A decade with Opera

By Tom Hawkes, 2007

I sometimes feel that I was there at the beginning of Opera Holland Park but I wasn’t, I didn’t join the company until the second season; little did I imagine I would still be working for them eleven years later!

Opera and ballet had been presented at the Holland Park Open Air Theatre by visiting companies since the 1970s.  Productions were often of variable quality, some good, some bad and some awful.  In 1996 Opera Holland Park became the in-house company for Holland Park Theatre run by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Libraries and Arts Service.  The first Opera Holland Park production was Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera directed by Anthony Besch and designed by Peter Rice.  The venture was a success and the following year OHP mounted three of their own productions with Puccini’s Tosca, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Mascagni’s Iris with three other productions by visiting companies.  Iris was the first of what became an on going series of little performed Italian verismo operas, the brain child of general and marketing manager Michael Volpe.

I can’t remember being interviewed for Iris, but I do remember that the offer came with the stipulation that I used Peter Rice for the sets and the haute couture fashion designers Charles and Patricia Lester for the costumes.  Peter and I had been friends since the mid-sixties but the Lesters were an unknown quantity.  So on a cold December day in 1996 Peter and I piled into Mike Volpe’s car to drive down to their workshops in Abergavenny.  Patricia and Charles, having had no previous professional theatrical experience, were somewhat nervous about the engagement.  They needn’t have been because after half an hour in their workroom being allowed to not only handle but try on the gorgeous silk and velvet garments, I knew that their clothes alone would make the production look far more expensive than the meagre costume budget would normally allow.

Iris is the story of a simple Japanese village girl abducted and placed in a Kyoto brothel by a wealthy rake.  Rejected by him and denounced by her blind Father, she throws herself into the Kyoto sewers.  As she dies her soul ascends to heaven.  The exotic plot, which undoubtedly has its weaknesses, was transformed by Mascagni into a lyrical poem from the gentle opening dawn sequence to final ascent of Iris’s soul with the breaking of the new day.

Peter Rice designed a stunning set.  Against a backcloth that looked like a beautiful lacquered screen, the setting consisted of a stylised Japanese bridge built onto a revolve which when dressed and turned in different directions served for three different locations.  Iris herself, a role that was double cast, had two difficult costume changes to make while onstage.  Every night I wondered if the final change for the apotheosis would be completed in time and every night it was.  The other headache for the ladies was their jump into the sewer at the end of Act II.  Unlike Tosca’s suicide-leap usually done upstage and away from the audience, I wanted Iris to leap into the arms of the waiting crowd facing downstage.  She was then laid on the ground surrounded and masked by the chorus men, suggesting a gang rape, but in fact they were helping her with her costume change.  To demonstrate how ‘easy’ it was and, presuming that I was heavier than either Susan Stacey and Giselle Allen (our two alternating sopranos), I threw myself a number of times from the bridge into the arms of the chorus, hoping thereby to demonstrate that the men would be there to catch them.  Thank God they didn’t drop any of us!

This production played for only a week with all the principal roles double-cast.

The following year I directed another verismo opera, Cilea’s L’Arlesiana, working this time with Peter Ruthven Hall as designer.  He created a stunning raked set which caused my choreographer Mary Anne Kraus no end of problems.  During my thinking period about the production I had had problems with finding a reason for the tormented behaviour of the hero, Federico.  At the time I had been reading Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong and had been deeply moved, equating it with my father’s experiences in the trenches.  Dad, in the last year of the First World War, had been one of only five members of his platoon to survive a gas attack.  A traumatic experience for a young man barely 18 and one which affected his health for the rest of his life.  Thinking about war and the effect it had on a whole generation of young men I found a way into the opera and so I set it in 1919 and decided that Federico would be suffering from shell shock.  This culminated in a dream ballet depicting Federico being torn between Vivetta, the girl he was about to marry, and the faithless Arlesian of the title.  But with two casts to rehearse culminating in only six performances it seemed that the production had only just got underway when it was over.

