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Cigarette Girl Philip Pullman is seduced by Carmen

24 Hour Opera People Jane Webster and Andrew Hebden capture life backstage

Short Cuts A new short story from Tessa Hadley inspired by La traviata

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wno.org.uk

e zin a g ma


Photos by Andrew Hebden

Opera Live

Contributors

The free magazine of Welsh National Opera

Robert Butler is a former Theatre Critic of The Independent on Sunday turned green blogger. He is a regular contributor to Intelligent Life and an inaugural WNO NEXUS creative.

Publisher Welsh National Opera Editor Penny Simpson Design Elfen Cover Image Andrew Hebden Let us know what you think marketing@wno.org.uk wno.org.uk

Tessa Hadley lives in Cardi� and loves

Welsh National Opera. Her last novel, The Master Bedroom, was published in 2007. She publishes short stories regularly in The New Yorker and Granta. Nick Kimberley is a freelance writer on music. He reviews opera and classical music for the London Evening Standard. Philip Pullman is the author of the celebrated His Dark Materials trilogy: Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, which was the first children’s book to win the Whitbread Book Award. Penny Simpson is Head of Media at WNO. She is author of The Banquet of Esther Rosenbaum and recipient of a 2009 International Hawthornden Fellowship.

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Contents 04_

Foreword Philip Pullman is seduced by Bizet’s Carmen. 06_

First Class Opera WNO boards the Orient Express, inspiration for a new production of The Abduction from the Seraglio. 08_

Fallen Woman A new short story from Tessa Hadley, inspired by Verdi’s La traviata. 10_

Grand Designs Behind the scenes at Tosca: just how did a surfboard inspire a props maker and why does Scarpia have a taste for bananas? 12_

On the Move Simon Keenlyside talks to Nick Kimberley about making his debut as Rigoletto with WNO. 14_

Our Passion. Your Company Find out more about WNO.

16_

The Master Builders A visit to Cardi� Theatrical Services to find out more about the people who will be building the magnificent sets for WNO’s new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. 18_

Media Matrix From the web to the cinema, WNO Digital breaks new ground. 20_

Staying Mum Robert Butler meets Amanda Roocroft, the very model of a domestic diva. 22_

Changing times, changing opera Cardi� Bay and the Valleys are alive to the sound of music in a groundbreaking initiative supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. 24_

Method in the madness Baritone Christopher Purves spills the beans on singing Wozzeck.

Photo by Andrew Hebden

wno.org.uk

contents __03


My first experience of Carmen was not Mérimée’s story, and it was not Bizet’s opera. It was the version that Oscar Hammerstein made, called Carmen Jones. Hammerstein set the story in the black, urban United States, with prize-fighters instead of matadors, and his lyrics to Bizet’s music were sharp and tight and witty – some of the best he ever wrote. I listened to it over and over again on my parents’ scratched LP a long time before I knew where the music or the story had come from, and I loved it, not least because those pungent and sensual melodies embodied a quality that was of profound interest to a young boy: they were intensely sexy.

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The opening of the story however is distinctly un-operatic. We find ourselves in a world of dusty scholarship, and our guide is a pedant. The unnamed narrator is a historian, determined to solve some footling problem about the location of a long-forgotten battle, a problem which he claims conceitedly, ‘is holding all learned Europe in suspense.’ What on earth could there be in this to have generated such passionate and brilliant music? Well, nothing; because at the end of the first paragraph, the historian turns aside from his academic preoccupations with the magical words ‘I want to tell you a little story.’ And at once we know the sort of thing this is. It’s one of those tales of adventure or mystery so popular a century or more ago, stories that are told by a traveller, or an old China hand, or a stranger in the smoking-room: someone who has had an unusual experience and who wants to pass it on. And since the story is set in a Spain which, with its bandits and outlaws, its savage landscapes and murderous passions, was early 19th century Europe’s Wild West, it’s clear that this tale is not going to be about scholarship at all. This narrative frame has a function of course, as such frames always do. Within the conventions of this sort of tale, honour is satisfied – the author has gone to the trouble, or paid us the compliment, of giving it a truthfullooking pedigree. We know that everything about it is false, because we know this is fiction, but that doesn’t matter, because this is not a court of law, and veracity is not the issue. It’s a form of etiquette. Our historian in Carmen turns out to be a swift and economical story-teller. He sets the scene with a few crisp sentences; he conveys an atmosphere of danger by describing the caution of his guide; he conveys to us the appearance of the stranger he meets by going over in his mind the description of a notorious bandit, and congratulating himself on his perception (which, of course, turns out to be faulty) as well as his courtesy, ‘No doubt about it! But let’s respect his incognito.’ In fact, this narrator is decidedly pleased with himself. And when in the next episode, he meets the beautiful Gypsy Carmencita at dusk on the banks of the Guadalquivir, in Cordova, we are not at all surprised to find him flirting with her and displaying an elaborate gallantry – nor to find him outwitted and robbed of his watch. We can see through him, but if he’s not clever enough to disguise his foolishness, we think, then it’s likely that he’s telling us the truth. And the real artfulness here, of course, is Mérimée’s. How gracefully it’s done, and with what little appearance of art! Those two events set the scene for the main story, which is that of Don José himself, told in his own words to our framing narrator in the prison cell where the bandit is awaiting execution by garrotte. It’s a story of fatal and obsessive love. His tale is brilliantly told, with a multitude of the sort of vivid details

that are exactly what the mind fixes on when it’s falling in love. The costume Carmen is wearing when Don José first sees her; her white stockings, visible under the short red skirt, have holes in them, which he can’t get out of his mind later on when he’s imprisoned for letting her escape. The acacia flower she flicks at him in mockery, and which, unable to help himself, he picks up surreptitiously and tucks into his tunic. The way she places her mantilla over her head when arrested, so that only one eye is visible; but her eyes are very large and fiercely expressive. And, again and again, tobacco. Our historian’s first interchange with Don José consists of offering him a cigar, and during their meeting in the condemned cell cigars are offered again, and again accepted; but this time Don José takes only as many as he’ll have time to smoke before he meets his death. There’s an association being built up, perhaps in the narrator’s mind, between tobacco and sexuality. Carmen works in a cigar factory, where she and the other women throw off their clothes in hot weather and work in their undergarments. When the historian first encounters her, it is at a part of the river-bank where at dusk, the women disrobe and wash in the stream. Typically, our historian, while remarking on this custom, manages to signal to Carmen his own ineptitude (his impotence?) by throwing away his cigar in what he calls ‘a very Gallic gesture of politeness’. He’s no daring and resourceful bandit: he’s someone who can be easily gulled and robbed. I wouldn’t want to make too much of this; as Freud is said to have remarked, sometimes a cigar is only a cigar. But it gives the story a fragrance, a pattern of wit. At the heart of it all is the bewitching character of Carmen herself. It would be a dull reader, man or woman, who didn’t fall a little in love with Carmen. The contrast between her and the hapless Don José is visible most clearly in their attitude to fate. When Don José kills Carmen’s Gypsy husband, instead of lamenting his cruelty or admiring his daring, she is full of scorn, ‘He’d put paid to better fighters than you. It’s because his time had come. So will yours.’ She accepts her fate without complaint. He, on the other hand, is bewildered by his, ‘Sir, a man can turn into a rogue without even thinking about it. A pretty girl makes you lose your head, you get into a fight over her, there’s a nasty accident, you have to live in the mountains, you start out as a smuggler and before you’ve even thought about it you’ve turned into a thief.’ But Don José will never be a match for Carmen, because he is capable of pity. Twice he refers to her as ‘Poor child’. When she’s arrested, Carmen asks: “So where are you taking me to, o�cer?” “O� to gaol, my poor child,” I replied as gently as I could, the way a good soldier should talk to a prisoner, especially a woman.’

“The plot of Carmen, which is to say the unfolding of the events, is so stark and simple and strong that it was almost bound to become an opera. It’s our good luck that it fell into the hands of a composer who wrote such melodies.”

