Puccini met Elvira Gemignani in 1884 whilst giving her piano lessons.  She was to become his lover though she was already married.  Soon it became clear that she was expecting a child and not her husbands.  This is was a shocking situation in 19th century Roman Catholic Italy. 

Undoubtedly Elvira and Puccini were happy in the early days before her possessiveness and jealousy dominated their lifelong relationship, and ultimately marriage.  

Elvira had a jealous disposition and attempted to control Puccini.  He was not only creative as a composer.  For instance, he is known to have paid pupils to play the piano in his study giving the impressions that he was there composing.  Meanwhile he slipped out of the windows and Elvira slept soundly thinking he was hard at work at home.

In September 1908 Elvira’s jealousy led to a real-life tragedy as dramatic as an operatic plot.  She became suspicions of one of their servants, the twenty-three year old Doria Manfredi, and was convinced that the girl was sleeping with her husband.  Not only did she dismiss her, but hounded Doria and spread rumours.  The situation became so intolerable to the poor girl that she drank poison and suffered a lingering and painful death.  Puccini, very fond of the Doria, was devastated.  Knowing she was innocent her family sued for defamation and Elvira narrowly avoided imprisonment.  She was in fact sentenced to five months but Puccini stepped in and he and his lawyers persuaded the family to drop the lawsuit and paid them off. 

Elvira was right to have her suspicions: Puccini was having an affair with another woman at that time, but not Doria!

Puccini died in 1924 and Elvira followed him in 1930

Can opera singers sing songs from musicals? The short answer is a resounding yes, but in our experience it’s important to select the right musicals and the right singers.

Some shows like ‘West Side Story’, all the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, ‘Porgy and Bess’, plus many of the works of Sondheim and Lloyd Webber can all work wonderfully, particularly if the singers can loosen their vocal production a little and ‘speak’ to the audience. But this repertoire can be thrilling when the opera singers open up with full throttle – the tenor singing ‘Maria’ for instance, or the ensemble ‘Do you hear the people sing’ from ‘Les Miserables’. Wonderful repertoire!!

Opera singers cannot really do justice to musicals that have more of a jazz concept, such as ‘Chicago’, or a Heavy Rock inspiration. If they did, it may well sound comical – but that could be fun too! French and Saunders’ version of ‘I should be so lucky’ is truly hilarious and inspired us to include some pop songs from time to time including operatic versions of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘Rock around the clock’ and ‘Delilah’. This can create an unexpected and powerful encore in a conventional opera programme!

We return to the magnificent Goldsmiths’ Hall in London later in the Spring for ‘A Night at the Musicals’. This is one of our favourite venues.  Our pianist is always particularly keen as the Hall has a superb grand piano!

Edwardian costume at the Goldsmiths' Hall

Even if we are presenting an evening of popular opera for a private party or corporate event we would always recommend the singers appearing in period costume for some of the performance.  This gives a wonderful visual impact and enhances the power of the music, and can work particularly well in a period setting.  London Festival Opera has an impressive collection of costumes from the 18th Century, Regency, Victorian and Edwardian eras.  Many have been designed and made especially for the company but some were purchased at the rare costume sales at the Royal Opera House and English National Opera.

Many of our performances are at close quarters, so not only must the costumes be of the highest standards and design, but the accessories of hair and jewellery must be convincing close up. 

Additionally, we have sets of costumes for specific operas including ‘Madame Butterfly’, ‘La Traviata’, ‘The Magic Flute’ and ‘Carmen’.  Similarly, these must look good close up and look convincing in historic settings.  If we are presenting a performance in venues such as St James’s Palace in London, Blenheim Palace or the British Embassy in Paris the costumes must look fabulous enough for the settings.

In an opera gala evening in a theatre or special event we would often perform part one in period costume and then change into stunning contemporary evening dress as a contrast. 

We were honoured to perform for a very distinguished audience in the magnificent setting of Kirtlington Park, Oxfordshire on Saturday evening.  London Festival Opera presented ‘A Christmas Night at the Opera’ in the 18th Century Saloon of the house for a sell-out performance.  The audience joined in a Gilbert and Sullivan chorus which prepared them perfectly to sing an absolutely rousing rendition of ‘Good King Wenceslas’, proving joyfully that people do love to sing!

