Saturday 19 August 2023

There is a lot going on in what is a relatively short opera: director John Wilkie on directing Giordano's opera Fedora at IF Opera with a fantastic young cast

Wolf-Ferrari: Susanna's Secret - Richard Burkhard, Clare Presland - Opera Holland Park, 2019 (Photo: Ali Wright)
Wolf-Ferrari: Susanna's Secret - Richard Burkhard, Clare Presland - Opera Holland Park, 2019 (Photo: Ali Wright)

The Scottish director John Wilkie's production of Umberto Giordano's 1898 opera Fedora for IF Opera opens at Belcombe Court, Bradford on Avon next week (24 August 2023), conducted by Oliver Gooch, with Sky Ingram and Charne Rochford as Fedora and Loris.

John Wilkie
John Wilkie

John recently directed Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel at Opera Holland Park (OHP) [see my review of the Young Artists performance] and his 2019 production of Wolf-Ferrari's comedy Susanna's Secret is returning to OHP in 2024 [see my 2019 review]. John is also the Principal Stage Director of New Zealand Festival Opera where his productions have included Verdi's La traviata, Leoncavallo's Cavalleria rusticana / Mascagni's Pagliacci, and Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen. And John's production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly for the Scottish company, Opera Bohemia, is currently on an extended tour of Scotland.

Premiered in Milan in 1898 with a cast including tenor Enrico Caruso, Fedora's popularity waned outside Italy after the 1920s, and it remains a relatively rarely performed work. Covent Garden mounted the work in 1994 for Mirella Freni and Opera Holland Park gave it in 2006 with Yvonne Kenny. Before being approached about directing it, John was aware of the work and familiar with the story, as well as knowing the composer's other operas, Andrea Chenier and Mala Vita, along with Giordano's lesser-known but interesting Tolstoy-based opera Siberia. John is also a fan of Verismo in general.

But he admits that Fedora is in many ways a bonkers piece. Often revived with a distinguished older soprano in the title role, John has a fantastic young cast and a few exciting weeks to stage the work, with everyone coming at the piece for the first time. John feels that they have the right balance with the cast and Skye Ingram promises to be a youthful Fedora bringing a compelling complexity to the role. John enjoys working with Skye, and the sense of collaborating with an artist on creating the role.

My, admittedly distant, memories of the opera (I saw it at Covent Garden back in 1994) were that the plot didn't make much sense. John admits that it does have gaps, a lot happens off-stage. This means that the production needs to navigate through the plot holes, filling them in with more historical elements to flesh out these moments. There is a lot going on in what is a relatively short opera; John describes it as somewhat soap-opera-like. But underneath there are undercurrents of things like the nihilistic movement which is mentioned a lot in the text and which was a dominant philosophical movement in Russia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

For a director, the opera has many agendas and there are many directions the production could take. But the IF Opera production will lean into the opera as originally intended with a period setting, albeit with stylistic nuances that will benefit and support the piece. John feels that for this sort of lesser-known piece, it was important to embrace the historical elements. Also, it should be enjoyable for the audience, a visual complement to the splendour that pours out from the orchestra.

The designer is Alisa Kalyanova with whom John has worked at Opera Bohemia. Evidently, she has worked wonders; the designs need to share the stage with IF Opera's production of Will Todd's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, also designed by Alisa Kalyanova. Alice's Adventures is directed by Lysanne van Overbeek who assists John on Fedora. IF Opera uses a resident ensemble each season with singers performing multiple roles, so many have roles in Fedora, Alice's Adventures and Tchaikovsky's Iolanta.

Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Opera Holland Park, 2023 (Photo: Ali Wright)
Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Opera Holland Park, 2023 (Photo: Ali Wright)

Wolf-Ferrari's comic opera Il segreto di Susanna (Susanna's Secret) is another rarity that John has directed, and he is pleased to be returning to the opera as his 2019 production at OHP is coming back in the 2024 season. This was one of those pieces that as soon as he first heard the opening notes of the overture (the work's best-known piece) he wanted to stage it. Whilst John comes from an acting background (he studied acting at university), part of his process is to listen to the piece and he enjoyed the way Wolf-Ferrari's music brings out the characterisation, every bar has a nuance to be extracted. He has great praise for his 2019 cast, with Clare Presland and Richard Burkhard as the Count and Countess, and John Savournin in the non-singing role of their servant.

Until OHP produced the work in 2019, Wolf-Ferrari's opera had not been done much in the UK (there was evidently a 1976 production at Covent Garden), but since the OHP production, there have been further outings for the opera at Scottish Opera (in 2019) and at IF Opera (in 2022). John feels that it is one of those works that deserve to be seen by more audiences.

Generally, he feels that we could be seeing more rarities in operatic repertoire. He has nothing against the popular classics and understands the need that opera companies have to schedule these to put 'bums on seats', but if companies, say, performed one less classic and one more rarity, this would considerably enrich the repertoire. Also, he feels that perhaps it might be counterproductive to constantly regurgitate productions of the same operas and that there are other ways of attracting people via a more diverse repertoire with rarities and new opera. And he cites the example of Poul Ruders' opera The Handmaid's Tale at English National Opera [see my review], which gained interest because of the book and the film. Whilst it is always interesting to see a new take on La Boheme or La Traviata, John wishes that we could broaden audiences' horizons.