(What a world we have lost! Can anyone imagine a present-day story containing a sentence like that, without a trace of irony?) The second occasion comes in the very last words of the tale proper, before the tacked-on, the redundant, the bathetic fourth section: ‘Poor child! It’s the fault of the Calé, for having brought her up like that.’ The plot of Carmen, which is to say the unfolding of the events, is so stark and simple and strong that it was almost bound to become an opera. It’s our good luck that it fell into the hands of a composer who wrote such melodies. But the true power of the story lies in Mérimée’s words, and in the interplay between the di�erent narratives – and not least in what turns out to be, after his foolish beginning, the tact of the framing narrator. All learned Europe, as far as we know, is still in suspense as to the site of the Battle of Munda; but we have just read a much better story than that. There is nothing to add to Don José’s words at the end of the third chapter, and after they fall, our historian has – or should have – the grace to remain silent. Did Mérimée’s art falter, in failing to stay his pen at this point? Some versions of the tale leave out the etymologicalanthropological-historical padding of the fourth chapter entirely, judging rightly that, without it, the whole thing is so much stronger. But the last paragraph, the last sentence of all, redeems it. Perhaps he should have cut to that final sentence, and taken his own advice. wno.org.uk/carmen foreword_05


James Robinson’s new production of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio is set on board the Orient Express. A by-word for luxury, cuisine – and gorgeous frocks – the historic train has long been an inspiration for artists and designers. From Sidney Lumet’s classic film Murder on the Orient Express to Minder on the Orient Express, a feature length spin-off from the popular television series, the train has often taken centre stage, renowned for its beautiful interiors and stylish clientele.

In Mozart’s opera, it is the backdrop for a story about Konstanze, a rich noblewoman, sold to Pasha Selim after being captured on a luxury yacht by Turkish pirates. Unlike the award-winning film, the travellers on this particular train journey don’t need to call on the services of top detective Hercule Poirot to save them. Konstanze’s canny maidservant Blonde is more than a match for the Belgian hero of Agatha Christie’s famous novel, helping hatch a rescue plot which ensures all’s well that ends well by the time the train pulls into Paris station. Welsh National Opera recently had a taste of the Orient Express when singers and a musician hopped on board for a journey deep into the Surrey countryside, entertaining chief executives and managers for the Walpole Group. This is one of many activities organised by WNO Creative, a new initiative working with the business world. Drawing on the expertise of the Company’s professional artists, WNO Creative specialises in tailor-made events that develop the performance potential of all members of a business’ workforce. They also create memorable events such as Opera on Board the Orient Express, which featured a set menu of classic arias from Carmen and an appetiser of traditional Welsh folk songs. WNO NEXUS artist Jane Webster captured the moment and we feature some of her drawings here. Jane is an acclaimed magazine illustrator, who has recently completed commissions for The Daily Telegraph and The Times. The final word comes from WNO Board member Mathew Prichard, grandson to the novelist Agatha Christie, who explains how the legendary train inspired one of Britain’s best-loved crime writers. wno.org.uk/seraglio

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Inspired by Travel

MATHEW PRICHARD

Anybody who feels they are taking for granted the ease, speed and comfort of modern travel should read my grandmother’s letter concerning her return on the Orient Express to England in 1931, which can be found in Janet Morgan’s excellent biography: “The journey began in a thunderstorm, experienced floods, heating breakdowns, border delays and hardships of every kind and eventually arrived on Wednesday instead of Monday. Never was hardship put to better use.”

WNO Creative on board the Orient Express Illustrations by Jane Webster

The characters on the train and indeed the train itself were moulded into one of the most evocative stories she ever wrote. What do I admire about this? Two things – first the miraculous accuracy of the plot welded around the lay-out of the train and people moving around it; and then the tolerance and understanding with which all the characters on the train are treated, whether they are royalty or restaurantcar conductors. Somehow it makes the eventual denouement much more plausible. Murder on the Orient Express

was a classic, and in many ways Death on the Nile similarly conceived except of course this time the crime scene was a boat – allied with the background of Egyptian splendour. Once again, the lay-out on board the boat is meticulously observed and crucial for a proper understanding of the plot. In the mid 1970s, of course, two splendid films of these books were made. Their producers, script-writers, directors and actors led by Lord John Brabourne, himself a fanatical train enthusiast, cooperated wholeheartedly in the recreation not only of the stories themselves but of the oriental atmosphere that pervades them. Nobody who has seen the film of Orient Express will forget the scenes of Istanbul station, with oranges falling o� carts and merchants chasing passengers, or the heart-stopping moment when the whistle blows and the magnificent old steam engine belches smoke and draws out the station. This article first appeared at agathachristie.com opera first class_07


Oliver brought his new girlfriend home to Cardi� for the weekend, to meet his parents. Her name was Angela, and she didn’t look like the girls he’d brought home previously. There had been a pretty continuous supply of girlfriends since Oliver was 16 or 17, because he was dazzling and desirable. He was small, like his mother, and sharp and funny like her. He had fine golden skin, and his hair was a brown gold like dark honey: these were the 1970s, so he wore it long, down to his shoulders. His eyes were hooded, his nose skewed o�-centre in a way that made him seem sexy and complex. His parents had money, he was the youngest of three highachieving boys, his father was a clever lawyer, his mother was lazy and witty and arty. Everything fell into Oliver’s lap. University was just another playground to him, he did well without even trying. Up until now Oliver’s girlfriends had matched his type: lucky girls, good looking, good company. His father saw straight away that this one was di�erent, and so he took notice of her. She was an awkward, bulky, shy girl, taller than Oliver, with glasses and her dark hair in two plaits. She was studying history. The first night when the two young people arrived, Oliver’s mother, Lenny, cooked lasagne, and Angela confessed she’d never eaten it before. When Lenny asked her what she ate at home, she struggled to remember, blushing, pressing along the patterns on the tablecloth with her chewed fingernail. Shepherd’s pie, she came up with. Meat. Meat and vegetables. She ate the lasagne with her knife and fork, not noticing that the others only used their fork, in their right hand; she said she liked it but she left some pushed to the side of her plate. The only time she joined in the conversation with any animation was when they got onto politics: Oliver’s family were Labour voters, Angela was contemptuous of their casual liberalism, she talked about social security scroungers. Her father apparently had a shoe repair shop in Rochdale. “What’s with the plaits?” Lenny said to her husband when they were alone, getting ready for bed. “She looks like a Valkyrie. Or a schoolgirl. She has the politics of a Valkyrie. And honestly, everyone these days knows about lasagne.” “She’s rather mysterious.” “Mysterious! Don’t tell me you fancy her.” Lenny was handsome; she was only just beginning to be stout, and could still get away with well-made, tight-fitting clothes, showing o� her figure. “No,” John said. “But I quite like her.” “Really?” She paused in tugging the brush through her hair, puzzling at his reflection in the mirror. “It won’t last, though, will it? She’s not Oliver’s sort.” “I’d have thought she’d have eaten Oliver for breakfast. It’s rather disappointing that she’s fallen for him.”

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Novelist and short story writer Tessa Hadley brings the theme of Verdi’s La traviata into the 21st century.

Angela couldn’t take her eyes o� Oliver, she couldn’t help reaching out, when he passed, to touch the hem of his pullover, or the nape of his neck under his hair. They wandered round the house and garden as if he was the moon and she was the tide, drawn after him. Lenny had put them in the double bed, in the spare room. “For goodness sake,” she’d said. “We’re not in the dark ages. Presumably they’re sleeping together?” Angela had flushed scarlet when Lenny first showed her the bed, appalled by what it meant Oliver’s mother must know. But then the young lovers lay shamelessly in it until 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock in the morning, murmuring and giggling, in voices quite unlike the ones they used in front of his parents. Angela’s teased and coaxed, a rich contralto with a new edge of derision, belonging to her Rochdale accent, which had only sulked and stumbled at the dinner table. Lenny said she was afraid of going upstairs, in case she heard anything she didn’t want to. When they came down too late for breakfast, almost too late for lunch, Angela’s hair wet from the shower, they seemed snuggled into secrets, a silky extra layer under their clothes. Angela’s flat white feet were bare under her long purple cheesecloth dress. Then Oliver flirted with his mother in the old way, to make up for their lost morning. Lenny made salad with iceberg lettuce and Oliver mixed the vinaigrette, while John talked to Angela. Her creamily pale skin su�used easily with blood; a faint pink was mottled permanently into her cheeks and the thick white flesh of her forearms. Above her glasses the strong chestnut hairs in her eyebrows met in the middle, like the brows of a girl in an Edwardian photograph; her bosom was unfashionably cushiony. Even while she was speaking with his father, she kept glancing slyly across at Oliver, basking in the game in which they appeared not to notice each other, but were sensuously aware in fact of every least movement, their connection exquisite as if they were bound together with invisible fine wire.

