Return to Presteigne

Presteigne Festival is special for many reasons. It has a pre-eminent reputation for commissioning new music, through-provokingly woven amongst more familiar repertoire by its artistic director of more than twenty years, George Vass. It is a lovely Festival for reasons of geography – the different venues are nestled amongst the Powys hills in what was historically known as Radnorshire (this poetic name is still alive and well in the local imagination). Festival-goers are whizzed around by bus to save on time, petrol and parking strife, giving audience members a chance to get to know each other. What’s more, Presteigne is at the centre of an artistic community that includes many writers, artists and makers of note, as well as a host of talented non-professionals, so there is much to excite the eye as well as the ear. home

This was the second time I have visited the Festival as a participant and one of the many pleasures is the time spent with the other performers, composers and commentators, whom one meets there. This year the place to gather when not at a concert was The Workhouse, rather unpromisingly sited on the industrial estate but in fact a source of the best food (and gossip) in town. As well as hosting exhibitions (currently some interesting photographs with accompanying new poems by Liz Lefroy), it sells textiles and ceramics. Most attractively of all, its car-park was the only location in town where I could get five bars of signal on my mobile phone. After resolutions not to be glued to my technology all week, the desire to Tweet approving noises about the work and performances I was hearing was just too much.

1010879_10152300278367492_1903151744167331493_nThis year’s Polish theme, in part to honour the centenary of Andrzej Panufnik’s birth, brought a number of Polish composers to the Festival for the first time and occasioned the commission of Pavel Lukaszewski’s Requiem. Stephen McNeff was Composer-in-Residence and a significant number of his works were on offer, including a new Oboe Concerto, Songs for the Virgin of Guadalupe (thrillingly performed by Rachel Nicholls), and Madrigali dell’Estate and Prometheus Drowned, both of which were written for me. I also heard some wonderful new songs by Toby Young which made me even more eager to take delivery of those that he is currently writing for me.

It’s relatively easy to get a first performance of a work but the second can be very elusive, which often contributes to a piece slipping out of the repertoire even when it is of quality. Presteigne Festival’s loyalty to the work it has generated is admirable – not every new piece can be a winner but it’s good to see things getting another hearing a few years down the line. and the body of work built up over the years has proved significant and lasting.

Summertime and the singin’ is easy

Last week I was working with the Learning and Participation Department at the Royal Opera on a project to bring singing and opera to elderly communities in central London. Two workshop leaders (Freya Wynn-Jones and Izzy Adams, plus pianist Jonothan Williams) each worked for four weeks with two groups and two singers (me and Siobhain Gibson, another mezzo) joined each group at its final session. At the end of the week all four groups assembled in the Paul Hamlyn Hall at ROH for an event in which everyone shared what they had done. Guests were invited and tea and cake was served.

The Royal Opera has a strong track record of working with youth groups and the local community in Thurrock, where the RO Production Workshop is based. However, it has only recently extended its work to the other end of the age spectrum and is still exploring how best to build engagement with the elderly population. We know from Pina Bausch’s work that age need not be a barrier to participation and, indeed, there are actors in their 70s who still regularly appear in Royal Opera main stage productions.

But the people we were working with on this project may not have sung for years, if at all. Alas, I still hear many stories of people who are told at school that they can’t sing and clam up for the rest of their life. One of the great pleasures of getting to know these groups even within such a short time-frame was to witness how everyone pulled together at the prospect of giving a “performance”. Once in the impressive surroundings of the Paul Hamlyn Hall and alongside groups from other venues, everyone’s contribution went up another gear, each group determined not to be outdone.

It was an inspiring and touching performance, with little step-out solos for those who felt brave, a Summer-themed song of their own for each group, some new words to an old tune (four verses created by the four groups) and a final big sing-song of the tunes which had been common to all four groups’ work, complete with actions. I got to give my first performance of Papageno’s aria, for which I was able to arrange a last-minute loan of some pipes from a regular inhabitant of the role. Siobhain gave her finest Carmen in our own version of the Habanera and we also squeezed in a bit of Gounod and Weill, to give the groups a chance to catch their breath.

photoThere were many moments to treasure but three really stand out for me: Marguerite, aged 98, singing the Habanera in French, supported by Siobhain; doing the Macarena with one of the groups in their post-lunch workout (left); being approached after we had finished by a couple in their 60s whom I had observed arrive slightly late but then throw themselves into the audience participation with gusto. It turns out that they were nothing to do with the project but were passing the Box Office and came upstairs to see what was going on – they liked the look of it so much they decided to join in.