The evening was in aid of the wonderful charity, Medical Detection Dogs, which trains dogs to detect the odour of human disease.  The charity is at the forefront of the research into the fight against cancer and helping people with life-threatening diseases.  In addition to this extraordinary work the charity also trains Medical Alert Assistance Dogs to live with individuals who have complex health conditions.  Using their amazing sense of smell, the dogs are trained to identify the minute odour changes emitted prior to a medical emergency and then alert the person to take preventative action.  This can help to prevent 999 calls and hospital admissions, giving these people and their families greater confidence and independence. 

Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cornwall is Patron of the Charity and gave her blessing to the fundraising evening in a letter printed in the programme.  Her Royal Highness wrote: ‘As the proud Patron I would like to send you all my very best wishes for a wonderful evening of opera. …. By translating their research into reality, this charity could save many thousands of lives.’

It was an honour to be invited to help raise funds for such a worthy cause in the breath-taking setting of Kirtlington Park. 

HMS Belfast sits regally on the Thames by Tower Bridge

Where next?  We have been lucky enough to perform in some stunning, unusual and historically important venues around the world, but we believe we made history last week performing opera for the first time during a private dinner in one of the elegant dining rooms on board HMS Belfast. Moored on the Thames by Tower Bridge in the heart of London and now open to the public for 362 days of the year, HMS Belfast is a fascinating museum ship supported by the Imperial War Museum and is well worth a visit! 

The historic ship was originally launched on St Patrick’s Day in 1939 shortly before the outbreak of World War II.  She was built as a town-class light cruiser for the Royal Navy but after the outbreak of war she saw a great deal of action acting as a blockade ship, escorting convoys and in battle.  After being struck by a German mine she underwent repairs and returned to action in 1942, going on to play a pivotal role in the Normandy landings.  She is one of only three remaining vessels from the bombardment fleet which supported the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944 – the other two are now moored in the United States.  Her bombardment of the German gun battery at La Marefontaine at Gold and Juno beaches meant that the battery was able to play no meaningful part in the defence of the beaches, allowing large numbers of allied troops to land in relative safety. 

Legend has it that HMS Belfast fired the opening shots at the Normandy landings on 6th June 1944, however the ship’s log confirms her first shots were actually fired four minutes after the first shot from a ship lying just to her west.  During her 33 days supporting the landings, HMS Belfast fired an incredible total of over 5,000 shells and the force from the constant firing of her impressive armament of guns cracked the crew’s loos!  The invasion of Normandy was the last time HMS Belfast fired her guns.  In July of that year, she set sail for Plymouth Devonport and a well-earned refit, before being despatched to the Far East.

A final fascinating fact about HMS Belfast:  as she sits by Tower Bridge her guns are trained and elevated in such a way that they are aimed directly at the London Gateway (or Scratchwood Services), the last service station on the M1 before you get to London.  The service station was chosen as the hypothetical target for obliteration as it happens to sit neatly on the radius of the guns’ comfortable range (about 18.5 km at 45º elevation).  Of course, the guns are no longer loaded or capable of firing, so you’re pretty safe if you stop there for a sandwich!

Wardrobe mistress attends to Dorabella's hair in our magnificent dressing room at The Goldsmiths' Hall

With over thirty years of performing under our belts and dozens, if not hundreds, of private and corporate engagements during that time it struck me recently, as I travelled round London, in just how many fantastic venues we have been lucky enough to perform.  Our capital city has so very many beautiful and historic locations which lend themselves perfectly as venues for dinners, soirées, corporate events and receptions – and there can be almost no better complement for such an evening than live opera!  It is very exciting to sing in a venue which was not necessarily built for performance – and with imagination and the power of live opera the thrilling possibilities are endless!

Some wonderful memories came flooding back as I travelled and the thought of setting out a ‘London Festival Opera City Bus Tour’ came to me – a pure indulgence of course, but one that fills me with pride!

We alight the ‘bus’ in Central London at St James’s Palace, where we performed on several occasions for the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme in the presence of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and TRH The Earl and Countess of Wessex.  Carrying on up St James’s Street passing by The Ritz Hotel (memories of a civil partnership dinner with Lucien Freud as one of the guests), and continuing down Piccadilly past the Royal Academy of Art (a surprise opera gala for a major charity – ‘singing waiters’ taking guests quite off their guard!) and Le Méridien Hotel (a series of in-house operas in their beautiful Oak Room).  Passing the bustle of Piccadilly Circus we head down The Haymarket, reaching the Institute of Directors, where we presented a charity gala in one of the magnificent state rooms.  Immediately opposite the IOD is the stunning Athenaeum Club (astonishing swimming pool!) where we performed at a wedding anniversary dinner with a programme including favourite arias of the hosts.  On to The Reform Club, and I am reminded of our artists arriving for rehearsals only to be a little flummoxed by the strict dress code of ‘no jeans and jackets and ties for gentlemen’!