John talked to her about Locke, among other things: she was writing an essay on his theory of rights. At first she hardly bothered to listen to him, taking for granted that his knowledge would be amateur, not interesting to her. But John surprised her, actually he read a lot, he filled in the space around the tedium of his legal work with reading history and philosophy. These were his passions, very private ones. He was used to not sharing them with anyone in his family. ‘The candle of the Lord which is set up in us shines brightly enough for all our purposes,’ he quoted. Angela shifted her attention towards him, taking him in properly for the first time. It was quite a sensation, being taken in by this girl. He imagined it afterwards as if he’d fallen down, behind her suspicious brown gaze, into some large interior space, complicated and shadowy, beyond which room after room of possibility stretched out into the distance. “Don’t be a drag,” Oliver teased Angela, squeezing her shoulders. “Banging on about your college work. Can’t you leave it behind for once?” She was startled, it obviously didn’t occur to her to separate her work from the rest of her life. “I do like her,” John said to Lenny, later. “I think she’s devious,” Lenny said. “Perhaps she needs to be.” Watching the young couple together, John saw how it was with Oliver. Temporarily, the boy was in awe of whatever he’d roused in Angela. That deep place wasn’t like anywhere he’d been with the other girls, the pretty lucky ones. But awe wouldn’t last. Awe would turn sooner or later into other things.


Lenny and John took them to see La traviata at the New Theatre. Angela had never been to an opera before, she was hostile and ready to hate it, bristling at the confident dressed-up audience in the foyer. But at the first interval, when Lenny and Oliver wanted to give up on the production – “It’s so plodding, and Violetta’s too fat!” – John knew that Angela was dismayed, not only because she hadn’t seen that it was plodding, but also because she couldn’t bear to miss the rest of it. John said he was happy to stay with her, and he was. He enjoyed sitting beside her in the dark auditorium, absorbed in the intensity with which she followed the old familiar story, experiencing it as if it had never happened before, as if its outcome was still undecided, craning forwards in her seat, her shoulders hunched and tensed. She was wearing the same purple cheesecloth dress, but in honour of the occasion she had perfumed herself, and unplaited her hair. The dark soft hair, still kinked from its plaits, fell like a fur pelisse around her shoulders. Then it was all over and the fat lady was finally dead. John proposed they should have a post-performance drink in the bar. Angela didn’t object, in fact he’d noticed that she drank sturdily, whatever she was o�ered. She wanted a glass of port this time, of all things. “I loved that opera,” she said frankly as soon as they were sitting down, rather crushed together into a corner at the edge of the crowd, at a rickety little glasstopped table. “Everything about it. Does that mean I have bad taste?” “Don’t take any notice of those two, Oliver and his mother. They’re easily bored. They pretend it’s about the music but actually they just can’t sit still for long.” “Mind you,” Angela said, “the story’s ridiculous. I wouldn’t have done it: if Alfredo’s father had asked me to sacrifice myself like that. I wouldn’t have given him up. I don’t believe in giving things up.” “You mean if I asked you to sacrifice Oliver, for example?” She laughed. “But you wouldn’t ask.” “If I thought I had any chance of persuading you, I might.” Then she was really surprised, frowning at him, rocking back on the spindly chair. “You’re not serious. Because I’m not good enough for him or something?” “It’s the other way round. He isn’t good enough for you. He’s a lightweight.” Colour flooded her face. “That’s a terrible thing to say, about your own son.” “It is, and I won’t ever say it again. Just the once, only to you.” She was closed against him already, hostile. “I don’t believe you. You’re wrong.” “But think about it. Like I said, he’s easily bored. That’s dangerous for you, because you have an appetite for everything. Be careful.”

Needless to say, Angela wasn’t careful, and she didn’t give Oliver up, not then and not for years afterwards. She stayed with him too long, much too long, long enough to have three babies with him before they finally parted in bitterness. When John was very ill, in his late 60s, with tuberculosis of the spine, she came to visit him in hospital. He had a room to himself. She was shocked at how he was changed. His neat-clipped beard was white; his fine, strained face had withered into an old man’s, pitiable, and remote from her. “Where are the children?” John asked, his voice weaker, but still his own. “I left them with Lenny. Are you disappointed?” “Not really. I’d rather have you to myself.” “I’d rather have me to myself, sometimes. When I’m doling out fish fingers and wiping bottoms. I used to read books once. Do you remember?” “Poor Angie.” He kissed the hand she gave him, held it for a moment to his cheek. “Is it awful?” “Of course it isn’t, it’s all right, it’s just my messy life. Today, we’re not supposed to be feeling sorry for me.” “I’m tired of feeling sorry for myself.” In spite of his gallantry John seemed cold, as if he was frozen at his core: Angela tried to think of what would warm him up. She said that she’d been to see Aida. “The very first opera I ever saw was with you. D’you remember, when Ol couldn’t stay the course?” “I warned you then he had no stamina.” “I thought perhaps you fancied me yourself. Not at the time, but when I went back over it afterwards.” She blushed when she’d blurted this out. John smiled as if he really couldn’t remember. “Perhaps I did. I probably did. You’re just my type.” Clumsily she laid her head down on his chest, breathing the faint antiseptic smell of his pyjamas. He put his hand on her hair. “I thought at the time, about Violetta,” she said, “that a sacrifice was such a waste of life. But there are all sorts of ways of wasting your life.” “You wouldn’t know how to waste yours if you tried,” John said to her tenderly. They held together for a few moments, until a nurse came in.

wno.org.uk/traviata

Illustration by Goldlion

fallen woman_09


Guns and Poses

It’ll be all right on the night, or so the saying goes, but not one evening on tour when the firing squad turned up – but not a bullet was fired. Julia Carson Sims, Stage Manager for WNO, takes up the story: “It was the final scene. Cavaradossi was facing the firing squad, the music was building up the drama and everyone was waiting for the inevitable barrage of shots, but nothing happened. Not one single shot, just the very audible shouting from the then Stage Manager in the wings hissing “Shoot him, you b*******, shoot him!” The soldiers (all Choristers and clear about the music and their cue) were puzzled, even more so Cavaradossi. He showed great presence of mind and uttered a strangled cry and fell to the ground. Maybe he’d had a heart attack at the fear of being shot? It was never discovered why all the guns didn’t work at once – just one of those strange quirks of fate, or the joy of working in live theatre.” Hardly surprising that the members of the Stage Management team need nerves of steel, and boast the improvisational skills of a seasoned Blue Peter presenter. On tour in Liverpool, WNO staged a special matinee performance where the audience had the opportunity to watch a scene change with commentary. “It all went amazingly well, bearing in mind these are big sets to move,” explains Julia. “All was in order to start Act 2, but only then did we hit a glitch. There was no sign of Scarpia’s bell pull, which he needed to summon Sciarrone and Spoletta. The Props Master had to rapidly improvise a kind of metal bracket for him to use out of a spare piece of scenery.” Later in the same Act, Scarpia is served a very realistic dish of roast beef. “What the audience don’t realise is the meat is actually plastic – all except the “slice” he appears to cut which is mashed banana,” Julia adds. “As he’s got to sing and slice almost simultaneously, this is the trick used to help him.”

Tosca is one of the best-loved of all operas, and Welsh National Opera’s current production of Puccini’s masterpiece brings vividly to life its historic setting in early 19th century Rome. Opera on a grand scale like this is never easy to achieve. Opera Live goes behind the scenes and reveals some of the secrets of how it’s done. 10_opera live magazine

Above: Illustration of Julia Carson Sims by Jane Webster L to R: Stage Set of Tosca; Deborah Riedel and Dennis O’Neill in WNO’s Tosca, 2006 Photos by Clive Barda


Angel Face

Street Fighting Man

A Head for Heights

One of the most memorable images of WNO’s Tosca is the larger-than-life statue of an angel clasping a sword that towers over the body of the murdered artist Cavaradossi. It’s hard to imagine this striking replica of an original Roman statue in Castel Sant’Angelo has been carved out of insulation foam, using a technique that was once also shared by the makers of surfboards. But this is what sculptor Bill Wroath came up with when he was commissioned to make the statue back in 1992.