A pity they live in Portsmouth!

Prometheus Drown’d, Done and Dusted

Max Keeble (Shelley), me (Jane Williams), Christopher Good (Old Trelawny), Grant Sterry (Young Trelawny)

Max Keeble (Shelley), me (Jane Williams), Christopher Good (Old Trelawny), Grant Sterry (Young Trelawny)

Nova Music Opera, with whom I have been performing Stephen McNeff‘s Prometheus Drown’d, is, like many small companies, constantly looking for clever ways to make its money go further while maintaining the quality of what it produces. As specialists with a clear niche in contemporary chamber opera, and a particular remit to commission new work annually, that means there is a lot to discover with each new season’s repertoire, rather than the comfort of falling back on known quantities of Mozart or Puccini.

Performing new music to a high standard generally has severe implications for time and cost, but it’s amazing what you can do in just a few days with some impressive multi-tasking.



George Vass, Grant Sterry and Richard Williams

I was singing in one half of a double-bill, designed and directed by Richard Williams, with actors Christopher Good, Grant Sterry and Max Keeble. Grant and Max, in addition to performing in both operas, were also stage-managing, building the set, managing front of house and any number of other functions. As well as conducting, George Vass was also producing the shows. Accustomed as I am to being the busiest one in the room, I felt like something of a slouch just turning up and performing my role!

For a few days, we rehearsed Prometheus in the mornings and Airbourne (this year’s new commission from Cecilia McDowall and Andy Rashleigh) in the afternoons. We added the excellent and sympathetic Nova Music Ensemble and suddenly we were in performance, all in under a week.

Richard’s commendably low-tech treatment of the two stories played to the strengths of Rosslyn Hill Chapel where the London shows took place, and allows for easy adaptation to rather different venues on tour.


Donna Lennard and Henry Manning as Alice and Johnny

The simplicity of each staging also permitted the relationships within the stories to stand at the centre of the performances.  Airbourne, starring Donna Lennard and Henry Manning, is the more straightforwardly emotional work of the two, directly engaging us with the development of the characters’ love affair as well as the dramatic action. Prometheus Drown’d is more complex and layered, with a dual time-frame and a mixture of spoken narrative, underscoring and sung lyric sections, quoting directly from Shelley’s last poems.

I have written elsewhere about how the piece has developed since its inception as A Voice of One Delight, and reached this, its third incarnation. Who knows, perhaps there is a fourth to come?

Personally, I have always rather fancied doing Shelley as a trouser role.

Be warned, be warned, BE WARNED!

IMG_8793_editLast weekend, we (the Errollyn Wallen Company) took Cautionary Tales to the Latitude Festival. The gods were kind to us, as we were performing on Sunday morning and the torrential rain fell during Saturday night rather than while we were singing. I had taken the advice of festival veterans and stocked up on wellies, which turned out to be the best decision of this year, as it was pretty swampy inside and out of the Theatre tent.

We knew that a certain amount of improvisation would be required on the day, given that we had a one-hour get-in. Sure enough, by the time we had hoisted bits of set, costume rails and percussion onto the stage, stuck down a few essential bits of marker tape, done a speedy sound-check and established a basic lighting state, it was time to actually do it. Happily the audience and promoter loved it.

IMG_7527_editI think it’s fair to say it was one of the sweatier gigs I have done – the rain had done nothing to clear the air and jumping about as a hyperactive child, in various layers of extra clothing and inside a warm tent, is a sure fire way to shed a few pounds quickly.

However, there is no greater pleasure than working with colleagues who are prepared to play on-stage and who enjoy sorting out a challenge – if ever a piece licensed play and in-the-moment creativity, Cautionary Tales is it. Huge characters to inhabit, funny, characterful music and, best of all, a huge pink telephone. My 2014 Best Prop Award goes to Isolde Nash, our designer.

If you would like to watch a terrific video summary of the project, including footage from the performance itself, click here.

There is also a project blog on Errollyn’s website with more photos and posts from other team members.


Recording with Hugh and Iain

BqXJv19IIAE22IyHugh Wood (left) and Iain Burnside debate the finer points of Hugh’s Laurie Lee Songs, which Iain and I recently recorded for NMC. The group will form part of a recital disc of Wood song-cycles featuring – in addition to the Laurie Lee SongsWild Cyclamen and The Isles of Greece, written for and dedicated to baritone Roderick Williams and Iain.

Watch this space for news of the CD release.

