A FABULOUS OPERA FOR OXFORD
Anna Dominey – Daily Info
The founding aim of the Oxford Opera Company is to provide a professional opera for Oxford – fronted by professional performers from all over the world, while remaining rooted in the community. This production of Carmen, the company’s second production to date, and their debut at the Playhouse, achieves just this, to stunning effect.
Bizet’s most famous work tells the tale of Jose (Michael Bracegirdle), a soldier whose duties have taken him from the simple village of his childhood to the Big City (in this case, Seville), with its associated corruption and temptation. He keeps in touch with his religious mother via his naive sweetheart, but is coaxed onto a path of crime, decadence and violence by the eponymous Carmen. A seductive, liberated gypsy woman, Carmen holds the attention of all the men she meets, but those she chooses are cursed by her affections. The tale of lust, fate and betrayal uses many recognisable tropes of its era – town vs country, Madonna/whore, duty vs freedom – but ultimately is brought to life by Oxford Opera Company’s passionate central performances.
As Carmen, Hannah Pedley is utterly captivating. She has performed in the same role a number of times for various high-profile companies, but her chemistry with her fellow cast members (particularly Caroline Kennedy and Lise Christensen, as Frasquita and Mercedes, her convincing cronies) speaks to an adaptability which made her feel naturally part of the company, whilst still standing out as the undeniable star. A particularly impressive aspect to her performance, and indeed that of her onstage antithesis Micaela (a no-less passionate Natasha Jouhl), was the fact that every song was note-perfect, even when uttered from a contorted position. Hitting the high-notes while curled up on the ground or slumped in a chair while completely avoiding sounding forced or shrill is, quite literally, a breathtaking feat.
In his post-show speech, founder-director Stuart Pendred emphasised the importance of collaboration for this project, and this is clear from a number of aspects of the production, not least the sheer number of chorus members, taken from a variety of local schools and choirs. That even the smallest member was well-choreographed, tuneful and in time with the others (not forgetting that all the songs were in French!) reflects on the great efforts made, not just by each child, but by a dedicated team behind-the-scenes, whose commitment to the vision of bringing a professional opera to Oxford clearly paid off with this spectacular performance. The other main element to this collaborative endeavour is of course the orchestra, which, under the conduction of Neil Farrow, was truly delightful. From the very outset, the layers of rich sound brought a sometimes playful, sometimes blistering energy to the packed auditorium, filling our ears and our evenings with vigourously-rendered themes.
The next production from this ambitious new company will be La Boheme. I hope that they will opt for multiple performances, rather than teasing us with just the one, as with this show, so that more people have a chance to experience the production. Either way, watch out for the release and grab a ticket while you can!
“I am delighted that we have Oxford Opera in our community. Not only do they make opera accessible to all, they provide amazing and unique opportunities for local children and residents to get involved in superbly high quality productions. I was honoured to be invited to their performance of Carmen – it was absolutely incredible! They have my full support.” Layla Moran MP
“Stunning Carmen at Oxford Playhouse tonight by Oxford Opera. Musically and dramatically excellent, and so much energy and commitment from all involved. Very exciting to have this new company in Oxford. Congrats to founder Stuart Pendred – this is a real triumph.” Nicola Lisle – Oxford Times.
“The opera last night was amazing in every way! I was especially impressed by the world-class standard of the production and by the vast number of local young people who were involved. Oxfordshire is very lucky to have the Oxford Opera Company as a huge addition to the cultural life of the County.” Councillor Susanna Pressel – City and County Councillor for Jericho and Osney.
“Congratulations on a truly wonderful evening by Oxford Opera yesterday! This was indeed superb, with very fine singing and acting by all soloists and chorus(es)… ..and excellent direction.….. The production put quite a few recent productions at bigger houses to shame. Yours was true to the essence of the work… and without imposing the ‘Director’s World View’ with which we often have to put up at ROH and ENO. The involvement of the kids was fantastic, and very moving, to watch. They were very disciplined and highly effective throughout – but also, without being distracting, evidently thoroughly enjoying their work.” Anthony Pinching – The Ludlow English Song Festival.
“What an achievement… the sense of community was palpable. Onwards and upwards…. opera got a lot of new young fans last night! Bravi tutti!” Susan Bullock CBE
Who says opera can’t be fun? Founder and Artistic Director of Oxford Opera Stuart Pendred brought together a cast for no more than five days of rehearsal before they joined the orchestra and a 100-strong chorus for just one day to perform a storming Carmen to thrill a three-generation audience which was richly populated with opera “first-timers”.
Involving a university choir, a county youth choir and children from eight schools across the city, this was truly a community production. Whilst the rehearsal time for the principals was incredibly short, preparations for the chorus had begun in the autumn term, providing a real experience of opera for young people from primary school age upwards. This drew proud parents in to support the project which so effectively extended its reach into local life. The result was exactly what Pendred had set out to achieve with this venture. He told me: “I’m interested in breaking down the perception of elitism which surrounds opera and I’m interested in making access to opera easier”. One way that these aims were met was through his decision to replace the recits in the original French with dialogue in English.