Michael Clifton-Thompson, a Tenor with the Chorus of WNO, has a soft spot for Spoletta, Scarpia’s vicious henchman – so much so, he’s sung the role in three previous revivals.

The last word should, of course, go to Floria Tosca, the heroine of Puccini’s opera. When the company last performed Tosca in 2006, Australian soprano Deborah Riedel sang the title role to great acclaim. Sadly, Deborah was diagnosed with cancer shortly before taking that role and died in January this year. Here, her husband Paul Ferris shares his memories of Deborah’s last tour with WNO:

“The designer gave me a model you could have fitted into a matchbox,” he explains. “It wasn’t ideal, but I managed to get a load of travel brochures sent over from a friend in Rome so I could get di�erent views of the original to work from. It’s carved out of a block of insulation foam, polyisocyanurate, the same material used to insulate house walls, or sprayed to fix windows. I blocked out the design with a chainsaw and later carved out the detail with a variety of knives. It was then covered in fibreglass matting. It’s the same method that was once used to make a surfboard, which also has to be very lightweight and robust.” The material might be lightweight, but it takes several people to move the statue and it is very carefully suspended on strong cables during performances. Bill made the angel in his old studio in Plymouth, which was, appropriately enough, a disused church. A WNO truck was sent to collect it once it was finished. “It’s still the best known of all the props I made for WNO,” Bill adds. “I can’t believe it’s been on the road now for 17 years. A couple of years ago, I was crossing the road in Plymouth and a bus went past with a poster for Tosca on it. And there was my angel still going strong!”

“He’s a nasty piece of work, true, jealous of his boss Scarpia and his power, and desperate to join in the torturing of Cavaradossi who has humiliated him,” says Michael. “But what I enjoy is the way you have to develop that role through the interplay with the three principal characters. It’s crucial to get that right. I do lots of hand wringing and grimacing.” Spoletta is on stage a lot, always ready to carry out Scarpia’s devious plans. The success of their relationship, however, boils down to a quite unexpected skill, basically how good is Scarpia’s aim? Michael explains: “On my first entrance in Act 2, Scarpia throws a goblet of wine at me. How this works all depends on his aim and the amount of wine in the goblet. One evening, he caught me with my mouth open and it was a real struggle to sing my next line, because I thought I was going to choke.” Like many of the audience, Michael loves the grand scale of this production. “The set is amazing. There’s this suggestion that it’s bigger than the theatre itself, with all these statues and the impressive battlements in the final scene. You are transported into another place. My favourite moment is when the door of the torture chamber swings open. It’s a coup de theatre. You can feel the weight of that door as the music builds to its climax.” Michael sang the role of Spoletta in the 2006 production with Peter Sidhom in the role of Scarpia. “He was great, truly sinister. But a very di�erent man behind the scenes. We had a party in Plymouth to celebrate the fact he had just performed the role for the 100th time!”

“The role of Tosca was a special favourite of Deborah’s and she considered her many performances with WNO to be the most memorable and cherished of her career. Her powerful portrayal of Tosca was much enhanced by the acoustics and ambience of the magnificent old regional theatres found on WNO tours and she delighted in the freedom of expression it gave her voice in those beautiful old theatres so steeped in tradition and history.” “When approaching the role of Tosca, Deborah wanted to break away from the traditional interpretation of the character and show Tosca’s deep insecurities and vulnerability and still reveal a woman of dignity, fragility and moral conviction. The leap Tosca must make from the walls of the Castel Sant’Angelo presents many challenges. The Act 3 set of WNO’s production is most e�ective and realistic, so presenting the leap e�ectively relied on skill and a large amount of trust by all concerned, not least by Deborah who was made very aware of the potential for serious injury.” “She was concerned that the existing staging of the leap seemed overly conservative and was able to persuade the director that falling face downwards with arms outstretched onto the cushioning device provided was a more dramatic solution. The illusion from the audience was electrifying and utterly convincing, as it appeared that Tosca was falling through space without any apparent constraint.” “Deborah endeared herself to many with her uncompromising approach to her craft and was highly amused when the stage sta� pointed out the image her face makeup left clearly imprinted on the black cover of the cushioning pad.”

wno.org.uk/tosca

The first performance of Michael Blakemore’s production of Tosca for WNO was staged at the New Theatre, Cardiff, in October 1992. It was a co-production with State Opera of South Australia (Adelaide) and was twice performed there before later touring to France, Spain and USA. grand designs_11


Simon Keenlyside returns to Welsh National Opera to make his debut in the title role of Rigoletto. Nick Kimberley meets a singer whose heart is in Wales, but whose career spans the globe.

“WNO gave me a platform, the chance to learn my trade in front of people. I’m looking forward to going back.”

Photo by Uwe Arens

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I met Simon Keenlyside at London’s Royal Festival Hall on a bright spring morning in April. He had just returned to London from Vienna, where he had been singing in a run of performances of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Immediately after our conversation, he was o� to Su�olk for a few days, not for a break but to make a new recording of songs by Brahms and Schumann. In the following weeks, his itinerary would take him to Denmark, Madrid and Amsterdam, before a return to Vienna for more performances of Onegin. Such is the workload of the international star, but Keenlyside embraces it with enthusiasm; “It’s better than working,” he says with a self-deprecating grin. Keenlyside’s warm baritone voice, dramatic intelligence and broodingly intense stage presence have emphatically placed him on the A-list of the world’s great opera houses and concert halls. O�stage, the intelligence and intensity remain intact, yet it is his matter-of-fact modesty that shines through. Our interview is occasioned by a somewhat distant engagement, but one with particular resonance: his return to Welsh National Opera in 2010 after an absence of over a decade. The performances will also mark his debut in the title-role of Verdi’s Rigoletto, one of the most challenging of the composer’s

great baritone roles. He recalls his early WNO experiences with fondness: “WNO was very good to me. I did many wonderful roles there, even if much of what I did in those days was worthy and perhaps not much more. I was a late developer, physically and vocally, and I was also reticent as a man: I wouldn’t let my voice go, in my head I’d be saying ‘Don’t mind me’. Nevertheless WNO gave me a platform, the chance to learn my trade in front of people. I’m looking forward to going back, and I’m thrilled that it’ll be in the new house.” Keenlyside is also looking forward to renewing his acquaintance with John Fisher, WNO’s Chief Executive and Artistic Director since May 2006. For Keenlyside, “John is one of the world’s great voice coaches, and even now he is still in great demand as a coach. In fact he helped me get the role of Eugene Onegin in my head before last Christmas, Sometimes when you go for coaching, all you want is a pianist to play the notes for you, but when you’re learning a new role you absolutely need a coach. John and I only did a few sessions on Onegin, but they were really useful.” It isn’t only his voice that Keenlyside likes to keep in good shape. He has always been something of an athlete; indeed, while he was studying at the Royal Northern College of Music, he joined Sale Harriers, one of the country’s leading athletics clubs. He no longer has the time for that kind of dedication, but, he says, “Most of the places I’ve lived for most of my adult life – Salzburg and Vienna, for example – have been on the edge of mountains, and I like to be strong and in good shape because I want to be able take a walk over the mountains and the next day do a show, without having a heart attack.” The fitness regime has given Keenlyside, 50 this year, a physique to match his voice, and many publicity photos show him baring his torso in a way that would horrify the majority of opera singers. That, though, has been a doubleedged sword: “Exercise has been useful in the past for certain roles, but I was getting weary of having to take my shirt o� for every opera that I was in. That got boring. I did a production of Prokofiev’s War and Peace at English National Opera in 2001, and I loved it, except for the fact that I was asked to take my shirt o�. I said, ‘It’s minus 50 degrees in the opera, and you want me to take my shirt o�? No!’ Fortunately I’ve outgrown that now. Those roles are not for me anymore.”


