The Ubiquitous Woman revealed

Last week we gave a presentation of early development work on The Ubiquitous Woman, a comic chamber opera commissioned by New Notes & Noises. After a week of workshops on the music and structure, we performed two sections of the piece.

The opening few scenes introduce Sabine, her husband Tony, Sabine’s clone Judith and Theo the artist with whom she makes off when she realises she can have her cake and eat it.

Clare McCaldin and Jenny DeeThe second section dealt with how to present the idea of multiple clonings, both visually and in terms of the soundworld. We had been experimenting all week with pre-recorded voices and live singing, with additional sounds cued from the composer’s laptop.

The good news is that the feedback from the audience was positive and we are encouraged to go ahead both by supportive comments and by donations that have been made to this end. Read much more about The Ubiquitous Woman on the New Notes & Noises website and do support us with a donation if you can.

Joubert’s Jane Eyre

img_4358This week I was part of the world premiere of John Joubert’s Jane Eyre, his seventh opera. Charlotte Brontë’s story is tightly condensed into two acts, focussing on the relationship between Jane and Rochester, but giving prominence to the scene with St John Rivers, which Joubert considers the emotional turning-point of Jane’s journey. I had not previously encountered Joubert’s music outside the choral repertoire (his Torches being a staple of many carol services) so it was a revelation to hear the influences of two of his admitted great loves, Britten and Wagner, in his vocal lines and orchestration. For my money there was some Richard Strauss in there too (never a bad thing).

 

 

 

 

img_4354April Fredrick and David Stout (left) led the cast as Jane and Rochester, with Mark Milhofer as St John Rivers. A group of us played various smaller roles in the wedding scene, which is a crucial dramatic and musical climax. Kenneth Woods conducted the English Symphony Orchestra and our performance was recorded live by SOMM records for commercial release in 2018.

I hope Jane Eyre has a future on the stage – the story is such a strong one and it would be great to see this piece, which has waited so long to be heard, make the final leap into a full production.

 

 

New Notes & Noises Launches

I’m very pleased that I am finally able to announce the launch of a new charity I have set up to help support high-quality performances of new work and multi-disciplinary collaboration. New Notes & Noises will look to help support every step of the process of commissioning, developing, rehearsing and producing work in an exciting new period for lyric drama. I am already working with my familiar collaborator, Libby Burgess, as well as an altogether new, highly-skilled professional creative team to bring to life a new piece called The Ubiquitous Woman as a flagship project to get the charity off to a winning start.

You can read more about New Notes and Noises at the dedicated website, newnotesandnoises.org.uk.

A tough act to follow

skagenI’m on the e-mailing list for various London venues, and sometimes I book on a whim for something that just catches my eye. Last night’s double-bill of Big Mouth and Small War at the Barbican’s Pit was just such an occasion. I have been involved in writing and producing one-woman shows for myself and I am especially interested in experiencing how other artists use this intimate format.

If one person is to keep the attention of the audience for an evening, the performance and the content need to be pretty interesting. Technology (and budget) can make a huge difference: video duplication of the single performer in Small War gave us four ‘extra’ actors. But it doesn’t have to be that way – in Big Mouth, the sheer virtuosity of the performer’s delivery persuades the audience that they are in the company of many individuals. Simple live-looping of text and song (see also Complicite’s The Encounter) is a pleasing way to share the ‘technique’ of the show with the audience and create the impression of a crowd.

For me, thinking about what I could programme with my own Vivienne, the challenge of a double-bill is to ensure that the two halves complement and balance each other. This isn’t an issue with two parts of the same piece but two separate works inevitably invite comparison. The first half last night (Big Mouth) was also the first piece to be made and appeared at the Edinburgh Festival in 2012 [review]. It is a tour-de-force for Valentijn Dhaenens who, at the end of it, might reasonably not fancy doing any more work for the day. However, at some point a pendant work, Small War, was made for him, addressing more directly the issues of war and human damage implicit in Big Mouth.

Both works make use of found texts, and this is where the imbalance lay for me. Big Mouth is an ingenious weaving-together of bits of public speech, often made famous or notorious because of who spoke them. Consequently the oratory is knowingly crafted – the speaker is always addressing an audience. Small War mines private testimonies, which turns out to be less interesting, because the content and delivery are inevitably more introvert. For me, the most interesting text came from a serviceman articulating the energy and thrill of killing someone in the line of duty, but it wasn’t enough to keep my interest in the way Big Mouth had gripped me. Having started the evening with an amazing show, the follow-up piece couldn’t really compete, despite everyone’s best efforts.

