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

Frank Matcham Theatre Designer

Frank Matcham (1854 – 1920) must be the most distinguished and prolific late 19th century theatre designer.  The writer Alan Bennett has commented that there was a Matcham theatre (too many of his theatres have sadly been demolished) in every corner of the UK.  Across the country in Brighton, Portsmouth, Morecambe, Leeds, Nottingham and Newport and in London his theatres include the Coliseum, Palladium and Hackney Empire, to name but a few.  London Festival Opera has had the pleasure and thrill to perform in several of Matcham’s most magnificent theatres including the Buxton Opera House and Grand Theatre Blackpool. 

Matcham married the daughter of his tutor, Maria Robinson, and had two daughters Eveline and Constance.  He had a great interest in music and owned a Stradivarius violin though he humbly admitted that he ‘wasn’t particularly good at it’.  He also loved to stage amateur dramatics and the ‘family troupe’ would present theatrical performances for their neighbours and friends in the intimacy of his home – somewhat ironically as he had designed some of the world’s greatest large scale theatres!

There is something very special about performing in a period theatre and we usually perform in period costume.  For a Frank Matcham theatre this would be Victorian or Edwardian evening dress.  For the audience the effect is like going back in time both aurally, in the repertoire of Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi and Puccini, and visually with our set and costumes. 

It is always a thrill to arrive in a Victorian venue where the back-stage and dressing rooms maybe a little shabby but make up for that by having such atmosphere and there is a sense that many, many starts and celebrities will have appeared in the theatre – from Lilly Langtry to Ken Dodd!  Modern theatres are lovely and comfortable, but there is something very special about arriving, rehearsing, changing and performing in a period theatre – especially when they are designed by the great Frank Matcham.  For more details see the excellent website for the Frank Matcham Society www.frankmatchamsociety.org.uk

At London Festival Opera we are passionate about bringing opera to as wide an audience as possible, and especially about the importance of exposing children to music of a high calibre from an early age.  Some years ago, therefore, we created a series of programmes entitled ‘Opera Magic’ to introduce opera to school-age children and young people which were premiered at the Windsor Theatre Royal as part of the Windsor Festival.  ‘Opera Magic’ has introduced many hundreds of children to the magic of live opera since then and we remain as passionate as ever about the importance of doing so.

We covered in our earlier blog, ‘The Importance of Being Musical!’, how important we believe it is to include music in children’s education; it is not only known to increase brain capacity, but it also teaches children many vital lessons for life – not least that practice and perseverance result in improvement and, eventually, the joy of achieving a goal.  In this digital age where results are expected to be immediate this can only enhance and enrich children’s learning at this formative stage.  Moreover, including music of all styles in an enrichment programme is tantamount to making a lifetime investment in connecting children to an emotional outlet, which could prove to be life changing as they develop.

Opera is arguably the greatest of all art-forms combining great music, drama, fantastical plots, wonderful costumes and scenery, a live theatre experience, plus the thrill of hearing the human voice in its most refined form.  It provides a sensory feast for children and young people who, no matter what most stimulates their individual interest, will undoubtedly find something in the performance which thrills and ignites them.  A first visit to the opera can be intimidating and it’s crucial that the experience is a positive one – if it is, they will be hooked for life!

‘Opera Magic’ presents real, full-blooded opera, but with lashings of humour and audience interaction.  The pupils will be prepared in advance as their teachers will be supplied with information packs so that before they attend the performance, they already know elements such as the voice categories and the etiquette of shouting “Bravo!” if they particularly like a piece.  They will also be prepared to take part in the ‘grand finale’ where the opera singers on stage, the pupils and teachers in the audience will all join forces in singing a rousing celebrated opera chorus together.

The singers will interact with their audience, going amongst them and making them feel part of a shared experience.  Some pupils will be invited on stage to take part in the performance, featuring some of the world’s greatest music including the works of Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Bizet, Puccini and Gilbert and Sullivan. 

Our production has a technically straightforward set and rehearsal takes place on the same day as the performance.  Depending on the size of theatre or auditorium, accompaniment would range from a pre-recorded backing track, solo piano or a select chamber ensemble.

If you would like to talk about us bringing ‘Opera Magic’ to your school please contact: Philip Blake-Jones (Artistic Director) philip@londonfestivalopera.co.uk   07802 183847


A child learning music

Nearly everyone enjoys music, whether listening to it, singing or playing an instrument.  It is a universal language which most people can understand and appreciate. Despite this wide interest, however, many schools are having to cut down on their music education programmes in order to make more time in the curriculum for (so-called) ‘core’ subjects.  Whilst we have enormous sympathy for the ever-increasing pressures on teachers and education budgets, we believe this is a mistake.  Educational authorities reducing their musical offerings in the weekly timetable are not only withdrawing from children access to an enjoyable subject but also one which can enrich their lives and education far beyond the classroom.  