Cautionary Tales goes to Latitude

Errollyn 740 credit Basil T Blackwood (B.T.B)Some excellent news this week that Cautionary Tales, the childrens’ opera written by Errollyn Wallen for Opera North, and which I both workshopped and covered in, is going to Latitude. And this time I will get to go on, as Errollyn has invited me to take the mezzo part in this specially-convened performance by the Errollyn Wallen Company. Mark Le Brocq will be reprising his magnificent lycra-clad performance as the Lion, and we will be joined by soprano Sarah Redgwick and baritone Dawid Kimberg. Daniele Guerra directs. I can’t wait!

More information about the performance on 20 July here

(Basil T Blackwood’s original drawing of the Lion that ate Jim)

Presteigne Festival launch event

image007This year’s Presteigne Festival is showcasing a number of new and commissioned works by Polish composers, as well as celebrating the centenary of Andrzej Panufnik’s birth. Presteigne favourite, Clare Hammond has recently recorded all of Panufnik’s solo piano music, with additional arrangements by his daughter Roxanna, released this week on the Bis label as Reflections. It was therefore very appropriate that we all converged on the Polish Embassy last night for a double launch event, featuring music and vodka.

Clare performed a selection of works that feature on her CD and, as my recital in the Festival will include Panufnik père’s delicious, folky Love Song, I sang it accompanied by Clare, along with a couple of Mahler’s Rückert Lieder. We had a image005certain amount of competition from demonstrators outside the Chinese Embassy nearby, and (probably unrelated) police sirens, but that’s the familiar background sound-world to many concerts in London nowadays. It certainly didn’t disrupt our music-making and our invited audience was very appreciative.

It was fantastic that both Roxanna and Lady Panufnik, with whom I am pictured, left, were able to join us for the evening.

Buy tickets for the 2014 Presteigne Festival here

Buy Clare Hammond’s CD, Reflections, here





TS Eliot Society Festival at Little Gidding

photoIn making Vivienne – my show about TS Eliot’s first wife and, unavoidably therefore, about their difficult marriage – I was aware that different people might respond very differently to the work, according to their feelings about Eliot himself. It was very interesting and pleasing to discover that the subtleties of the text and of the musical setting in fact leave room in the piece for a range of sympathies and interpretations. I am especially delighted that the TS Eliot Society is supportive of the piece and has invited me to perform it at its festival this summer at Little Gidding.

I have found Eliot’s and Vivienne’s relationship so fascinating precisely because it is so complex. It is impossible to separate out the strands of his Art, their respective mistaken ambitions for the marriage, their expectations of each other and the pressures of the Bloomsbury set in which they moved. We are learning more as the project to publish all of Eliot’s written words progresses, covering not only many volumes of letters but also his prose, poems, plays and other as-yet-unrevealed treasures from the Faber archive. There are definitely gaps in the story, and some of these are the result of Valerie (the 2nd Mrs Eliot)  ‘tidying up’ the story of Tom & Viv after Vivienne’s death. The assumption is that certain correspondence has been destroyed but there may yet be discoveries to be made. Fingers crossed.






I’ll be taking Vivienne in July this year to the TS Eliot Festival at Little Gidding.

Belgrade talks back

Here’s a lovely short video documenting some of the responses by our Serbian students to the two-day seminar we gave them in Belgrade earlier this month:

Girls Aloud

clare_cecilia_01It was very nice to see Cecilia McDowall at Saturday’s performance of her Magnificat by Teddington Choral Society. It’s a lyrical and effective piece, with two nicely contrasted solo movements for the soprano and mezzo soloists (Ecce Enim and Et Misericordia), who then meet in a feistier duet (Fecit Potentiam). The McDowall was book-ended in the concert by the Pergolesi Stabat Mater and the Vivaldi Gloria, so the girls-only solo line-up (me, Vivien Munday and Joanne Roughton Arnold) was kept busy.

Cecilia and I will be seeing more of each other later this year thanks to Nova Music Opera, which has commissioned a new stage work from her, as a pendant to Stephen McNeff’s Prometheus Drowned, in which I will be performing. Cecilia’s new work, Airbourne, commemorates the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War through the eyes and experiences of an airman. The text is by Andy Rashleigh, librettist for Stephen McNeff’s Vivienne which I premiered last year, and I am excited to hear the result of their collaboration. Prometheus Drowned is a re-worked and expanded version of Stephen McNeff’s earlier work for me, A Voice of One Delight, which explores the death of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The original was commissioned by Presteigne Festival and this new work will tour later this year in a double-bill with Airbourne to Presteigne, Birmingham, Canterbury and London. Details to follow.