When the interview returns to Rigoletto I suggest that Keenlyside has not sung a great deal of Verdi’s music. He gently puts me right: “I’ve done a fair amount, and unless you’re freakish, you’d be unwise to sing a lot of Verdi before your late-30s anyway. I think I’ve gone about it in a natural way: I embraced Germont in La traviata, Posa in Don Carlo and Ford in Falsta�. Then you take stock and see whether, realistically, you’re capable of doing anything else. Time will tell, but I feel it’s a natural progression to Rigoletto now.” In all of Verdi’s output, there are few more complex figures than Rigoletto, the hunchbacked court jester. In trying to protect his daughter from the corruption in which he himself is immersed, he destroys her. Verdi himself said of the title character, “That is exactly what seemed so wonderful to me, to portray this ridiculous, terribly deformed creature, who is inwardly filled with passion and love.” A modern audience is liable to find that the “passion and love” are themselves deformed; when I suggest to Keenlyside that he has taken on a rather twisted role, he says with some glee, “That’s theatre for you. Name a character who isn’t twisted; and especially, name a baritone character who isn’t.” O�stage, Keenlyside seems the last person to tackle such a character. He seems eminently sane, rooted in the real world. The spot where he and I chatted had a fine view over the Thames. At one point a bird flew along the river; without missing a beat in the conversation, Keenlyside said, “Look: a greylag. That’s nice.” I took his word on the matter of identification: after all, for some time in his youth Keenlyside was a warden with the

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. This is a singer whose interests are not circumscribed by operatic perspectives. In 2006 he married Zenaida Yanowsky, a prima ballerina with the Royal Ballet; their first child was born in October 2008. Force of circumstance dictates that London is their physical home, but his heart is elsewhere: “My father was a fiddle player [Raymond Keenlyside played second violin with the celebrated Aeolian Quartet], and he had a tiny cottage in West Wales. As a boy I was a chorister at St John’s College in Cambridge, a boarding school, and the only place that was home to me was Wales. That was always where I returned to. When I got older I bought a farm down there.” Keenlyside’s work-schedule prevents him from farming animals, but he is passionate about the trees that he has introduced: “Half of the trees are sessile oak because that’s what belongs there, although it’s very exposed. I’m at the very edge of the tree-line, so after ten years they’re only a metre high. I’ve also planted some beautiful hawthorns, laburnum, beech, mountain ash, as well as a great deal of birch: they’re quick-growing and I want to see a forest before I’m 80. Even in London, there are wonderful wildernesses just down the river. I live on the south bank of the Thames, and Rainham Marshes are on the north bank, and I’m working out how I can get there. Maybe a small rubber boat, although I’m not sure what the Port of London authorities would have to say about that.”

Simon Keenlyside in WNO’s Iphigénie en Tauride, 1992. Photo by Clive Barda.

wno.org.uk/rigoletto on the move_13


OUR PASSION YOUR COMPANY Opera is passion, drama and high emotion. Opera is a unique mix of wonderful music, stunning sets and costumes and captivating theatre. Opera is both hugely entertaining and profoundly moving. We want to share this experience with you. Join Welsh National Opera as we bring the greatest stories ever sung to life. World-class performances from the Chorus and Orchestra of WNO and international soloists combine with the production values for which we are justly famous to create a night at the theatre to remember.

1_La traviata Photo Drew Farrell

5_Tosca Photo Clive Barda

2_Madam Buttery Photo Neil Bennett

6_Carmen Photo Robert Workman

3_Wozzeck Photo Bill Cooper

7_Die Meistersinger von NĂźrnberg Photo WNO Digital

4_The Abduction from the Seraglio Photo Andrew Cloud

8_Rigoletto Photo Clive Barda

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Autumn 2009

Birmingham / Bristol / Cardiff / Liverpool* Llandudno / Oxford / Southampton / Swansea*

New production La traviata Verdi wno.org.uk/traviata

Supported by the Helena Oldacre Trust

Madam Butterfly Puccini wno.org.uk/butterfly

A ravishing, classic production of Puccini’s deeply moving Japanese tragedy.

Wozzeck Berg wno.org.uk/wozzeck

Supported by the Friends of WNO

Co-production with Scottish Opera and Gran Teatre del Liceu. A sumptuous and beautifully detailed production of Verdi’s heartbreaking love story.

Spring 2010

A highly charged industrial vision of this overwhelming 20th century masterpiece – a profoundly a�ecting theatrical experience.

Birmingham / Bristol / Cardiff Llandudno / Milton Keynes / Plymouth Southampton / Swansea**

New production The Abduction from the Seraglio Mozart wno.org.uk/seraglio

Supported by Colwinston Charitable Trust and the WNO Partnership Co-production with Houston Grand Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, Opera Colorado, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Minnesota Opera and Opera Pacific. Mozart’s exhilarating, delightful comedy in an irresistibly entertaining production set on the Orient Express of the 1920s.

Tosca Puccini wno.org.uk/tosca

Sponsored by Associated British Ports

Carmen Bizet wno.org.uk/carmen

This classic production distils Bizet’s sultry and passionate masterpiece right down to its very essence.

A period-set production of Puccini’s pulsating operatic thriller, filled with some of his greatest music.

Find out more Full details of casting, creative teams, dates and booking information can be found in the accompanying Opera Live Directory. To request a copy please call 029 2063 5030 or email marketing@wno.org.uk All of this information can also be found on our website wno.org.uk wno.org.uk Get closer to the action on stage and behind the scenes. Visit our new website for full casting information, stories of each opera, audio clips and specially created films. wno.org.uk/mywno is an interactive area – you can vote in our weekly poll, have your say on WNO performances and find out the latest news from behind the scenes. New to opera? Visit fresh2opera.co.uk

Support Us Supporting Welsh National Opera can be a really rewarding experience – for both of us. Give us a call on 029 2063 5042 or visit wno.org.uk/support-us

Get Involved

Summer 2010

Birmingham / Cardiff

New production Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg Wagner wno.org.uk/meistersinger

Supported by WNO’s Meistersinger Syndicate

Rigoletto Verdi wno.org.uk/rigoletto

With thanks to the Idloes Owen Society

World Première The Song Contest of the Birds and Beasts*** Mervyn Burtch (Music) Simon Rees (Words)

The owls sit in judgement, as birds and beasts sing their hearts out in the ultimate musical battle of the animal kingdom. The world première of this specially commissioned oratorio is performed by school children from across Birmingham.

A major new production of Wagner’s monumental comic opera.

WNO MAX connects company and community, o�ering a wealth of di�erent opportunities to get involved with Welsh National Opera. If you would like to know more about WNO MAX please log on to wno.org.uk/getinvloved or contact us direct on 029 2063 5062.

One of Verdi’s most powerful and direct operas. James Macdonald’s gripping production sets the opera at the heart of 1960s Washington DC.

A collaboration with Birmingham Hippodrome.

* Excluding Wozzeck

** Excluding The Abduction from the Seraglio

*** Birmingham only xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx_opera our passion. live yourmagazine_15 company_15


Theatre and opera companies the world over call on the services of Cardiff Theatrical Services, a wholly owned subsidiary of Welsh National Opera, to realise their extraordinary stage settings. Penny Simpson goes behind the scenes at CTS to find out just what has impressed everyone, from The Pet Shop Boys and Dr Who to music theatre impresario Cameron Mackintosh and the Royal Opera House.

Photos by WNO Digital

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CTS can be found tucked away in purpose built workshops on an industrial estate in Cardi� Bay. The former railway sidings are now home to a dedicated and diverse team of talents, including carpenters, welders, draughtsmen and scenic artists. There are two sides to the operation, which has run on this site since 1984: the Construction workshops and the Paintshop, overseen by Simon Cornish and Ian Siddall respectively. Ian trained at art colleges in Liverpool and Cardi� before joining CTS; Simon arrived through a more unexpected route, via the world of agricultural engineering. “Opera still has this elitist ring to it for many,” says Ian, “but we employ people in South Wales to make scenery for all round the world. We also try and use local suppliers for materials as much as possible.” Each year, 30 large-scale projects are completed by the team, including operas or music theatre shows for organisations such as the Royal Opera House and Cameron Mackintosh. CTS has recently built sets for Matthew Bourne’s The Nutcracker and for the awardwinning West End show Avenue Q. By way of variety, the company also built the interior of the Tardis for BBC Wales’ hugely successful Dr Who franchise. Challenges are rich and various, from building a set inside Monte Carlo’s casino to creating a massive “black and shiny” set for a production of Madam Butterfly in Tokyo. “That felt a bit like taking coals to Newcastle,” admits Simon. CTS has also helped build tour sets for Paul Simon and The Pet Shop Boys. Other commissions have been more left field, like the request to build a Bun Tower for the Chinese New Year celebrations at the Lord Mayor’s Festival in London. “Our speciality is building sets for touring,” explains Ian. “Other workshops might build for one venue and sets can often be constructed in large, unwieldy lumps. We have an understanding of how to break that down for ease of transportation and for accommodating the quirks of individual performance venues. It’s what makes us stand out. We’re the only facility in Wales doing this.” The construction process begins with a series of technical drawings developing the designer’s vision. “When I started, this was done with ink on tracing paper,” says Simon. “There are literally thousands of these drawings still stored in our attic. If the client lived outside Wales, and they often did, you had to send the drawings by Red Star delivery on the train for checking. When we got a fax machine, it wasn’t much better, because you had to slice the drawings up to send through and then sellotape them together again. Computers

