On New Year’s Eve London Festival Opera dovetailed celebrated opera arias with the exceptional feast served in the Lecture Room at Sketch. Sketch is an amazing complex within the original Georgian town house on Conduit Street, and was built in 1779 by James Wyatt. Formerly it hosted the HQ of suffragette movements in the early 20th century and was then the workshop of Christian Dior. In the late 90s it caught the eye of Mazouz and since 2023 has been owned by Mazouz. It has 5 highly decorated ‘fantasy’ eateries, including 3 restaurants in the building: the Parlour, the Lecture Room & Library, the Glade, the Gallery, and the Eastbar & Pods. The Lecture Room & Library holds 3 Michelin stars.
It has been a very challenging 18th months for performers or all kinds – some normality seems to be returning to our profession as we proceed with caution and start planning performances. Philip Blake-Jones (Baritone and Artistic Director of London Festival Opera) had the opportunity to sing last week at a charity event in an delightful garden in the Cathedral Close of Salisbury.
The surprise ‘burst of opera’ included Papageno’s Aria from Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’. The sunny day, trees and colourful flower beds provided the perfect enchanting setting!
Here’s to the future and the return of live performances of all kinds!
Covid 19 has had a profound impact on the arts generally, particularly live music. Some normality is returning but we seem far away from complete freedom from restrictions. It is possible that things will not be as they were for a considerable time and that the online concepts, such as Zoom Opera Galas and Online Choirs, will remain a vital option for music making of all kinds.
The Self Isolation Choir is a pioneering company – they presented their first mass ‘Messiah’ with a chorus of nearly 4,000 singers and instrumentalists from 35 different countries last year – and now continues to develop and offer choral experiences in many new areas. The SIC now moves into the world of grand opera with their https://www.theselfisolationchoir.com/opera-choruses and London Festival Opera is thrilled to be involved in this new project of five celebrated choruses from the operas of Verdi, Bizet and Puccini. Philip Blake-Jones has worked with four of his most talented soloists creating the rehearsal tracks to teach and inspire the international choristers, as well as the piano track which is the fundamental foundation of the whole musical creation. The rehearsal and concert will be under the baton of the very talented Ben England, who received the BEM in HM The Queen’s Honours marking his leadership in this new virtual creative world. Additionally, the course will include the expert contribution of Donald Palumbo the Chorus Master from New York’s Metropolitan Opera New. The Self Isolation Choir has once again assembled and impressive creative team!
We are still in the midst of lockdown limitations, but let’s look at what we can do in these times rather than what we can’t. It certainly seems that being able to go to the opera or present opera at a party is still some way off.
A client of ours wanted to do something operatic to celebrate a special birthday. The guests were in Israel, London, Kent and Oxford, but in these times of lockdown that is not an issue. A Zoom Opera Gala was the perfect solution.
Our Artistic Director turned up at the Zoom party in black tie resulting in some surprise. ‘Who is this?’ exclaimed the guest of honour. All was revealed and we created an opera celebration using wonderful footage from past performances with live spoken links. The result was magical with guests swaying to the rousing music and applauding enthusiastically.
The client now has a movie of the event as a memento of a wonderful party.
A Zoom Opera Party could be a useful option to anywhere in the world even after lockdown!?
What a truly super occasion! We all loved it so much, and as usual you were an incomparable master of ceremonies.
I cannot thank you enough for the excellent performance combined with your presence in person and the entertaining commentary which made it all so special and memorable.
The guest of honour really loved it and it was a joy to see her surprise and the sheer pleasure as she enjoyed the event.
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!
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.
We recently had the pleasure of performing in the stunning Green Hall of Amorbach Abbey in Germany. A more fitting setting for a performance of live opera would be hard to imagine, but this one in particular has a fascinating history with an interesting historical significance to the British Royal Family, which gives the location an especially wonderful atmosphere.
