Mr Benn at WNO

A workshop presentation of Mr Benn by Stephen McNeff, with libretto by Andy Morton, for WNO’s MAX department, directed by Rhian Hutchings. Seen here are Laura Pooley as the Princess, Jonathan Gunthorpe as the King and me as the Dragon.

Royal Opera House lunchtime recital – Monday 24 October 1pm

Following the great success of Beginnings, Hugh’s songs for me with string orchestra that were premiered at the 2010 Presteigne Festival, he has dusted off a second set, this time converting the original orchestral score into a piano accompaniment. The Laurie Lee Songs were begun at a similar time to Beginnings, in the late 1950s, and set Lee’s five poems Boy in Ice, The Edge of Day, The Easter Green, Town Owl and April Rise. Like Beginnings the songs are full of rich lyricism, lush textures and dramatic colour.

Click here to go to the ROH bookings website – the concert is free to the public but tickets are limited and booking opens nine days before the performance, with some tickets held back until the morning of the concert itself.

Click here to listen to excerpts from Beginnings

Mr Benn – the opera

Finally someone has decided to immortalise the fabulous Mr Benn in operatic form. The popular childrens’ cartoon from the 1970s usually provokes sighs of nostalgia from the over 35s and bafflement from anyone younger, despite having been repeated almost constantly ever since. Andy Morton has written the libretto, set by Stephen McNeff, and I will be in Cardiff later this month to workshop the first sections at WNO. The inspiration for these first scenes is Mr Benn – the Red Knight (click here to watch the original) I play the Dragon and my fellow cast members are: Darren Abrahams (the Shopkeeper); Laura Pooley (the Princess); Paul Carey Jones (the Matchmaker); Thorbjørn Gulbransøy (Mr Benn) and Jonathan Gunthorpe (the King). Eugene Monteith conducts and Rhian Hutchings directs.

A Night to Remember

Pictured left: Me, with Deborah Bull, Darren Abrahams and Lindy Tennent-Brown, following our concert in Eye, Suffolk on October 1st. This was a first airing of a new programme built around the idea of a throwing a party, in which we follow a group of characters through the evening, from the planning and preparation, to clearing up the mess afterwards. It features a genre-busting range of musical styles from Rossini to Sondheim, via Roy Orbison, Mozart and Noel Coward, and the rapturous reception we received from our audience confirmed our belief that this a great way to construct a concert, drawing on the full range of our skills and experience in opera, recital and music theatre to make connections between songs from very different worlds. We also like to tailor repertoire to the particular event, devise seamless musical linkages, and sharpen up lyrics to make the whole programme flow. Look out for further performances of this fantastic programme.

Most popular tune of the evening: Crying (Roy Orbison)
Best prop of the evening: Red Velvet Cupcake (Hummingbird Bakery)

Recording Michael Hurd’s opera, The Aspern Papers

I have been in Belfast this week for recording sessions on Michael Hurd’s operatic version of Henry James’ novella The Aspern Papers. The Ulster Orchestra sounded wonderful in the generous acoustic of the Ulster Hall and George Vass was again at the helm, following the success of his recent recording of Hurd’s The Widow of Ephesus, which included two of the singers also appearing on this disc – Louise Winter and Pippa Goss. Louise and Owen Gilhooly appear with me in the adjacent photo.

The full cast list in order of appearance: Servant: Clare McCaldin; Harry Jordan: Owen Gilhooly; Mrs Prest: Pippa Goss; Miss Tina: Clare McCaldin; Juliana Bordereaux: Louise Winter.

9/11 Memorial Concert – Three Choirs Festival

This year’s Three Choirs Festival is hosted by Worcester and Sunday’s concert played to a packed Cathedral.  In addition to Mozart’s Requiem, a specific composition to commemorate the departed in the Christian liturgy, the programme contained other works inspired by or now associated with national mourning and loss. 

Barber’s Adagio was broadcast over the radio at the announcement of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death and played at the funerals of Albert Einstein and Princess Grace of Monaco. It was also performed in 2001 at the Last Night of the Proms to commemorate the victims of 9/11. 

John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls is written for chorus, orchestra, children’s choir and pre-recorded tape, and was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Lincoln Center following the 11 September terrorist attack on the Twin Towers.

Mahler’s Adagietto from his fifth symphony was conducted by Leonard Bernstein at the Mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, on 8 June 1968 for the burial of Robert Kennedy.

My fellow soloists in the Mozart were Julia Doyle (soprano), Simon Wall (tenor) and Robert Macdonald (bass).  Adrian Partington conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Three Choirs Festival Chorus.

Jerwood Opera Writing Programme workshops at Snape Maltings

I’ve just returned from six days at Snape Maltings, working with composers and librettists in their third week of the Jerwood Opera Writing Programme Foundation Course.   Six singers, two conductor/pianists and six instrumentalists gathered to workshop the ten-minute mini-operas written by each of the ten composers-librettist teams. We also had directors with us, some of whom had also provided libretti, and on the final day of the course we presented all of the operas in a staged version, with lights and costumes and a range of sets making imaginative use of cardboard boxes.  Stephen Langridge was keeping us all under control, ably assisted by Stephen Plaice and David Sawer joined us for the final day of presentations, to offer a composer’s-eye view.  Aside from the enormous amount of talent and creativity on show, I was also struck by the generosity of all the participants towards each other and their support of each other’s work.  A challenging week but one in which everyone achieved something impressive.  I hope everyone else enjoyed themselves as much as I did.

The nun costume was featured in “Hope Dies Hard In His House” by Luke Styles and Alan McKendrick, in which I was joined onstage by Anna Dennis and Sarah Leonard.

For more information on the programme and a full list of the participants click here

Cunning Little Vixen

Here I am with Rebecca Bottone in the Ryedale Festival’s production of The Cunning Little Vixen, directed by Joe Austin and designed by Simon Kenny.  Nick Winston did brilliant work with the cast to develop a range of movements to suit our non-human characters – foxes, chickens, mosquito, owl, frog, hare, cricket, dog, woodpecker – and the warm colours of the animal costumes contrasted tellingly with the austere grey palette of the human world.  Iain Farrington’s reduction of the full orchestral score somehow still managed to suggest many of the colours in Janacek’s original soundworld, so who knows? perhaps the success of this small-scale production (cast of nine, and orchestra of nine) proves that The Cunning Little Vixen can have a new lease of life with smaller opera companies as a touring piece.  Click here to see video footage.

Sketched at the Knitting Concert

At a recent concert, Dennis Lane was sitting in the audience and sketched this lovely line drawing of me singing.   This was one of Robert Bridge’s splendid Knitting Concerts in Putney, at which the audience is encouraged to listen while doing another activity.  A great way to encourage people to support concerts on a Sunday night, when traditionally there are chores to be done. People have been seen reading, knitting, drawing, darning, ironing (allegedly) and organising their tax receipts during the performance – or they can even just sit and listen.

My thanks to the artist and the owner of the sketch for their permission to reproduce the image here.

Lakesongs by Phillip Cooke

I will be premiering Phillip Cooke’s Lakesongs on August 9th 2011 in a recital of music for mezzo-soprano, viola and piano at the Lake District Summer Music Festival. The three songs were commissioned by the LDSM and are settings of A Lake Memory by William Wilfred Campbell, The Lake Isle of Innisfree by William Butler Yeats and By The Lake, by Dame Edith Sitwell. The songs are intense and lyrical, charting a descent into emotional austerity. The composer describes the viola’s role in the songs as that of a “commentator, a distant representation of the emotional content an dark melancholy of the lakes”. The songs are extremely atmospheric and effective, and I hope there’ll be opportunities to perform them again.