Stuart Pendred is still stopped in the street by parents wanting to talk about Carmen. “It says everything. I’ve had some kind receptions as a singer over the years but the response to this has been truly humbling. Knowing that you have done something that has genuinely changed some people’s lives is priceless. Seeing the faces of children (and parents) when they hear an operatic voice up close for the first time ever: shock, disbelief, awe, delight, giggles,….you can’t put a price on that.”
This success of this production had much to do with the fact that the principal singers understood and empathised with the vision of Oxford Opera. “They knew absolutely that they were helping to start a new company that has a passion to introduce an art form at which they are all highly skilled.” Pendred was unstinting in his praise for the cover singers who comprised the super-chorus. ”Every single one of them was a huge credit to themselves in their application to the project and the way in which they engaged with the students and children that they worked with.”
To sing the role of Don Jose Mike Bracegirdle flew in from Denmark with his wife Lise Christensen who sang Mercedes and son Tobias who performed in the chorus. Mike said “I was reminded how wonderful it is when our art form can bring a community together with a shared experience whether as performer or audience member. This is what it should be like every time we go on to the stage.
“Knowing that we were restricted to just one week of rehearsals, Stuart was keen to cast principals who had prior experience of their roles. I dare say we would have had at least 150 shared performances of Carmen among us. I for one have done over 50 shows as Don Jose.” He told me how director Paul Carr had needed “dedicated, flexible, fast-thinking and experienced principals to adapt what we had developed in a rehearsal space into the theatre. We only had access to the stage at 12 o’clock on the day of the performance! No chance for a dress rehearsal, let alone the usual series of stage and piano technical rehearsals, stage and orchestra rehearsals and a couple of sitzprobes.”
He described how the children and teenagers had been so well prepared in the previous months, especially with regard to the professionally choreographed movement and drama. “I think that this, above all else, was the outstanding achievement of this production. Good pros can easily make something work, but the kids were all so committed and focused that their performances showed just how capable they can be when they are given sufficient challenge, encouragement and appropriate direction. Hats off to them, their teachers, their parents and their helpers!”
What, I wondered, did Mike Bracegirdle make of the director’s role in all this? “Paul Carr instilled a culture of fun, focus and fraternity. He is a fabulous director who has done so many Carmen productions and has such an approachable style that he was able to give us a certain amount of liberty to develop our roles within a basic framework. We were therefore able to shape the production and develop significant detail and polish within that very short time frame.”
Hannah Pedley was able to draw upon her extensive experience of singing the role of Carmen to produce the wonderful performance that will so vividly remain in the memories of the audience and of the young people who shared the stage with her. “I was very lucky that the first time I prepared the role, it was for Opera Holland Park and I had a great deal of time to learn the piece and a lot of language coaching. I put in a lot of work as I hoped that it would be a role I’d sing again! This has paid off!” She added some detail to Mike Bracegirdle’s account of the “normal” time preparing an opera, in such contrast to this production. “In the usual rehearsal process, we would have a few days music calls – even if everyone knew the piece – to shape it and make sure that we understood the conductor’s intentions. This is followed by anything from three to six weeks of studio rehearsals. For the first two at least, it is just the principals, finding their feet with the production, then the chorus join and the piece starts to take shape. A few days technical rehearsals in the theatre, a sitzprobe, a dress rehearsal, a day off to recover and then opening night.” She added: “We all really did have a wonderful time on this production. It was totally pulled together by having Stuart’s dedication and enthusiasm spread amongst us. Despite the crazy time frames, everyone was keen to do as good a job as possible for him and for the community.”
Let me hand over to director Paul Carr for the final word on this remarkable event. “Oxford Opera’s first staged production was an absolute joy for me as a director. Carmen is one of the biggest and potentially one of the most difficult operas to stage but being blessed with such a fine cast and knowing that it had to be rehearsed and settled into in just five days means there was no time to waste. I rather relished the fact that having almost no budget meant that we had to be even more creative. We had so much fun and there were days when I was in tears laughing.
“I have often thought that the opera world wastes so much time with too many weeks of rehearsal. Companies can be a bit “precious” and as an opera stage manager for 35 years I realise that all you really need is a director and production team who know what they’re doing (especially important with the chorus), a good cast and a good conductor.
“I wrote the English dialogue, bringing it up to the present day so that setting it in a university seemed only natural. We had minimal props and the entire company wore their own clothes from within guidelines I had set out. I think it worked and, were I to direct a Carmen again in a company with a large budget and more weeks of rehearsal, I’d most likely take ideas we used in this one, breaking it down to just telling the story without any need for operatic fluff.
