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

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!

Singers in period costume standing in The Green Hall at Amorbach Abbey

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.