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ARTICLES

This page contains all the articles produced for the Friends and Patrons of Hurn Court Opera, accessible exclusively via links in the Friends' and Patrons' newsletters. The most recent article is listed first. 

Creating the production of Don Giovanni

Lynton Atkinson and Joy Robinson gave Friends and Patrons a glimpse behind the scenes of the opera at the Soirée Musicale fundraiser at Church House, Wimborne on 28 January 2024.

The following is a transcription from a recording at the event.

 

Joy

This will be a slick production. Our mission is to make the opera as fluid as we can, so there won’t be many scene changes. It won’t be an ’all- bells-and-whistles’ show.

 

We’re choosing a contemporary setting – the first for HCO. Without giving too much away, it will be staged in a Spanish ‘Hollywood-esque’ location, so think of a film studio with directors and film stars, and especially directors and actors who have had trouble with women – a story with lots of resonance today. As ever with HCO, our mission is to ensure the story make sense: a story that is as crazy as a man being in thrall to the devil through the course of a single night. It is our job to convince you.

 

[We started auditions over the summer] and saw so many wonderful singers. Heartbreakingly, for Zerlina alone we had 70 applications and saw 70 videos. There are all these talented young people from throughout the country who want to come and work with us. Thanks to you, we now have a bigger profile and can offer the opportunity to give work to more young singers. As you can see there is a lot of talent about, and we have tried to pick the best. We hope you will take the opportunity, as some of you did last year, to come and watch a rehearsal, later in the rehearsal period.

 

Audience question:

How does HCO approach rehearsals – especially the intensive two-and-a-half weeks immediately before the performance?

 

Joy

Ha! If this were Germany you would have three months, and lots of opera companies in this country take eight weeks. We have just over two weeks, so we have to go hell for leather! It is absolutely imperative that our singers arrive knowing their role. We’ll coach them, but we do not at all have time to teach them the role.

Lynton

[Our rehearsal process] is about trying to find a happy medium between keeping the focus on putting a production together, and allowing singers enough time to think, and trying things another way. Some of our singers are very young but very experienced, others are not, and are often doing the role for the first time. Perhaps they sing wonderfully but are inexperienced actors and so we have to work hard with them. There can be tears, but a colossal hard-won transformation can take place over two weeks – as we saw in Don Pasquale a couple of years ago. You have to leave time for that. However, I have to say, even big opera companies can leave singers hanging around while producers take time to reflect self-indulgently on the production – it can be a colossal waste of time. We cannot afford that.

 

Two weeks seems to be the minimum, but even as we tackle more and more demanding works, it always surprises me that even after one week’s rehearsal with principals, we pretty much have a show that we can start and run to the end. When we start rehearsing Joy has a clear structure in her mind and a clear sense of what she wants, but somehow, wonderfully, manages to give individual singers the opportunity to bring their own ideas, achieving an incredible fusion.

 

Joy

One of good things about producing an opera is that it’s ‘play time’! It’s an opportunity to take risks, experiment, try things out to see if they fit, or discard approaches – even be silly. It’s permission to be playful.

 

Lynton

So, there are two forces pulling in opposite directions. We are experimenting, and yet we are going forward at a hellish pace to get to the end within two weeks. The challenge is to keep that taut quality going among the singers, ensure that they know their roles, but don’t exhaust themselves. You want to feel that when we get to first night they are fresh and excited. It’s about trying to find that happy medium all the time.

 

Audience question:

Is it harder for young singers now than 30 years ago, and if so, what does this mean for developing the stars of the future?

 

Joy

Yes, as companies don’t want to take a risk, and want to put ‘bums on seats’ so they choose established singers. Therefore it is vital that small companies like ours survive and manage to keep going. Otherwise, where will the next Angela Gheorghiu come from? New talent has to be fostered, nurtured and encouraged and not starved to death. When both of us started out we did not realise that life might be difficult. For example, I auditioned for Bayreuth simply because my friends were going along, and then I just became part of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus Family – I still receive a birthday card from them, all these years later! We were innocent then, but young people today have to be more aware and street-wise about how life as a singer is risky. It does'nt help that many amateur choral societies are coming to the end of their life, which further reduces the opportunities for young soloists.

Lynton

Yes, and we are in a time when classical music is being promoted as being ‘relaxing’ – NO it’s all-consuming, challenging and powerful! I also recall when I was preparing for La Bohème last year, reviewing all the online videos of other performances – I didn't see one which was cast from primarily young singers. There was always at least one famous singer well into their 50s, while we had a complete cast of young singers for young roles! It was beautiful.

 

Audience question:

Do you give priority to British singers?