have revolutionised the process. You create in 3D and it’s an infinity of space in all directions. Designers often work on computer, animating their original designs so you can see when a backcloth is coming in, or a wall moving out.” What doesn’t change is the need for craftsmanship in the workshops – and a close understanding in the case of an opera production of the whole process of putting a show on stage. “I came to CTS from an agricultural engineering background,” adds Simon. “At first, I thought it all looked so easy. I was working on a small part of a project, in isolation from the bigger picture. I can still remember the shock I felt when I first saw it all go up on stage. The set had to work, of course, and in time to the music. That was the real wow factor. It’s what drew me in.” Increasingly, sets are getting even larger, because they are being created for performance spaces such as Wales Millennium Centre, built to receive shows on a large scale. “We’re building some sets now which we can’t stand up inside the workshop, so we have to lie them flat on their face, or back, or take them outside if the weather is good,” adds Simon. “It’s not uncommon to see cranes in the car park ready for action.” Lying behind any brilliant stage spectacle will be literally months of detailed preparation, buckets of sweat (and some tears), as well as a host of tricks of the trade. Simon and Ian are both agreed on what they don’t like seeing in a designer’s spec: “mirrors, high gloss finishes, motorisations or the request for no joins to be visible.” In the Paintshop, the challenge is to recreate a designer’s painting or sketch to a di�erent scale. When that artist is David Hockney, the pressure is really on. “Actually, he was great to work with,” Ian recalls. “We ended up having faggots, peas and chips in this rather dodgy Valleys pub and he said ‘just get the colours right, okay?” If either Simon or Ian drew up a list of Top Ten Set Designers, the Wales-based artist John Macfarlane would head the pack. John has designed spectacular sets for WNO in the past, including Hansel & Gretel and The Queen of Spades, both directed by Richard Jones. “He really ticks all the boxes,” says Ian. “He gives you a real challenge, something very di�erent and groundbreaking. When you see his sets up there on the stage, the hairs on the back of your neck literally stand up.” In the near future, CTS is consolidating its in-house training opportunities through collaboration with colleges such as Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, whilst new Interim General Manager Guto Lewis starts in July 2009 to steer the company’s various projects. “There’s no let-up,” explains Simon. “At any given point, we might have five projects being built in the workshops and another 15 in various stages of commission, or completion, from the costing phase to the drawing phase. We also go out with the sets and attend fit-up’s, or we might be called in to sort out any alterations.” Last, but not least, they will be building the set for WNO’s eagerly anticipated production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg with Bryn Terfel making his debut in the role of Hans Sachs in Summer 2010. wno.org.uk/meistersinger


the master builders_17


media matrix From live Twitter events to initiating and making original short ďŹ lms, WNO Digital is networking across the creative industries to compile an in-the-round portrait of Europe’s busiest touring opera company.

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Left: Still from WNO Digital’s film of The Queen of Spades Top: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg Bottom: Poster design for Welsh National Youth Opera’s production of Sweeney Todd, 2009. Photos by WNO Digital

WNO Digital is a new initiative set up just five months ago, its purpose to maximise ways of using new technologies to bring di�erent aspects of the opera experience to long-standing supporters and newcomers alike. WNO Digital launched Opera24 on social networking site Twitter earlier this year, delivering the first-ever live broadcast from behind-the-scenes at an opera in both English and Welsh. Journalist Robert Butler, alias Opera Mole, gave a live relay of 12 hours of action via his Tweets, translated simultaneously into Welsh. The idea behind Opera24 is to create interesting events for people to follow live, highlighting the range of work WNO is producing, both on the mainstage and further afield. Short digital features are another key feature of the venture, the emphasis on stand-alone creative content. To this end, WNO Digital is mapped into the development of WNO NEXUS, an initiative for media creatives from all disciplines to find inspiration working in a new environment – be it opera rehearsal room, storage warehouses or milliner’s studio. A magazine illustrator, a documentary photographer and a journalist were selected for the first year of the project; over 2009 – 2010, WNO will be working with animators on a portfolio of films that will again expand on WNO Digital’s objectives. Robert Butler, the journalist, is working on the live Twitter events, building on his experience of delivering backstage reportage for organisations such as the Royal National Theatre. Magazine illustrator Jane Webster’s drawings can be found throughout this issue of Opera Live. The drawings she has done behind the scenes at WNO were also featured in a recent exhibition at The Coningsby Gallery in London. Documentary photographer Andrew Hebden makes up the third in the trio. His black and white photographs capture the sometimes surreal atmosphere of life backstage – from pig waiters hovering in the wings to Principal Singer Rosemary Joshua taking a sneaky look through a keyhole to time her cue in The Marriage of Figaro. Interaction between the WNO NEXUS participants is encouraged and there are plans to collaborate on a number of projects drawing together word and image. In addition, WNO Digital is also commissioning short documentaries for the Company website and for screenings in short film festivals, telling some of the more intriguing stories behind the scenes. WNO Digital is working with directors from film and television to make these documentaries. Opera Express tells the story of three songwriters, former substance abusers, who became involved on WNO’s Street Songs project in Aberdare. The director is Davina Payne,

winner of a New York Film and TV Gold Medal and Special Jury Award at Houston Film Festival. Boxing Beats, directed by BAFTA winning DJ Evans, explores the role of the sport in a tight-knit Valleys community, an experience that has been worked into songs and music by participants, some of them professional boxing champs, others youngsters keen to make a name in the profession. Davina Payne has also directed Touching Lives, which tells the story of WNO musicians and singers giving their time to help launch a pioneering college of arts for severely disabled people. The students are all guests of Touch Trust, a fellow resident at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardi� Bay. These commissions will develop over the next 12 months into developing a strand of stand-alone films and digital projects, using di�erent arts disciplines to inform content, as well as drawing on a range of arts media partners in England and Wales where WNO tours. The first partnership is with BBC’s Big Screens in city and town centres in the UK, beginning in May 2009 with a short film inspired by The Queen of Spades.

Experience WNO Digital @ wno.org.uk wno.org.uk/express wno.org.uk/touchtrust WNO Digital’s core team is Penny Simpson penny.simpson@wno.org.uk David Massey david.massey@wno.org.uk

media matrix_19


Amanda Roocroft talks to Robert Butler about keeping things real at home – and on stage

Portrait of Amanda Roocroft in costume in WNO’s Otello, 2008. Illustration by Jane Webster

The soprano Amanda Roocroft is about to go from singing the single mum in Janáček’s Jenůfa at ENO to singing the single mum in Puccini’s Madam Butterfly at Welsh National Opera. Both parts, coincidentally, were written in 1904. As one critic has noted, musically they could not be more di�erent, but they tick a lot of the same boxes on a benefit claim form. Roocroft is well placed to identify with these characters as a single mum herself, raising three boys (now aged 13, nine and six). When we met for a co�ee in London before a performance of Jenůfa, she tells me that Janáček was influenced by Puccini and verismo. “Katya Kabanova was his Madam Butterfly.” It’s the similarities between the two composers that appeal to her. “I love this kind of repertoire. The through-composed opera rather than standstill ones. You’re always thinking as opposed to trying to find something to think about.” Her immersion in character (always having something to think about) marks Roocroft out as a singer. Her Olivieraward winning performance as Jenůfa was praised for its wrenching dramatic truth. “This isn’t just a great operatic performance, it’s a great performance – period,” said the Independent’s Edward Seckerson, “Take the music away and you’d still be moved.” Having plenty to think about sums up Roocroft’s own life. Her mobile is her lifeline. For some of the time that we 20_opera live magazine

