The Actress Lesley Manville created a really special Desert Island Discs including opera. She revealed that as a girl classical singing was an important part of her life and that she could have perhaps chosen an operatic career. Had she done so, we would have been deprived of one of the country’s most accomplished performers. She played W S Gilbert’s life very touchingly in Mike Leigh film ‘Topsy Turvey’. Her Desert Island Discs is well worth listening to and still available on the BBC BBC Radio 4 – Desert Island Discs, Lesley Manville, actor
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!
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!
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.
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!