Arguably, shorter-length evenings are becoming common and a strong show lasting just over an hour doesn’t seem to leave audiences feeling short-changed. However anything less than an hour is unlikely to work for financial reasons – you can’t charge a high enough ticket price to cover your overheads unless you have a decent-length programme. So, while last night’s programme was a useful confirmation of my view that Vivienne needs a partner, it didn’t help me to decide who or what that might be.

The answer will come at some point – it always does. In the meantime I’ll keep enjoying other peoples’ solo shows until I have sorted out my own.

Près des ramparts de Séville

image1A brief trip to Seville recently reminded me of how many operatic connections the city has. My companion and I set out to track down what traces remain of the real people and locations that inspired operatic treatment, as well as observing the marketing advantages to be wrung from these associations. Apart from famous locations such as the Bullring and the Alcàzar, which make appearances in operas ranging from Carmen to La Favorita, there are lots of smaller places to be discovered.

Seville’s own municipal signage (sub-branded Ciudad de Opera) helpfully directed us to Rosina’s balcony and Basilio’s house (Il Barbiere di Siviglia). lilas_pastia_cafePlaza and Calle Doña Elvira are nearby, with the estate said to be the home of the original Don Juan (Don Giovanni) a couple of hours drive into the surrounding countryside.

Calle Maria de Padilla runs down the side of the grand University building that began life as the Royal tobacco factory where Carmen and friends would have worked. Assorted plaques (above) identify other sights such as the tavern where Carmen, Escamillo and Don José met, although surely a trick was missed by not just calling the place Lilas Pastia’s?

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There was no such bashfulness from the hairdresser El Barbero di Sevilla, although the staff there drew the line at actual singing. Our twenty-year old guidebook had suggested a rival barbershop over the river in Triana borough as the premises occupied by the original Figaro, but when we went looking we were told that it was long gone. On a bus heading for Triana in search of Figaro, someone behind us was whistling. Not, as you might have imagined, hits from Carmen but Suzanna’s duet with the Countess, “Sull’aria”, from Le Nozze di Figaro.

Other less direct operatic associations also suggest themselves. Although Verdi’s auto da fe scene in Don Carlos takes place in the city of Valladolid, the Spanish Inquisition was very active in Seville and its very first auto da fe took place there on 6 February 1481. Plastic figurines of penitents in pointed hoods are widely available but disappointingly there were no models of Biggles, Jimenez and Fang.

With the Finzis in Ashmansworth

Gerald and joy FinziLast weekend I visited the village of Ashmansworth to take part in the Finzi Friends‘ day of activity commemorating the 60th anniversary of Finzi’s death. The tiny church outside which Gerald and his wife Joy are buried (left) is just big enough to cram a baby grand in next to the font and still leave room for a select audience. Accompanying me in recital was Libby Burgess, and we were joined by composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad, who spoke to the assembled Friends about the skill of word-setting and the treatment of text in sung works.

I always like to include work by living composers in recital programmes when I can, and Cheryl had transposed her Two Shakespeare Songs into a mezzo-friendly key for us to perform. The current Chairman of the Finzi Friends is another composer, Martin Bussey, whose setting of Church Romance by Thomas Hardy is a favourite of mine – its narrative about the meeting and courtship of the poets’ own parents formed a perfect programming bridge into the jazzier idiom of Richard Rodney Bennett’s A History of the Thé Dansant, whose texts are also about the romance of the composer’s (and poet’s) parents in the 1920s. Our programme therefore not only included songs by Finzi and Gurney (whose music Finzi championed), but nodded to the World War I centenary via Gurney, and marked this year’s Shakespeare anniversary.

McCaldin, Frances-Hoad & BurgessHowever, the most intimate programming link to Ashmansworth was via our first Finzi song in his cycle To a Poet. James Elroy Flecker’s poem of the same name was felt by Finzi as a sort of personal artistic statement and he buried an early draft of the song under the porch of Church Farm, the house he built at Ashmansworth. The current owners allowed us into the orchard and here am I with Libby and Cheryl, in her magnificent apple-print dress, marking the fact that Finzi was also a keen apple-grower and saved a number of rare English varieties from extinction.

 

Fresh Ayres

fresh ayres artemesiaI love working with strings and so jumped at the chance to give the first performance on 11 June of Artemisia, a cycle of songs by Paul Ayres about the life of ground-breaking Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentilleschi. Sharing the performance with me were Daniel Pioro (violin) and two members of the Castalian Quartet, Charlotte Bonneton (viola) and Christopher Graves (cello).