“One element of this production which needed particular attention was the involvement of school children and students, most of whom had never been to an opera, let alone sung in one. This was something challenging for sure, but it was also very rewarding for both myself as director and for my choreographer, Alicia Frost. Watching a group of students open up to create something and be involved for themselves was inspiring. The energy and enthusiasm they brought (once they realised that this was a real event and time was alarmingly short) was something so worthwhile. We staged the chorus scenes over two weekends and on the third weekend the cast joined and we put the whole thing together. I think the arrival of professional opera singers lifted the spirits of the whole student chorus and they realised just how fabulous this journey could turn out to be.
“Of all the productions I’ve been involved with, this has proved one of the most rewarding and I look forward to doing it again! Stuart Pendred is a man on a mission to involve the community of Oxford in the production of opera. He’s a towering force of energy and commitment, a very brave man, and it worked!”
TOSCA MARCH 2018
“Oxford Opera Company has demonstrated just how much can be achieved with outstanding vision, inclusivity, collaboration and good will. Long may it continue!”
Sarah and Mathew Coatsworth. Parents of Emily, winner of the inaugural “Michael Pendred Oxford Opera Award for Young Artist – 2018.”
MUSIC WITH NOTHING IN THE WAY
TOSCA – MARCH 2018 – ROGER LEE.
“I believe that the city of Oxford deserves its own Opera Company. Opera which features the finest soloists and gives opportunities for all.” And so the vision of founding director Stuart Pendred has come about. Oxford Opera’s performance of Tosca handsomely marked the start of what Pendred describes as “an incredible journey for all of us through music and the opportunities it can bring.”
The first step of this “incredible journey” will be remembered as an inspiring occasion by everyone who was there on the night. The combined musical forces of world class singers, Oxford Chamber Orchestra, a chorus drawn from the Choir of St Hilda’s College, from Cherwell School and from Musicbox Children’s Choir created a performance which it is unlikely than anyone present will ever forget. The audience itself fulfilled Stuart Pendred’s aim of creating opera for all, made up at it was of a rarely seen combination of opera lovers and opera first-timers like this mum whose young daughter sang in the chorus, who told him: “My daughter and I were buzzing afterwards. Such incredibly powerful music. It was a privilege to hear so much talent in one space at the same time. It very much felt like accessing something that would usually be inaccessible both financially and practically. Very special and can’t wait for next time.” “This” replied Pendred “is exactly what I want Oxford Opera to be about.”
As founder of the Birmingham Opera Company Graham Vick said about releasing the power of opera for everybody: “you don’t need a music education to be touched, to be moved, to be excited by opera. You only need to experience it directly first hand with nothing getting in the way.” An audience will never experience opera more “first hand” than they did at this Oxford Opera production. The physical closeness of it all made them feel involved in the action whilst the wonderful acting of world class singers like the sensational Lee Bisset in the title role drew them in to the intensely emotional experience which Puccini’s powerful score offers when it is delivered with such passion, with such expertise.
It was thrilling to witness the effect on this healthy mix of an audience: pride, raw excitement, drop-jawed astonishment, the whole gamut of reactions was generated before one’s eyes. How else, where else, when else could they ever experience the sheer scale of artistry and expertise which was on display with that performance? Seven wonderful principal singers (including Stuart Pendred himself) demonstrated the results of their years of training and experience in their craft, supported by a 40 strong orchestra of similarly accomplished musicians under the baton of Neil Farrow, a well-prepared chorus of talented young singers, a handbell group and an impressively long list of workers and supporters who all came together in a collaboration which became an outstanding example of community enterprise.
Among the chorus was Emily Coatsworth, a remarkable soprano from Cherwell School. Part of her job was to open Act III in the role of a young shepherd for an exposed solo passage for which, whilst making herself heard over the orchestra, she also had to follow the composer’s direction to sound “far away”. This she achieved splendidly as one of the principal singers which she had become at this point. Dedicating this performance to the memory of his father, Michael Pendred, Stuart Pendred announced an annual award for young artists in his father’s name and made the first such presentation to a surprised and delighted Emily Coatsworth.
I just wanted to send immediate and heartfelt congratulations on Tosca last night. It was simply wonderful and genuinely emotional for a range of reasons. I thought your presentation to Emily at the end was such a thoughtful gesture and inspirational to the many young people who performed or who were in the audience. We will, of course, be very keen to support with future projects. It was great to see so many of our students involved. From a personal point of view I was so impressed by the beauty and power of the performance so thank you again for inviting my wife and I.
Chris Price – Headmaster, The Cherwell School.
“Tosca. What a brilliant choice. Thanks to Stuart and Oxford Opera, this magnificent, captivating work has been discovered by new generations of young people who’d probably never touch opera with a bargepole. They’ve had a unique and magical opportunity: not just to study or listen to Puccini’s masterpiece, but to create it themselves. This will be a landmark event for every one of them. It may change some of their lives altogether. Without question, it has given them an experience they will never forget.”
Nia Williams – Rehearsal repetiteur and coach.