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
London Opera Events
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!
Singing for physical and mental health
The pandemic has savaged the arts and I am very concerned for the future, but there is some consolation in the opportunity to teach again. To be able to pass on what I have learned from some of the country’s best teachers. That this might help with health and morale is a precious added bonus.
In the programme Breathe English National Opera has concluded that singing could play a key part in helping to improve breathing and general wellbeing.
A singing teacher’s job is to spot and remove bad habits. My Professor at the Royal Academy of Music stressed that improving singing is about ‘taking away the mess’. If singing looks easy and natural it usually sounds it. Whether a total beginner, someone who sings in a choir, or you have ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ aspirations, you can improve.
Nothing compares to being in a room together, but the subtleties of good singing can be taught online. The wide range of people I am teaching are improving and most importantly enjoying the lessons
Lessons online make it possible for us to connect from wherever we are in the world from the comfort of our own homes. I’m working individually and in groups with singers online here in Wiltshire and also currently in Yorkshire, Scotland, Germany, Barbados and the USA.
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 (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
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.
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.
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) email@example.com 07802 183847