Mascagni: Pagliacci - New Zealand Festival Opera, 2020
Mascagni: Pagliacci - New Zealand Festival Opera, 2020

John now has a strong connection to New Zealand where he has worked with New Zealand Festival Opera regularly since 2019 and in fact, spent more time there in 2022 than he did in the UK, and has developed a second family there. His connection came about partly by serendipity. He had assisted the director Martin Lloyd-Evans on several productions at Opera Holland Park, and he also directs regularly at the Guildhall School. New Zealand Festival Opera's director, Anna Pierard, and music director, Jose Aparicio were looking for a director for their 2019 production of Verdi's La Traviata. They had both trained at the Guildhall School and so asked Martin Lloyd Evans, but he was unable to make it and suggested alternative directors.

John's name was on the list and when he had an introductory phone call with Anna Pierard (at 3 am in the morning because of the time difference) they just clicked. He describes his New Zealand experiences as life-affirming and life-changing. The company was founded in 2013 by Anna Pierard and Sarah Walmsley and it is very much a community-led company based in Hawkes Bay (on the East coast of New Zealand's North Island), so the chorus is a mix of professionals and members of the local community, and the back-stage crew is also a mix of professionals and volunteers.

After that first La Traviata, he returned in 2020 for Cav & Pag. He has also developed a link with the company's Project Prima Volta, a music programme for local teenagers, which promotes social inclusion through music and performance. Project Prima Volta works with young people of all types, different stages of talent and from different backgrounds. Each year, the Prima Volta students take part in the chorus for Festival Opera's mainstage productions as well as embarking on their own productions and concerts, and many successful singers have come out of Prima Volta's ranks including baritone Benson Wilson.

Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Joanna Foote - New Zealand Festival Opera, 2021
Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Joanna Foote - New Zealand Festival Opera, 2021

New Zealand Festival Opera does two to three productions per year and as principal stage director discusses artistic planning as well as directing. He won't be there in 2024 but will return in 2025 to direct another production. The company tends to focus on the more well-known operas because its audiences have not experienced much opera. John's productions of La Traviata and Cav & Pag were followed by a semi-staged production of Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen which made quite an impression particularly at the schools' matinee. His most recent production with them was Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, which has yet to see an audience. The production was cancelled in 2022 because of COVID, and though they returned to do it in 2023, Hawkes Bay was hit by a cyclone. The company is doing concert performances of the opera in September 2023 with a cast featuring young artists who are Project Prima Volta alumni.

Scottish touring company, Opera Bohemia is a project close to John's heart. It was founded in 2010 by baritone Douglas Nairn and conductor Alistair Digges; John and Douglas Nairn go back years; as teenagers, the two competed against each other as pianists in the Fife Festival of Music. When Douglas Nairn and Alistair Digges set up the company, Douglas Nairn asked John to create their first production, Puccini's La Boheme. Since then there have been productions of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermuir, Puccini's Madama Butterfly and Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. The company has expanded greatly since its founding and offers a lot of opera to remote parts of Scotland. John credits that first production as setting him off on what he calls the opera-directing adventure. This year, the company has brought back his 2013 production of Madama Butterfly which is touring 18 venues across Scotland, from Rothesay in the Isle of Bute on 29 July to Dundee on 19 August, with stops on the Isles of Lewis and Harris as well as in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

John Wilkie in rehearsal with Richard Burkhard, Clare Presland for Opera Holland Park's 2019 production of Wolf-Ferrari's Susanna's Secret
John Wilkie in rehearsal with Richard Burkhard, and Clare Presland
for Opera Holland Park's 2019 production of Wolf-Ferrari's Susanna's Secret

John comes from what he described as an arty family, his mother was an acting teacher and his father an artist, whilst he acted on the professional stage from the age of eight. He played the cello and piano as well as having singing lessons (from Douglas Nairn's mother). When deciding what to study he chose acting, but it could have been music, singing or perhaps cello or piano. His move from acting to directing arose partly because problems with stage fright caused difficulties with auditions, but a lot of his director's instinct comes from the combination of his acting experience and his musical knowledge. Whilst he has directed spoken theatre alongside opera, for the last five or six years he has been immersed in opera.

Umberto Giordano: Fedora - director: John Wilkie, conductor: Oliver Gooch, Sky Ingram, Charne Rocheford, IF Opera - Belcombe Court, Bradford-on-Avon, 24 August to 1 September 2023 - details

Mozart: The Magic Flute - conductor José Aparicio - New Zealand Festival Opera presents a concert performance, fundraising to support Festival Opera and the Hawkes Bay region after the devastating weather events of early 2023 - Napier Municipal Theatre, Napier, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, 15 September 2023 - details

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari: Il segreto di Susanna - director: John Wilkie - in a double bill with Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, Opera Holland Park, 12 July to 3 August 2024 - details

Opera Bohemia's tour of John Wilkie's production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly with Catriona Clark and Cameron Mitchell, conductor Alistair Digges concludes tonight (19 August) in Dundee - details

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