 

Joy

Only inadvertently, as the majority of our singers who audition are British. With us it is a level playing field. It’s your talent and not where you come from that matters. Our singers come from across the UK – from Bournemouth to Crewe and Scotland. This year we have one Japanese young man in the chorus and our Donna Elvira is Irish. The majority are British, which can very easily be achieved because the conservatoires across the UK produce so many incredibly well-schooled singers. So, it’s no hardship to cast an opera as vocally demanding as Don Giovanni. We had an enormous number of applicants – over 140, and we do listen carefully to each singer.  Each person is somebody with a colossal dream who has invested so much in this art form. It’s such a privilege to receive their applications. However, I must admit, we did breathe a sigh of relief when after a few days a singer with the right voice for Donna Elvira turned up, only to be followed by several more equally talented sopranos! We just wish we had more parts to hand out.

Insights into a winner 

Interview with Armand Rabot, baritone, winner of the Nigel Beale First Prize, the Anthony Lowrey Audience Prize and the Wendy Blamire Award in the 2023 HCO Singer of the Year Competition, for the Friends and Patrons Newsletter, December 2023

 

Hailing from West Kirby in the Wirral, Merseyside, Armand has been determined and focused in developing his career away from the more conventional route of conservatoire training in London.

 

Although he started undergraduate studies at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, he withdrew after two years to focus on dedicated voice training as a baritone with Ben Johnson, the distinguished tenor. Travelling down to London for lessons, he supported himself with a range of performance engagements in the North West, including being a Lay Clerk at Blackburn Cathedral, and with the help of supportive parents. He assures us that the Hurn Court Opera prize money will definitely go towards his singing lessons.

 

Still aged only 23, Armand has already undertaken cover roles at The Grange Festival this last year, and is engaged for minor principal roles in the coming 2024 Grange Festival season. Indeed, members of the Grange Festival Chorus who had had close association with Hurn Court Opera were instrumental in encouraging him to enter the 2023 Singer of the Year Competition.

 

During his finals programme for the Competition, he treated the audience to a very entertaining, but equally accomplished, performance of Donizetti’s little-known song 'Viva il Matrimonio'. The passionate lyricism of his 'E fra quest’ansie…E allor perche'  from Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci was similarly memorable.

 

So where next? ‘I love doing the funny roles,' says Armand, 'but I love big lyric Italian stuff as well… I want to be the next Cappucilli [the legendary Italian operatic baritone best known for his interpretation of Verdi roles], but that remains to be seen...’  So, Hurn Court Opera Patrons and Friends, watch this space!

Why Song Recitals? 

Interview with Lynton Atkinson, Artistic Director of Hurn Court Opera, for the Friends and Patrons Newsletter, August 2023

 

Hurn Court Opera exists to provide quality performance opportunities for emerging young singers, but why should this include the song recital?

Lynton points out that the training of young singers always includes the song repertoire: ‘It particularly suits the young voice which might not initially have sufficient strength, carrying power or technical development for the rigour of the operatic repertoire. It enables them to learn so many essential skills – language, phrasing, interpretation and imagination, which as their voices fill out, they will use to the same degree in the operatic repertoire. The best of the song repertoire is so wonderful, complex, and of such a high artistic level. Young singers emerging from music college have learnt a great deal of this repertoire, and are used to performing it, so we can be the beneficiaries of this.’

Lynton acknowledges that some people who love opera may find the experience of listening to song in a different language rather inaccessible, but he reminds us that opera composers have always written songs using the same skills and interpretive techniques as in opera – Mozart, Bellini, Rossini, Verdi, Wagner and Strauss to name a few. Furthermore, while the great composers of German Lieder or French mélodie dominated the nineteenth-century repertoire, high-quality English songs started to appear at the turn of the twentieth century with ‘A quintessentially English style – elegiac, maybe wistful, and slightly set apart from the European tradition – composers such as Elgar, Finzi, Vaughan Williams, Butterworth and Quilter, come to mind.’

It is important to remember that not all opera singers can perform Lieder and art song either well or convincingly. ‘A pre-requisite is a love of the genre. As the best songs are based upon good poetry, the challenge is to be able to communicate it with great flexibility, a wide range of colour, and a colossal amount of imagination in anything between 60 seconds and a few minutes. Song requires a very agile response precisely tailored to the piece. A great recitalist needs the charisma to hold our attention as they move through their sequence of songs. This is very different from an opera performance which involves developing a single character in a story line. As each song requires such advance preparation, a busy operatic singer may not have the time to devote to this.’

So, we are fortunate to be able to hear two of our successful prizewinners at the forthcoming recitals in September. ‘Marie Cayeux so delighted us all at the 2022 Singer of the Year Competition last November that she won the Audience Prize. Michael Lafferty was an incredibly young Second Prize winner at the first-ever Hurn Court Opera Competition held in 2018, and so it will be fascinating to hear how his voice has developed since he has become so much more experienced a performer.’ And for those members of the audience who are still to be convinced of the merits of song recital, please feel reassured – the second half of the programme will include opera arias!

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