The same applied the following year with the first of my two OHP Mozart productions, Le Nozze di Figaro.  Though the operas were still double-cast, they played for 10 performances over two weeks.  We had tremendous difficulty in casting the second Susanna.  Now you would think that Susannas would be two a penny judging from the frequency one has to endure ‘Deh Vieni’ in auditions, but it was not until the weekend before we started rehearsals that we found an artist who said she had sung a slightly cut version of the opera.  The poor girl bravely set about learning the rest of a role (that is reputedly the longest soprano role in all opera) by night and rehearsing by day.  This included an enormous amount of recitative, much the most difficult music to learn let alone make idiomatic.  Happier memories were of the stunning singing of Giselle Allen as the Countess and of the hilarious commedia playing of Frances McCafferty, Simon Butteriss and Graham Stone as the trio of Marcellina, Basilio and Bartolo.

For the millennium, Opera Holland Park decided to take over the production of all six operas in each season and appointed a producer to head the company in tandem with Mike Volpe.  James Clutton came from the commercial theatre where he had worked with Bill Kenwright as well as producing his own shows.  James was a breath of fresh air.  He had no previous opera experience and so applied sensible non-precious commercial practices to the task of mounting the programme.  I’m pleased to say that we got on well right from the start, probably because we both have the same rather wacky sense of humour! I was contracted to direct Così fan tutte, a work that has always been close to my heart.  However not long before the season was about to go into rehearsal it became clear that Anthony Besch was too unwell to revive his production of Un Ballo in Maschera and James asked me if I would take it on.  Because I love the work and because it was the opera that really launched my career at Sadler’s Wells in 1965, I agreed to direct.  It was the wrong decision, because I found it difficult to work within the framework of another director’s concept – rather like wearing someone else’s shoes that don’t quite fit.  Rehearsals were not easy and the final production was only adequate in my opinion.  Così, set in post Second World War Naples, on the other hand, was a delight from day one.

La traviata in 2001 is memorable for two different reasons.  The first being the wonderful Anne Sophie Duprels as Violetta.  I fell in love with her on day one of rehearsals.  The second was an event that made Holland Park history, but for the wrong reasons.  As we all know the weather in England is unpredictable and that July was no exception.  Winds had been very high all week and the lighting truss which was suspended over the stage and audience area was swaying in an alarming way.  Though it was quite safe it could have caused anxiety for the audience.  On the night of July 11th the wind was worse than ever and the theatre’s technical manager cancelled the performance, the first time ever in the history of opera in the park.  The performance should have been Anne-Sophie’s first night but she had to wait for her debut until the 13th.  An evening to remember as the audience rose to their feet to give her a standing ovation.  She left the stage and promptly fainted which did seem to be taking the part a little too seriously!

Traviata was the last of the double cast shows.  James and Mike rightly decided that playing two linked productions in repertory would be a less expensive and less problematic way to mount the season.  Each of the six productions would be paired and would share the same basic setting and where possible some kind of link, and would play over a three week period.  The Paris setting was the link that paired Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur with Puccini’s La rondine.  Peter Rice’s elegant French gray Louvre set had originally been designed for Figaro in 1999, it was repainted yellow and expanded for Così and further altered and painted black and gold for Traviata.  Finally it was reconfigured and a second level was added for the two productions.  Not many people recognised that this economic set had served five different operas, certainly not the critics!

For me Adriana was memorable for the opportunity to work with Rosalind Plowright again.  With her international career I wondered how she would take to the privations of our far from luxurious backstage conditions.  Being a trouper she mucked in and apart from often getting lost finding her entry from the selection of look-alike doors, was the same delightful girl I had known as a student at the London Opera Centre.

A question I am frequently asked is ‘which opera is your favourite?’ and my usual reply is ‘the one I am currently working on.’  I find it much easier to say which operas I never want to direct again.  Werther falls into this category.  When James and Mike were discussing the choice of works for the 2003 season I mentioned that I had always wanted to direct Werther because I believed that it would suit my romantic if somewhat sentimental nature.  So why did I end up out of sympathy with the work? Perhaps it was reading Goethe’s novel, where I experienced a certain alienation from the characters.  I had a good cast and was moved by much of the music but by the first night I really disliked Charlotte as a person (not the singer), and I found Werther’s character rather a wimp.