Amorbach Abbey was originally a simple Benedictine Monastery, set in its current location from 734AD. Several turbulent centuries followed, throughout which it survived various wars and uprisings, and the Monastery then went on to enjoy wealth and significant power in the region, in the 1740’s the buildiongs undergoing a major Baroque refurbishment. The Abbey building remains to this day a significant example of early Rococo style architecture, although the Green Hall in which we performed, is in the Neoclassical style. The Monastery itself was finally dissolved in 1803 with the Abbey buildings and lands being given to the Princes of Leiningen as compensation for lost territories occupied in 1793 by French revolutionary troops. The Abbey buildings are still occupied by the Leiningen family to this day.
We all know, family trees can be a bit complicated – and the British Royal Family is no exception! Queen Victoria’s mother, before her marriage into the British Royal Family, was married to Charles, Prince of Leiningen (she was his second wife, the first being her aunt!). They had two children and lived at the family seat, Amorbach Abbey. After her husband died in 1814 Princess Victoria of Leiningen remained in the Principality as Regent, still ruling from Amorbach. In 1818, and in response to a succession crisis in the British Royal Family (that’s another story!) the then Duke of Kent proposed to her, and she accepted. They married at Amorbach and continued for a brief time to live there, returning swiftly to England in April 1819 in order to ensure their first child, Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent (the future Queen Victoria), could be born on British soil. The rest, as they say, is history….!
Our Regency cosumes worked particularly well in the period setting of Amorbach and it was a privilege to perform in a venue with such a pivotal link to our Royal Family.
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….!
There are many wonderful music and arts festivals around the world, with more springing up all the time. As our name suggests, you may not be surprised to hear that it is those that feature classical music which hold a special place in our hearts!
London Festival Opera has been lucky enough to have performed at many wonderful festivals in some stunning locations around the world, in the UK, the Windsor Festival, Salisbury Festival, Church Stretton Festival to name but a few. Overseas we have appeared at HIFA (Harare International Festival of the Arts), The Holders Season in Barbados and The British Day in Hamburg, amongst others. No matter where the location, the atmosphere has always been electric!
The beauty of festivals is they have often arisen out of the passions of one or two people who have then worked tirelessly to see their vision become reality. They can therefore offer an eclectic selection of niche cultural riches, whether following a specific genre of the arts or perhaps the heritage of the festival’s location itself. Bringing opera to a music and arts festival not only allows existing lovers of the art to indulge further in their passion, but it also brings opera to a potentially wide and diverse audience, some of whom might not previously have experienced (or imagined they might enjoy) the thrill and joy of a live opera performance.
Music is a language which crosses the boundaries of history and international borders, and no matter where the roots of our own personal heritage lies it is a language we all speak, to a certain extent. Whether it is the rhythms of tribal music or the heart-stretching climax of an operatic aria which sets our hearts racing, we all have within us the capacity to be moved by music, transported (if only for a while) to another place. No matter where our passions lie there is a festival out there for us, one which will offer us a musical experience like no other.
A particular thrill for us as an opera company, has always been the audience’s reaction to our performances at festivals. In the intimate setting of the Baroque Hall of Trafalgar Park our audience was only feet away, giving lots of scope for interaction and involvement. Seeing the smiles and tears was just wonderful! At the other end of the scale was the response of the audience at HIFA in Harare; this attracted a crowd of over 5,000 for our Opera Gala Evening and to hear each of these people screaming for an encore is a memory which will never leave us! Equally, seeing a largely German audience waving mini Union Flags and enthusiastically singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ with us as we performed at the al fresco ‘Last Night of the Proms’ in Hamburg was a slightly bizarre but incredibly moving experience.
Live opera, up close, is stunning; it bristles with drama and passion and bubbles with humour and fun. Whatever the country or scale of location it is always a pleasure to share the power of opera and to perform the masterpieces of the greatest composers – with Handel, Mozart, Verdi, Bizet and Puccini you can never go wrong!