Your Editorial "The Guardian view on touring opera: thwarted in its mission to bring music to the people" (10 November) misses a vital point. The trouble with 'opera' is that it’s obsessed with a small canon of works almost exclusively from the 18th and 19th centuries. Exceptions are few and far between, while contemporary works, with their inherent risk, are as rare as hen’s teeth. And so opera isn't just perceived as elitist and expensive (mistakenly) but also as 'uncool' and irrelevant, especially by the young.
Scaled-down versions of those classic favourites don't come anywhere near an authentic experience and touring them has limited effectiveness in growing audiences. Those of us further down the ladder attempting to mount new opera on a very small scale face a huge battle with conservative audiences, limited funding (no encouragement from the Arts Council there) and apathy from colleagues and influencers in the industry: all seem to be stuck in the operatic past. Without a sustained and sustainable renewal of the genre, however, the myth of opera's obsolescence will become a reality. So we need more lithe and nimble regional touring companies which can afford to mount new operas and thereby enhance cultural life more widely - and in more senses than one. It's perhaps the Royal Opera's Linbury Theatre, with its varied offerings of opera and dance, new and old, which could and should plant regional off-shoots. ENO should stay put.
GELLER INSTITUTE OF AGEING AND MEMORY
Dementia Friendly Opera – The Last Siren
Date: 30th August 2023
Location: Lawrence Hall, St Mary’s Road Campus
by Dr. Andy Northcott, Senior Lecturer in Sociology of Medicine, University of West London
Dementia Friendly Opera is a collaboration between the Geller Institute of Ageing and Memory (GIAM), the London College of Music (LCM) and The Music Troupe. From the performance we hope to develop and refine a toolkit for putting on Dementia Friendly Opera and Dementia Friendly Performance at venues across the country, particularly those underserved by the Arts and for whom attendance at such events would require arduous planning and travel, laying the foundations for work beyond the London College of Music and The Music Troupe, allowing any production to become accessible and dementia friendly.
The idea of the Dementia Friendly Opera came as a shared solution to separate problems being discussed between Edward Lambert of The Music Troupe and Andy Northcott of the Geller Institute of Ageing and Memory. The Music Troupe was established in 2014 as a means for Edward to return opera to its roots, moving away from the grand halls and lavish productions that it has become associated with and moving back to the story telling tradition, with contemporary chamber performances tailored to smaller, intimate spaces. The Music Troupe wished to expand outside of well-worn theatre venues to find new audiences for Opera outside of its established base.
At the same time Andy and his partners at GIAM, a research institute that focusses on improving the life of people living with dementia, were looking to address a pressing issue of their own. They had found that while there was a huge body of research showing the benefits of music as a therapeutic tool for people living with dementia, in practice the music chosen often made assumptions on the preferences on older people which could be wildly out of step with their individual taste. Too often musical choices in hospitals, care homes and community events were selected for their safeness, on an assumption of what would be acceptable or inoffensive to an audience, often based on a projection of older people years if not decades out of step with actual older people, while homogenising what will naturally be a range of idiosyncratic likes and dislikes.
There is a well established body of research and practice on the use music as a therapeutic tool for people living with dementia, with a body of evidence suggesting that engagement with music can minimise distress and agitation associated with dementia. (Vink et al 2003, Alfredo et al 2008, McDermott et al 2012, Wall and Duffy 2013), although there remains debate over how this is best delivered (Koger et al 1999). There is supported by a further significant body of research showing how music can be used to promote reminiscence, using music to strengthen memory, recall (Brotons et al 2000, Larkin 2006) and even recital (Baird and Sampson 2009). For those caring for somebody living with dementia seeing them remember old times can be hugely valuable, but, for those living with dementia, reminiscence is often a test they are sabotaged to fail. Even when successful, this means spending your later years in a cycle of nostalgia, living in a past that for the person living with dementia is increasingly difficult to remember. Instead we wanted to create new memories for people living with dementia and loved ones, enabling them to keep living in the now, engaging and re-engaging with the arts they previously enjoyed or to experience them for the first time, and to create these memories in a genuine setting rather than in a watered-down version of the real thing.
Allowing older people to remain engaged with their communities, local events and the arts is important to what we do at GIAM. We are all living longer, with enhanced knowledge of well being and nutrition coupled with continuing leaps in medicine and surgery mean many of us will live well into our eighties and beyond, but society has not adjusted to support this. For too many people ageing means an end to social involvement, something hugely exacerbated when an individual or partner has dementia, even if they remain largely independent. Research (Rafnsson et al 2020) has shown that maintaining social connections and participation in activities are crucial to avoiding loneliness that can greatly exacerbate the impacts of both ageing and dementia. At GIAM we have been looking for ways to promote this, bringing diverse communities together to experience new performances, new mediums and new people as a means to promote not only living longer, but living fun and fulfilled lives.
Our solution is the Dementia Friendly Opera, starting with a performance of The Last Siren held at Lawrence Hall at The University of West London in Ealing. The Hall is located in one of the world’s great cities for the arts, but access to these world leading performances is perceived as impossible for many older people, which we hope this performance will address. The performance itself is an unabridged version of a brand-new opera, but the auditorium itself will be set up to be dementia friendly. This will not be the first time opera has been used in conjunction with improving the lifes of people with dementia. Studies using Chinese Opera have shown its benefits as a therapy for people living with dementia (Chen et al 2020), but previous attempts at such engagement using western opera have made dementia and memory loss the topic of the performance (Fuller 2012, Wheeler 2023), rather than offering an escape from it.