met, at a café next to the Coliseum, she was on the phone sorting out problems back home in Cambridgeshire. One of her sons wasn’t feeling well and she was getting the babysitter to take him to the doctor. “Yes, I know I’m being dramatic and operatic,” she told her son, as we queued for the cappucino, “but please can you do this for me?” At one stage during our conversation she wanted to go outside because there was an ‘SOS’ on her phone. This referred to the signal status (fortunately) rather than any new message from home. What Roocroft enjoys most about opera is the chance to be someone else. She discovered this as an eightyear-old taking part in a competition in Blackpool. The singing had gone fine, then came the piano playing. “The audience was to my right and I was thinking, ‘Oh my word, they’re looking at me and I don’t like this. I’d much rather be singing.’ I remember it so clearly. That was a decision for me. Because I didn’t get nervous singing.” Born in 1966, Roocroft grew up in Coppull, a Lancashire village, which she describes as being all “mining and mills.” Her mother, a pianist, had given up concert performances when Roocroft’s elder brother, Anthony, was born. “In those days there were loads of choral societies and choral festivals. My mum would play for local singers, really good singers.” Roocroft started singing when she was seven. “I begged and begged my mother to have lessons. Finally one of the ladies my mum used to play for said, ‘OK I’ll give her some lessons’, and I stayed with her till I went to college at 18.” Roocroft was lucky the way her teacher taught her. “My teacher helped me with my breathing and my stance and my posture and made sure I didn’t pretend to be an opera singer. She just nurtured my voice gradually.” Roocroft went to the local school, Southlands High. As she was busy singing, playing the piano and playing the cornet, there was no time for netball. During sport she caught up with schoolwork. As well as the Coppull Band, she played in the only all-girl amateur brass band, the Trinity Girls. “That was on a Monday. Tuesday I’d have my piano lesson. Wednesday I’d have my singing lesson and my band practice. Thursday I had o�. Friday I had another band practice.” There wasn’t even time to go out. Her friends would say, “Are you going to come to the disco on Friday” and she would say “No I’ve got band practice.” Music was never di�cult for her. “I never really had to study, I just had to get on with it. Basically I wanted to stay at home and practise.” At 18, she went to the Royal Northern College of Music, which was a culture shock. “There were a lot of Oxbridge people in my year, very clever, very loud, and very funny, and it wasn’t my background at all. The first time I went to Manchester was for my audition. And it was only 20 miles away. I’d never really stepped out of my environment. I didn’t have anything to say. I’d sit there like a wallflower.” But her talent spoke for itself. “They said you’re going to have a career, and not just a career, but ‘A Career’. Then I became quite self-conscious. I was winning the prizes, I was picked out to do the concerts and the operas. It was quite a di�cult time for me.” She recalls one lieder competition, in particular: “I


remember thinking as I went out, I don’t want to win this.” But she did win it, and her mum and her singing teacher asked why she hadn’t looked happy. At music college she also received exceptional reviews from critics on national papers and soon after that she became the subject of a couple of star-isborn type documentaries. Roocroft made her professional debut in 1990 with Welsh National Opera. It was an auspicious occasion. Roocroft sang the role of the fiancée, Sophie, in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at the New Theatre in Cardi� where WNO used to perform. The conductor was Sir Charles Mackerras and, she immediately points out, the production opened on St David’s Day. In 1992 Roocroft sang the role of Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte at Glyndebourne. The conductor was Simon Rattle, the director was Trevor Nunn. The rehearsal process was an education in itself. “We sat around for a week without singing a note. We just talked about the characters. It was glorious. Simon Rattle was looking at the shape of the line and the phrasing and Trevor Nunn was complementing that with the thought processes behind the words. It was a foundation for me.” Roocroft still reads as much background as possible, but with some caution. Verdi’s Desdemona, for instance, isn’t as “feisty” as Shakespeare’s and “you can’t impose”. Her career has encompassed many of the great soprano

roles – Fiordiligi, Desdemona, Tatyana in Eugene Onegin, but she is candid about the ups and downs that followed her tremendous start. “There came a point when it became an over-developed voice and it became unnatural in a way. I’d developed a lot of bad habits. So I stopped. I worked hard in a di�erent way. I worked hard at being natural.” It looks exhausting being a diva and a single mum with three boys. After each performance of Jenůfa she takes the train back to Cambridge getting home in the early hours. Before we met, Roocroft had fallen asleep on the train and a guard had to wake her up at King’s Cross. Sometimes she’s on the phone, sorting out things for school the next day, minutes before going on stage. That weekend her boys were coming to see her perform. She thinks they’ll like it, though judging by one of her sons’ comment, Jenůfa may not be tragic enough for him. He had told her, “I prefer it when you’re in something where you die.” Next year Roocroft returns to WNO to play Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg with Bryn Terfel making his role debut as Hans Sachs. Roocroft and Terfel both went in for the Kathleen Ferrier award in 1989. “I’m quite proud to say I came second,” says Roocroft, “It’s not bad. It would have been worse if you’d come second to someone who then gave up singing.”

Amanda Roocroft and Siân McCabe, WNO’s Head of Wigs and Make-up, backstage at Oxford New Theatre. Photo by Andrew Hebden

Roocroft made her professional debut in 1990 with Welsh National Opera. It was an auspicious occasion. Roocroft sang the role of the fiancée, Sophie, in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at the New Theatre in Cardiff where WNO used to perform. The conductor was Sir Charles Mackerras and, she immediately points out, the production opened on St David’s Day.

wno.org.uk/butterfly staying mum_21


Welsh National Opera is making its presence felt beyond the mainstage – inside a boxing ring, on board a double decker bus, even in the food aisles of a local supermarket. Penny Simpson reports on a diverse and creatively challenging programme of work taking place in the South Wales Valleys and Cardiff Bay, supported by a £280,000 grant from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, the largest grant awarded in Wales by the Foundation.

CHANGING TIMES, CHANGING OPERA Above: Surf Tailz project in Porthcawl. Photo by Darryl Corner Opposite: Still from DJ Evans’ film Boxing Beats

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Opera isn’t often seen to be at the forefront of contemporary culture – even less so in communities hard hit by economic and social change. WNO is resident in what was once a prime site in Cardi�’s old docklands, and a train journey from the historic Valleys communities, which helped build the city’s wealth back in the 19th century. Both the Valleys and Cardi� Bay have undergone huge changes in recent years and struggled at times to retain their unique cultural heritage. Two years ago, WNO embarked on an ambitious project aimed at setting up long-lasting partnerships with groups in both these communities, drawing on their stories, memories and distinctive landscapes to create a new, flexible and contemporary tradition of storytelling through music. Okay, it’s not Tosca II, or Rigoletto, The Sequel, but the thinking behind the project clearly links back to WNO’s grassroots, as an opera company not set up by Royalty or a wealthy patron, but a group of amateur singers, determined to sing and to perform. Driven by the vision of a former miner, Idloes Owen, the company is now fully professional and boasts a reputation for being Europe’s busiest touring opera company, but its key strength remains its passion to keep singing alive for a new generation. And an essential part of that remit is opening up the experience of opera through WNO MAX, an initiative that takes opera beyond the mainstage. The Paul Hamlyn Foundation is well known for the work it has done opening up the arts and education to everyone. What might be less well known is its farreaching and creative approach to the relationship between funder and recipient. That approach has been crucial in helping WNO shape, evolve and deliver an original approach to music and songwriting workshops in both communities, adapting to circumstance and experience as each project develops. Régis Cochefert, Arts Programme Manager at the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, sums it up as a “rolling stone” approach, but one that still stays true to overall objectives. “I think it makes the relationship more interesting, more stretching,” he explains. “We are pragmatic in responding to the changing shape of a programme, if we can see something is not working, or needs a di�erent emphasis. If it serves the greater good, we will go with it.” An example is WNO’s Songbus, a double decker bus, which spent seven months visiting sites in the Bay o�ering local people the chance to come on board and take part in a range of musical activities. In order to encourage people to sign up for a more in-depth experience, specific workshops have now been set up to build a commitment to work on