Paul initially set four of Sue Powell’s Artemisia poems in 2006 and was persuaded by Sue to complete the remaining cycle with three more songs in 2014. The texts touch on dramatic and emotional events surrounding Artemisia’s rape by Agostino Tassi, a fellow artist in her father’s studio, against whom her father subsequently brought a legal case. Artemisia herself testified at the trial and endured an internal examination and torture with thumbscrews to ‘verify’ her story.

Judith slaying Holofernes - Artemisia GentilleschiArtemisia’s work often portrays mythical and biblical women, both as victims and warriors. One of the most famous of these is Judith slaying Holofernes (right), whose striking violence it is tempting to link directly to the artist’s real-life experience. This painting and the Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting are perhaps Artemisia’s best-known works and are each the subject of a song in the cycle.

The movements in the cycle portraying the rape itself and the painting of the Judith canvas share driving rhythmic motifs and a relentless forward momentum suggesting two different kinds of emotional and physical frenzy. By contrast the trial scene is starkly atmospheric and empty, with the strings only briefly cutting across the vocal line like the shafts of light described in the text.

The concert was recorded and I hope to be able to post a link to some of the music here soon.

 

Stevie Smith and Artemisia Gentileschi

This month I am getting inside the minds of two very different female artists, the English poet Stevie Smith and the Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi.

stevie-smith-6Stevie Smith (1902-1971) was a novelist and poet, perhaps best known for her poem Not Waving But Drowning, and for her novel The Holiday. A quirky and sometimes difficult personality, sensitive to the illnesses and bereavements that shaped her whole life, her naivety and sharp intelligence combine to create a distinctive authorial voice.

“She always suggested some kind of mildly discommoded bird, perhaps a jackdaw with a touch of weltanschauungangst,”wrote a friend of hers. She herself likened her fictional writing to the sea: on the surface sunny, but seven miles down “black and cold”.

I’m performing Rob Keeley’s settings of five of Stevie Smith’s poems – Avondale, La Gretchen de nos jours, Le singe qui swing, Tender only to one and Will Ever? – with Rob at the piano on June 5th.

 

 

artemisiapittura72-1On June 11th I’ll be singing the first complete performance of Paul Ayre’s Artemisia, an exploration of the artistic and personal life of the painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c1656). The work is for mezzo and string trio and sets seven poems by Sue Powell.

Gentileschi spent time in England between 1638 and 1639 and one of her most famous works, the Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (left), was probably painted here. It was considered a bold statement at a time when women had little status as artists. Artemisia’s rape by Agostino Tassi – a fellow artist in her father’s workshop – is thought to have been reflected in her subsequent work, which often shows subjects such as Judith Slaying Holofernes and Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist. Sue Powell’s poems narrate these central events in Artemisia’s life and reflect on the artist’s pioneering role, not only as one of the first female painters, but also as one of the most progressive artists of her generation.

Watch the video of La Giuditta, the song from the cycle about the making of this picture.

April 29 launch of Notes from the Asylum

notes from the asylum cdI’m delighted to announce that 29th April is the confirmed date for the release of my second CD, Notes from the Asylum, by Champs Hill Records. Pianist Libby Burgess and clarinettist Catriona Scott join me on the CD, which features songs by Purcell, Abrams, Brahms, Wolf and  Rorem, chosen to complement the central themes in Stephen McNeff’s Vivienne, recorded here for the first time.

To read more about the recording project and watch the introductory video, follow this link.

The CD will be available from 29th April on Amazon and the Champs Hill Records website.

Come on 2016!

2016 is starting with a buzz of activity, dusting off existing projects for performance and preparing the ground for new work.

My podcasting project features new conversations with Stephen McNeff, composer of Vivienne, and Liz Smith, film-maker and documenter of the O Antiphons. Click on the name to listen to the podcasts or go to my blog feed to view all podcasts. Watch Liz’s short films of the O Antiphons here.

Haydn’s London Ladies has grown from an hour-long to a two-part presentation with interval and is getting a first performance in this new version at the Swindon Recital Series on 7 Feb. Enlarging the recital has enabled us to bring in a fifth Lady, Emma Hamilton, whose story justifies a whole show in itself, and to introduce some extra music. As well as excerpts from less-known pieces such as The Battle of the Nile, we will also perform the cantata Arianna a Naxos, a piece of which Emma Hamilton sang with Haydn at the keyboard.

My new solo CD with Libby BurgessNotes from the Asylum – is due out any day now. Read more about the project here.

New songs are in the pipeline from Rob Keeley and Toby Young, as well as longer-term projects in development with Martin Ward and Martin Bussey.

I’m also pleased to announce my involvement with a new charitable organisation – New Notes & Noises – whose brief is to help the development and presentation of new work in the future. There will be more information on this over the next few weeks.