We continue our journey down to Trafalgar Square flanked by the National Gallery (corporate dinners for a major bank amongst some of the world’s most stunning masterpieces!), South Africa House (a charity gala in their beautifully formed intimate theatre), and down Whitehall to the Banqueting House (built by King Charles I, at the time not realising this would be the site of his own execution!).  The bus continues on to 10 Downing Street, where we presented a charity performance in the Drawing Room for a distinguished audience.

By now I am feeling a little overwhelmed as I realise how fortunate we have been to have been asked to perform in these stunning historic settings.  As performers, of course, we very often see ‘the back stairs’ side of a venue as well as the grandeur of state rooms – the behind the scenes experiences and insights are surely the basis for a book one day!

We have now arrived at The House of Commons and I remember with great affection a private performance for the personal guests of former The Speaker, Baroness Betty Boothroyd, in the Speaker’s House. 

Leaving Westminster we travel down the Embankment, looking back at a host of incredible buildings along the river – the Tate Gallery (‘a Family Opera’ in the lofty lobby), Lambeth Palace over the bridge (several charity occasions including one in the presence of HRH Princess Margaret), The Liberal Club at One Whitehall Place (corporate events in the beautiful Library), Middle Temple Hall (a thrill to perform in this ancient setting where Queen Elizabeth I attended performances of Shakespeare’s plays), the Inner Temple and Grays Inn Hall (corporate and charity events).  Finally there is the JP Morgan Building where we have performed at in-house corporate occasions.

Passing Blackfriars Bridge I reflect on the many performances in Livery Companies, most notably the Drapers’ Hall (including an Edwardian Gala in the presence of HRH Princess Alexandra), Goldsmiths’ Hall (for their many wonderful in-house opera evenings) and Fishmongers’ Hall (several high-profile charity galas), to name but a few. 

Our journey begins to draw to a close in the very heart of the City of London passing the Mansion House, where we had the honour to perform at charity dinners for several Lord Mayors.  The Bus finally arrives at its destination – the magnificent Guildhall, where I remember with fondness a large-scale charity gala with soloists, ensemble and chorus.  This is the very centre of our magnificent city and a wonderful place to end this journey of happy memories. 

If you are planning an event and would like to find out how a live opera performance can enhance a dinner or reception please call me, Philip Blake-Jones, on 07802 183847.  I can help you to plan a truly special event, and also provide plenty of inspiration if you haven’t yet decided on a venue….! 

Nothing beats the thrill of hearing an opera singer up close and the power of the human voice will astound your guests.  There is so much repertoire to choose from; passionate arias, romantic love duets, and powerful ensembles.  Combine this with humour and audience interaction and you are on to a winner!  Opera is perfect too for multi-national events and conferences.

Opera is a sophisticated art-form but is essentially an entertainment and can transform an event into something truly memorable for you and your guests.  We create programmes that are ideal for existing opera lovers but which will also appeal to newcomers alike.

We will work with you to create the perfect programme and include something for everyone: from the celebrated operas (such as ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, ‘Carmen’, ‘La Traviata’ and ‘Madame Butterfly’), operettas (including the works of Gilbert & Sullivan), and musicals (with hits from the works of Gershwin, Rogers & Hammerstein, Bernstein and Lloyd-Webber).

Accompaniment can range from an orchestra, instrumental ensemble or backing tracks if a piano is not available.  The singers can appear in glamorous modern evening dress or in stunning period costume for an added visual impact (Georgian, Regency, Victorian or Edwardian).

Our performances are usually introduced with a few carefully selected words that will bring the arias and ensembles to life for an audience.

London Festival Opera has arranged performances to link with all ranges of events – from a private dinner party for 20 to a large-scale al fresco event for thousands.  We perform not only in the UK and Europe but often travel internationally to Hong Kong, India, Barbados and Canada.

We have presented successful opera performances for many leading companies including Goldman Sachs, Brocket Hall, The Goring Hotel, Price Waterhouse, Hermes, Arthur Andersen, Deutsche Bank, AXA, PC World, Bank of New York and BMI Healthcare.

Please do call us to discuss how live opera can transform your next Corporate or Special Event into something truly memorable – an occasion you and your guests will remember for ever.  Please call 00 44 (0) 1722 324847.

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