future initiatives, including a rap opera film created in collaboration with Butetown’s Community Helps Itself. The Foundation recognises the need for such initiatives to have time to bed down and win support in the community, encouraging regular discussion as well as quarterly updates. Nor is it afraid to push the boundaries for its partners. “We are people funding people. So, the starting point was the clarity of vision, the charisma and compelling arguments of Sarah Alexander, the former Director of WNO MAX,” Régis adds. “For the larger projects we support, trust in a vision, trust in the decision making process and a willingness to amend and adapt as occasion demands are all paramount. We need to see how what is being done is having an impact, how it will continue to have an impact. The Foundation was particularly interested in the di�erent angle adopted towards participation, for example, bringing musicians and singers into the community. We are also interested to see how this social engagement will impact on the wider Company and inform WNO’s future planning beyond 2010.” Under Rhian Hutchings, the current Director of WNO MAX, the project continues to expand into its third year, drawing in sports specialists, including light weight boxers of both sexes in a Valleys gym, and partners, such as Academi, the organisation for writers in Wales, to create workshops and performances that open up opportunities for professional artist and community participant alike. Soprano Kate Woolveridge took time out from appearing in the Chorus of WNO’s Otello to rehearse a community choir made up of women from the Valleys for their first solo performance – in a supermarket in Merthyr Tydfil. Whilst Owen Webb, former WNO Associate Artist, took part in a series of songwriting workshops run in the front rooms of participants involved in Street Songs, Aberdare, later performing their songs

live and unplugged on a Valleys train and on several windswept railway platforms. For Owen, it was a chance to connect directly with a very di�erent audience and to work with three new songwriters, all of them recovering substance abusers and members of Valley of Hope, a support project run in Aberdare. Initially apprehensive at working with opera singers, that barrier has now come down, as evident in a documentary film commissioned by WNO Digital tracing the involvement of three of the participants, giving voice in a di�erent medium to their extraordinary stories. This film has been screened in a local cinema and will shortly be entered in short film festivals. For that has been one of the unexpected outcomes of this initiative, a mine of stories and projects that will inform a series of documentaries and original digital shorts from WNO Digital, taking the experience beyond geographical borders and into many other communities. wno.org.uk/getinvolved

“We are pragmatic in responding to the changing shape of a programme, if we can see something is not working, or needs a different emphasis. If it serves the greater good, we will go with it.”

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Bean Cans Artwork by WNO Digital Christopher Purves in WNO’s Wozzeck, 2005. Photo by Bill Cooper

BAKED

BAKED

BAKED

Baritone Christopher Purves gives the inside story on playing mad, bad and dangerous to know in the title role of Welsh National Opera’s award-winning production of Wozzeck, Berg’s 20th century masterpiece.

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BAKED

BAKED

How di�cult could it be, I wondered? The opera lasts for a mere 90 minutes, there are three acts comprised of five scenes in each act. Hardly Wagnerian proportions! I really had no idea what to do other than learn the words and the music and what it all meant. Perhaps easier said than done in that Berg has written this role for someone who is able to sing right at the top of the Baritone voice, and right at the bottom of the Bass range, almost three octaves for those counting. In between these vocal extremes Berg makes extraordinary demands on the human voice, none more so than in the final scene which watches the horrific demise of Wozzeck in the most animalistic fashion. Getting to grips with these demands was an extremely daunting challenge, and one that had me scraping around for a way in. I’m sure that most performers go through these very motions every day and like me wait, mostly in vain, for the blinding flash of light or at least directions to the start of the road that will eventually lead to the promised land. How do you start to prepare for a role that requires you to be bullied, ridiculed, abused, humiliated, cuckolded, and generally tossed about like a boat in a storm? This question put me in mind of the quotation from King Lear that every schoolboy dutifully trots out for the sake of his English A-level examiners, I know I did; “Like flies to wanton schoolboys, so are we to the Gods; they kill us for their sport”. From the standpoint of the weak and helpless Wozzeck, life must seem rather like this, his wings roughly plucked from his back making flight impossible.

BAKED

BAKED

BAKED

This is how we see him at the start of our opera, reduced in circumstances to such a state that his only purpose is to earn money in whatever way he is able to serve his partner and his son. In the following scenes each of his eight arms and legs are ripped o� leaving him at the mercy of his tormentors with only his sting remaining. But what a potent sting, one capable of killing Marie and, as with the humble Bumble Bee, himself into the bargain. I started my quest with the suggestion of director Richard Jones, that I should read a wonderful book called “Two journeys into madness” by Mary Barnes and RD Laing. Two journeys because this is the account of the same madness seen from two di�erent sides; Mary Barnes’ account of her own madness and her psychoanalyst’s reading of the same episodes. It makes for fascinating reading I can assure you, and a book that allowed me for the first time to realise that, of course, Wozzeck like Mary, doesn’t think of himself as mad but normal. It is for other people to tell Wozzeck that he’s mad and the performer playing him has to realise that he doesn’t have to ‘show’ anything, in fact in my mind it is better to do nothing at all. In fact as one goes through the opera trying to make head or tail of the libretto, it is very easy to look at the other figures and wonder whether Wozzeck isn’t the sane one after all. The Captain is an overbearing bully of colossal proportions, whereas the Doctor seems to define quackery. The Drum-Major is an opportunistic thug in peacock feathers, and together they seemed to have all ganged up on Wozzeck and inflicted his


madness upon him. Wozzeck has no ability or power to fight back and is so troubled by his own madness that his descent into chaos and oblivion is inevitable. This revelation, although in many ways rather obvious, was my way into the character of the man. Imagine the scenario of actor/ singer arriving in the usual state of nervous panic on the first day of rehearsals being told by the director that for the ensuing six weeks you are to do nothing, no physical explanations, no extraneous emoting, no nothing, just turn up and sing your tunes (?) and don’t do anything. Bloody marvellous, until you analyse those things you do with your hands, your normal body position when in ‘conversation’ with another actor, all the habits created over years for explaining a situation to an audience or just out of nervousness, not knowing what to do with these appendages on the end of your arms. GONE. Wiped clean. Start again and as it’s a rehearsal period, do not collect £200! As for the man himself, Richard Jones, he was at pains to deter me from the thought that the character had to be found immediately. I must admit to having a bull-in-china-shop mentality (in my own head if not, and I hope not, externally) when it comes to showing the director what he’s asked for. In crude psychological terms it’s the pleasing of the father syndrome that I know a lot of performers su�er from. I do suppose that it stems from a basic sense of

insecurity; am I really good enough to do this role? When will the fraud squad be knocking on my door? Here and now, I can honestly say that in everything said and done in the glorious six-week period in 2005, I never for one moment doubted their sincerity and commitment to me as Wozzeck. Their patience brought Job to mind (simply must check the Old Testament, have never known why Job’s always invoked when patience is mentioned) and their support, total and very warming. I can promise you it’s not always like that. That didn’t stop them from inflicting upon me untold physical and mental tortures. For instance, in the original production, conductor Vladimir Jurowski asked me in a very appealing, but forceful way to sing everything written, even the Sprechstimme (see dictionary for meaning). Now most of the recordings that I’d listened to, and that was quite a few, had the Wozzeck barking his way through this slightly artificial form of opera, very approximate to the notes, and a lazy boy’s dream. But how many times in your career are you also going to be asked to run along a line of bean cans – without falling o� – and singing at the same time, kill with the serrated edge of an opened can of beans, commit suicide in a skip full of cans of beans, and finally, and this is for fellow cast member Peter Hoare, put a mute into a tuba? Why would you not want to try? For me that’s what

is so exciting about working with Richard: he extends you in every direction until you look down at your own body and wonder whether it’s the same one that you came with at the start of the rehearsal period. When I had the great honour of accepting the RPS Award for Opera on behalf of WNO I distinctly remember saying in my speech that the period in 2005 that was forever Wozzeck was for me the happiest time of my life, to rank alongside meeting and getting married to my lovely wife Edwina; the birth of my three wonderful kids Lily, Patrick and Teddy; and Spurs getting into Europe. I still maintain that to be true although I’ve been skiing since then and that ranks very highly. I also said then that you can’t do anything significant in opera without the help of your fellow performers, most of whom will return for the revival and without whom none of this would be possible. I also said, tongue firmly in cheek, that if WNO ever wanted to revive this fantastic operatic experience, 2009 for me would be the best time to do it as things were looking a bit thin for that year. As a parting shot I added that if they did see fit to revive Wozzeck in that year (and ask me back to play Wozzeck again), the public should fight hand and fist to get a ticket. It seems WNO has done its bit, now it’s your turn, you lucky people. wno.org.uk/wozzeck

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Oper Live Magazine 2009/10  

Free magazine of the Welsh National Opera