conservatory they are planning a project called Native American Inspirations, which will include new music by the Native American composer Brent Michael Davids, alongside that of other Native American composers, Russell Wallace, Louis Ballard (1931-2007), Dawn leriho:kwats Avery and Jennifer Stevens. A group of students will be taking the project to the Venice Biennale in the Autumn (20 September 2022). 

She also plans to bring Opera Harmony out of hibernation. She has been working with an artistic director from Kyiv and selected a Ukrainian opera to record; excerpts will be recorded around the world. This is not the most straightforward thing to organise, but will both fundraise and also explore Ukrainian composers. There are a group of Ukrainian operas from around 1920s thanks to a policy by then government, Korenizatiya, to commission Ukrainian composers to write operas on national subjects.

Ella Marchment
Ella Marchment

The New World of Opera: Germaine Tailleferre's four comic operas from Du style galant au style méchant at Shenandoah Conservatory of Music, 22-24 April 2022
Director Ella Marchment, Music director Jan Wagner - further details from Conservatory website

Mark Adamo: Little Women - Charlotte Badham, Kitty Whately, Harriet Eyley, Elizabeth Karani, director Ella Marchment, conductor Sian Edwards - Opera Holland Park (22 July -4 August ) - further details from their website

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