The last three years have been pure joy and I think have resulted in my best productions for the company two operettas, Die Fledermaus and The Merry Widow alongside Eugene Onegin.  The operettas were conducted by John Owen Edwards who believes, like me, that the genre should be taken seriously.  We certainly gave them the respect they deserve and the rehearsal periods were amongst the happiest and funniest of my whole career.  Sets and costumes were again in the capable hands of Peter Rice and the imaginative and very ‘camp’ choreography was by Jenny Weston.  I did not want any form of amplification, though I was concerned that in the open air some of the dialogue would be lost.  So I edited both librettos considerably, and insisted on dialogue rehearsals on stage to test the acoustics well before the official stage rehearsals.

Because I wanted a dancer for the part of Frosch in Fledermaus instead of the usual comedian, John Owen Edwards suggested Mark White, a highly experienced West End artist for the role.  Traditionally at the start of Act III, Frosch has a long monologue setting up the prison scene.  Mark had never done stand-up comedy before but was willing to take it on as long as he could write his own script.  His dialogue was very funny but it contained a number of jokes at the orchestra’s expense particularly the viola section.  I wondered how this would go down.  At the dress rehearsal they found it hilarious, thank goodness, and every night orchestral players would approach Mark with yet another derogatory viola joke.

Mounting an operetta is like mounting a big West End musical.  The mixture of song, dance and dialogue is not easy for many conventionally trained ‘opera’ singers, and unlike the commercial theatre it has to be achieved in a relatively short period.  The dedication of all the artists involved in both these productions was amazing.  I think we proved that operetta could be done in the park and done well.  Here’s to the next one!

The production team was the same and the opera was conducted by the talented young Russian speaking Stuart Stratford.  Stuart’s Russian was essential to the production because I found it very difficult working on a show where I had absolutely no idea of the nuance of the language.  I knew what people were saying but the subtleties were not there.  However opera is also a visual art form and I reckoned that if I could make the subtleties of the language work through the casts acting it would be conveyed to the audience.  Stuart kept us all on the right track.  I was happy with the result.

So eleven operas in ten years.  Looking back I have watched with pleasure how the company has developed.  The operas are now much easier to cast because good singers recognise that Opera Holland Park affords them not only an important London shop window but also allows them to achieve the highest professional standards.  Recruiting singers for the chorus is no longer a case of taking anyone who is free, but is eagerly sought after by both young professionals and music students.  Loyalty to the company is rewarded and choristers know that they will have the opportunity to graduate to small parts and leading roles.  Production budgets are still impossibly small but the resourceful designers and production managers and the energetic stage crew seem to be able to call in favours year after year and stretch them.  One of my favourite sights every season is what is known as ‘Peter Rice’s office.’ This is the covered picnic area to the left of the auditorium.  Peter takes it over prior to all his productions and clutters it with all the paraphernalia that a designer uses.  It looks like chaos, but out of it come props and dressing that the budget could not otherwise afford! He’s usually there right up until show time when the House Manager chases him away as the audience is admitted.

Backstage, the facilities are basic; portakabins for the principals and two dressing rooms for the chorus and orchestra, and through the chorus rooms runs the access to the stage.  So there is no privacy.  Because everyone is on top of everyone else, people have to get on which results in a real family feeling.  If there is a problem, and there always is, the management in the form of James Clutton, often with Mike Volpe, can be found in their ‘Office’ which is the wall area on the left as you come up the steps from the Park.  It makes a difference knowing that the bosses are on hand at every performance.

Alongside this, the public perception of the company as an important summer venue for affordable opera in London has been recognised.  I have enjoyed being a long time member of the organisation (not the longest, that distinction belongs to Michael Volpe, Peter Rice and the conductor John Gibbons.) This year sees the new tent with increased facilities for both the audience and the cast, I wonder what the peacocks will make of it? We all hope that the great company atmosphere will continue in our refurbished home, but we will have to wait until the end of the season.  I’ll let you know next year if I’m allowed.  In any case thank you Opera Holland Park, it’s been great working for you.