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.

Wardrobe mistress attends to Dorabella's hair in our magnificent dressing room at The Goldsmiths' Hall

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….! 

Live Opera for a Birthday Party

Live opera is the perfect entertainment for a Birthday Party, particularly if the guest of honour is an opera fan!  Hearing live opera up close is stunning, it provides party guests with a thrill they will remember for ever, and the entertainment can end with a rousing operatic ‘Happy Birthday’.

We will work with you to create the perfect programme for the occasion, whether you would like the performance to be in one section at the beginning or end of dinner or performed in two or three sections between the courses of the meal.  We have performed music for a birthday party during a lunch or dinner.

A ‘Surprise Start’ is always a wonderful way of kicking off the entertainment, with singers disguised as waiters or serving staff who can burst into operatic song to the amazement of the guests.  We have even shocked a birthday guest of honour himself when his family were arranging a surprise party for him – not an evening he will forget in a hurry!

Most of our performances are in the UK but we regularly travel to Europe and often perform further afield – we have presented opera for a birthday party in Marrakech, Barbados and Hong Kong.

Depending on the venue, period costume might add an extra visual impact to enhance the performance, and accompaniment is ideally a piano or backing tracks as an alternative.

The repertoire can include celebrated arias and ensembles from the operatic repertoire (such as ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, ‘La Traviata’, ‘Carmen’ and ‘Tosca’, pieces from the operettas of Offenbach and Gilbert & Sullivan, and hits from the popular musicals of Gershwin, Rogers and Hammerstein, Bernstein and Sondheim.  There is so much wonderful repertoire to choose from to celebrate at your birthday party!

Please call us on +44 (0) 207 223 5456 or the mobile 07802 183847 to discuss music for your forthcoming birthday party – one that will remain in the memories of you and your guests for a very long time!

Charity Fundraising Event

Fundraising in times of financial hardship and political uncertainty is tough, no matter how worthy the cause.  Charities now, even more than ever, need to find new, innovative ways to catch the attention of potential donors and to bring them into a ‘feel-good’ setting, where spirits can be raised as well as funds!

Traditionally, large-scale charitable fundraising has often been aimed at a luxury market; drawing perhaps from a relatively small group of donors, albeit one with all the right resources!  Increasingly, however, charities are looking to broaden their base of regular donors to include a new and larger demographic.  What better way could there be to attract a new crowd into the concept of generous and regular giving than by treating them to a spectacular event which offers a touch of luxury, something with a real ‘Wow!’ factor?

Opera can often be perceived to be a serious and heavy art form, one with which you need to be familiar in order to enjoy it.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  A gala dinner (for instance) with entertainment by London Festival Opera includes many of the best-known arias so will appeal equally to newcomers and seasoned opera lovers alike.  It will provide a sophisticated but lively and fun evening, full of drama, passion, humour and interaction with guests.  Who could fail to feel flattered to receive the attentions of Carmen as she serenades a male guest with a red rose during her infamous Habanera aria?  Or indeed, have their adrenalin levels raised by The Barber of Seville approaching them with a large and shiny blade?!  All this combined with the thrill of hearing at close range the human voice in its most refined form is an unbeatable combination.

London Festival Opera have been involved with charity fundraising events for many years, having been the vehicle for raising many hundreds of thousands of pounds for a wide range of charities, including the British Red Cross, Animal Health Trust, The Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, Tusk, Cancer Research, Mencap, Barnardo’s and Tommy’s Campaign.  Venues have ranged from London Livery Halls to private country houses, including theatres, concert halls, schools and Royal Palaces along the way.  We have many years of experience creating bespoke programmes for charity events, so please do feel free to contact us if you are considering organising a special event and would appreciate advice on how best to entertain your guests for maximum effect.  As well as advice on the type of programme which would be most suitable for your cause we can also advise on sponsorship ideas which have worked and helped charities raise funds in the past.

If guests leave a fundraising event without having had their emotions heightened, their passions aroused, or their laughter muscles exercised they are more likely to leave with money still in their pockets.  If you move them with excitement, passion, laughter and tragedy all in the space of an hour, having set those emotions to some of the greatest and most rousing music ever written, you’re on to a winner.

Please contact:  Philip Blake-Jones on +44 (0) 207 223 5456 or 07802 182847

philip@londonfestivalopera.co.uk

www.londonfestivalopera.co.uk