Wednesday 8 November 2023

First Person: soprano Holly Brown on rehearsing the Guildhall School's current double bill of Respighi operas

Respighi double bill in rehearsal - Guildhall School (Photo: David Monteith-Hodge - Photographise)
Respighi double bill in rehearsal - Guildhall School (Photo: David Monteith-Hodge - Photographise)

The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is currently performing a double bill of Respighi's Maria egiziaca and La bella dormente nel bosco. In this First Person article, Holly Brown reflects on her experiences rehearsing for the production.

My name is Holly Brown and I'm a soprano in my second year of Opera Studies at Guildhall School of Music & Drama. In the Respighi double bill, I am singing Maria in Maria egiziaca (8 and 13 November) and I'm playing La Fata Verde (the Green Fairy) in La bella dormente nel bosco.

I have wanted to be an opera singer probably for longer than the average performer; initially making the decision at eleven. My love for opera and singing began at school when my classmates started having singing lessons and I wanted to join in and try it too. When my sister decided that she wanted to be a doctor, all the conversations at home were about the steps she would need to take to do it. I think some part of me wanted the focus to be on my future career too and at that point I thought that singing sounded fun enough to do for a job. I’ve never re-evaluated that choice and fifteen years later, here I am. 

I had heard of La bella dormente nel bosco before, having watched the Guildhall Opera production online a few years ago (this was during the pandemic when students couldn’t give live performances). However, I had absolutely no knowledge of Maria egiziaca. I’d never heard of it before, and when Dominic [Wheeler] announced the production, it took me a while to find recordings online because I couldn’t work out how he was spelling it! When both opera casts were announced to our year group, I was quite concerned to find out that I had a speaking role for La bella dormente nel bosco – it’s a bit of a surprise when after seven years of music training and you get a part that doesn’t require singing! When Dominic announced my role as Maria in Maria egiziaca, it all started to make a bit more sense. From that point on, preparations began and the excitement (and nerves!) started to kick in.

I think the most rewarding part of performing in productions at Guildhall School is to the chance to collaborate and perform with your friends and classmates. We get the opportunity to work together for a really long time and to develop our relationships. I’m finding rehearsals for La bella dormente nel bosco incredibly enjoyable – you have frogs, fairies, a great big spindle - all sorts! As the Green Fairy, I get to be the ‘evil’ one playing opposite the ‘good’ Blue Fairy, performed by Yolisa Ngwexana. During the production, Yolisa and I engage in a sort of Fairy Wars, having to fight each other in the middle of the opera. During rehearsals, we’ve been holding conductors’ batons and pretending that CGI is going on around us, making it look a lot more epic than it actually is! It’s become such a notable moment in rehearsals that it’s even known as Fairy Wars on the call sheet… 

Maria egiziaca is different and the subject is far more serious. It’s a religious piece and a profound story. The source material doesn't necessarily give you a lot of laughs, so it has felt fairly important in the rehearsal room to try and keep the mood light, finding moments of relief where we can. 

Out of both operas, I have fallen in love with the romance of La bella dormente nel bosco - it's really perfect fairy-tale music. One of my particular highlights is the second aria sung by Yolisa as the Blue Fairy, who is singing these beautiful, high sparkly coloratura lines - it just sounds like pure magic. There are some beautiful chorus moments in Bella as well, each portraying different roles– they are mourners, stars and frogs (to name but a few!). The versatility of the chorus and the beauty of the music really brings these special moments together. The music of Maria, however, is a different story entirely. It’s difficult to imagine that the same composer has written both operas. Maria egiziaca’s music is also very beautiful, but there are moments of true pain in there, and dissonance. 

I think what I love most about the staging is that we have the most beautiful set [made by designer Laura Jane Stanfield] that houses both operas in creative and stunning ways. Victoria Newlyn, our director, has an incredible vision for this production. Newlyn’s approach made us question the imagery of both fairies and religious icons – it’s easy to look at them and not quite see the reality they are meant to portray, but on stage, it’s what you have to create; you have to show the audience someone they connect with on a human level. Mary of Egypt might be a holy saint now, but at one point she was a real woman, with lived experiences. The characters in Bella aren’t taken from history, but they still experience love, loss and pain like we do. All through the rehearsal process, Victoria has been reminding us of this and pushing us to see all these characters as real flesh-and-blood people, not just beautiful pictures in a storybook or church window. I hope that this will come across to our audiences and that, while experiencing some beautiful music, they might also recognise the humanity in the stories we're telling.  

I think audiences can expect to feel a range of emotions from the evening - from the gorgeousness of the fairy tale in Bella to the discovery and transformation found in Maria – both are human stories with a wide scope of emotion.

Performances of Respighi's Maria egiziaca and La bella dormente nel bosco directed by Victoria Newlyn and conducted by Dominic Wheeler are at Guildhall School of Music & Drama from 6 – 13 November. Details from the Guildhall School's website.

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