There are so many benefits of including a high-quality musical educational programme in the school curriculum which have been scientifically proven.  Each of them has cross-over to other academic subjects, and also to life outside of school, giving children confidence, listening skills and resilience – all lessons which can only help them achieve success in an increasingly tough world.

When you start to delve into the research papers on the subject it only increases the sense of woe at a situation where teachers are finding it harder to offer their pupils the time to learn and appreciate music of a high calibre.  Here is a fascinating selection of just some of the scientific findings: 

  1. Musical training helps develop language and reasoning:  An early musical training will develop the areas of the brain related to language and reasoning. The left side of the brain is known to become better developed with music, and songs can help imprint information on young minds.  Learning a musical instrument can improve how the brain understands human language, helping students to learn a second language.  It also helps with pattern recognition, which aids mathematical and scientific skills.
  2. A mastery of memorisation and discipline: Even when performing with sheet music, student musicians are constantly using their memory to perform.  Developing memory skills will serve students well in all other areas of education and beyond.  Learning to play an instrument can also be hard and children must learn a valuable lesson in discipline. They will have to set time aside to practise and rise to the challenge of learning with discipline.
  3. Students learn to improve their work: Learning music promotes craftsmanship, and students learn to want to create good work instead of mediocre work, constantly striving for better.
  4. Increased coordination: Playing a musical instrument can improve a child’s hand-eye coordination, in much the same way as playing sports does.  Children’s fine motor skills, however, can also be significantly improved when playing a musical instrument, with the obvious knock-on benefits to their writing and manual/craft skills.
  5. Teaching responsible risk-taking and dealing with anxiety:  Music encourages students to try something new and to develop confidence as they master singing or playing an instrument. Performing a musical piece in front of an audience can cause fear and anxiety; it requires real courage!  Pushing through their fear to perform helps children to deal with anxiety with a level head to achieve a positive outcome, bringing a sense of achievement and good self-esteem.  Sometimes in order to achieve potential one needs to learn not to be frightened of fear!
  6. Teaching collaboration, self-esteem and goal-setting: When playing instruments in a group or singing in a choir, students are working towards a common goal and they learn how important it is to appreciate everyone’s ‘voice’ and interests.  This joint effort, where each student’s contribution is vital to the end result, creates not only an understanding of the importance of listening to others and appreciating their contributions but also a sense of secure acceptance of their own contribution that is critical to the self-esteem of each individual.  This is where, for many, the understanding of the importance of teamwork starts.

    Learning to play pieces of music on a new instrument can be a challenging but achievable goal.  Students who master even the smallest goal in music will be able to feel proud of their achievement.  Goal setting becomes an important core part of making positive progress in all areas of life.
  7. Better test results: Students who receive a high-quality musical education in schools perform better in standardised tests than students who don’t have an opportunity to engage with music.  In real terms, students who benefit from superior music education in school have been found to score around 22% higher in language and 20% higher in maths testing compared to schools with less access to a high-quality musical programme.
  8. Fine-tuned listening skills: Music involves listening to yourself as well as to others.  It also requires listening to more than one thing at a time – tempo, harmony, dynamics etc.  Children who have received a high-quality musical education are better able to detect meaningful, information-bearing elements in sounds, than those who have not.  Students who practise music have better auditory attention and can pick out predictable patterns from surrounding noise. 
  9. Music can be relaxing and offer an emotional outlet: Students can fight stress by learning to play or to listen to music. Soothing music is especially helpful in helping children relax.  Listening to music evokes feelings in children which they may find hard to express verbally – expressing these through playing a musical instrument or singing provides a vital outlet where words just won’t do.
  10. Preparation for the creative economy: An artistic education develops the whole brain and develops a child’s imagination and curiosity.  The world is ever-changing, and with mechanisation and technology taking over more and more tasks in the workplace, investing in a creative education can better prepare students for the 21st century workforce.  The new economy has created more artistic careers, and these jobs may grow faster than others in the future.  An artistic or creative education helps with problem solving skills in terms of learning to think outside the box and appreciating that there may be more than one right answer.

The aim of education is to prepare children and young people for independent life outside of school and the home.  Which of the above skills doesn’t provide a vital contribution to this process?!

See our next blog post to read about how London Festival Opera has taken steps to help schools to bring high calibre music to their students from an early age….