Key to what we aim to achieve here is that this is a new experience, a new production shown in its original form, rather than repurposing familiar material in diluted formats. The production itself will be shown as it would to any audience, a chamber opera performed in its entirety by professional musicians and singers. Unique to this performance will be the safety of the venue, which will be staffed by trained dementia friends experienced in working with people living with dementia and their friends and families. The auditorium will be set out to minimise fall risks and the audience will be permitted to move around, speak and leave without admonishment. We will have quiet areas prepared for those who do not enjoy the performance, or cannot sit through the whole production, and provide light refreshments, and volunteers will be on hand to assist with guidance to toilets and other facilities as needed. At its core we are not providing a safe or neutered performance, but instead a safe place for people to experience the arts they previously enjoyed or are coming to afresh.
It seems to me, the year begins anew after the shortest day. However, with all the reflections on FB today, I’ll throw in my thoughts on a busy and peculiar year of musical composition. This time, 12 months ago, I was working on Swellfellow the Tyrant, an obscure political satire by Shelley which could hardly have turned out more topical and relevant in the light of the subsequent Tory machinations. Written for a local opera group which then failed to grasp the nettle, they thought it wasn’t popular enough to rustle up support. A foolish sentiment, in my opinion, as opera won’t thrive going forward unless the repertory is renewed with small-scale, entertaining but relatively economical works. An opportunity lost to work in the local community. And so, straight on to write The Burning Question for young Norman Welch which didn’t start off with the idea that the dead pope should be female, but that’s how it landed up. It went down pretty well at the Tete a Tete Opera Festival in the summer - lots of young people there - and, as I write, there are plans to revive it soon. Probably the best team effort I’ve enjoyed working on: it’s so satisfying (and flattering) to see a talented cast throw themselves into something you’ve written. Four months later, and another piece is finished: Masque of Vengeance, this time a Jacobean tragedy, a bloodbath in which most of the comparatively large cast are slaughtered by the end. I really must try and understand why, after Elizabeth’s death, this genre of revenge tragedy flourished. Wait! I meant Elizabeth I…! And in between we released the film of Last Party on Earth, which we shot live on a set and on location during lockdown. There aren’t many opera films other than relays of house performances, so thanks to Korina Kokali et al. for the inspiration. All things considered, some steps in the right direction this year: as one acorn said to another, we may be small but we’ll give it a go!
Mark Wiggleworth’s suggestion (The Guardian, 10 Nov 2022) that English National Opera should seek a new state-of-the-art lyric theatre is spot on. The trouble with the recent debates over the future of English National Opera has much to do with the term ‘opera’ covering over 400 years of works that come in all forms, shapes and sizes. For much of that time, companies and the houses that accommodated them, were smaller and more intimate. Some of us mourned when Sadler’s Wells Opera moved to the Coliseum in 1968 in order to expand into the Wagner/Puccini/Richard Strauss repertory, for in large spaces something is lost when performing works of previous periods. While applauding ENO’s many great achievements since then, particularly as a showcase for U.S. composers, a retreat into a smaller, purpose-built venue in London could see it flourish as a complementary company to the Royal Opera rather than one competing with it. Smaller productions would be more suitable for touring, too. There is also an important point to be made about the future survival of opera: the repertory must be renewed with contemporary works in sufficient quantity to allow new creative talent to flourish. This is much more likely to happen in a small-scale environment.
Orpheus at Opera North: greater than the sum of its parts
(Grand Theatre, Leeds, Thursday 20 October 2022)
The myth of Orpheus was fundamental to the history of early opera: Peri’s Euridice is the earliest surviving opera and its performance in Florence in 1600 was attended by the Duke of Mantua - Monteverdi’s employer - and Alessandro Striggio, who would write the libretto for Monteverdi’s opera of 1607. The attraction of the myth, of course, was that the story was widely known and understood; Orpheus, as a musical practitioner, becomes a parable for the genre of opera itself, a union of words and music which gives voice to this drama about love and loss. No wonder composers have struggled with the myth’s ending, sometimes tragic, sometimes happy, and sometimes, as with Monteverdi’s later drafts, somewhere in between.
And how appropriate that Opera North and South Asian Arts UK (also Leeds-based) should choose the love of Orpheus and Eurydice to be the subject of a collaboration between them, one which turned out to be a true marriage of musical styles. ‘Monteverdi reimagined’, indeed. The production’s point of departure is the lovers’ wedding party in a suburban back garden sumptuously created by Leslie Travers. The sun is shining and the musicians sit arrayed in the flower beds, Western and Indian instruments intermingled. The production by Anna Himali Howard is as restrained as the musical pace, intimate and tender, allowing the beauty of it all to speak for itself. Laurence Cummings presides discretely from the harpsichord, while the Indian classical musicians perform the music of Jasdeep Singh Degun, who directs from the sitar.
Thus it was that early baroque and Indian classical music came to be heard cheek by jowl. Right from the start, the role of La Musica was divided between Deepa Nair Rasiya and Amy Freston singing in their respective musical styles. Likewise, nymphs and shepherds were taken by the operatic quartet of Claire Lees, Frances Gregory, Xavier Hetherington and Simon Grange with contrasting contributions from their Asian counterparts, Sanchita Pal, Chiranjeeb Chakraborty and Vijay Rajput - the latter two paired as shepherds who entertained us in an ornament competition. If early baroque opera delights in the contrast between recitative and aria, then in this Orpheus we are treated to even greater contrasts of cultural styles, the western gently extroverted alternating with the Indian, soft and introverted. Sometimes they tellingly combine or cross-fertilize each other.
Orpheus himself - even he played the violin - was tenderly sung by Nicholas Watts, excelling in his virtuosic rendering of Possente Spirito. The Messenger at the end of Act 2 was passionately sung by Kezia Bienek and the Australian bass Dean Robinson was a sonorous Pluto. Those were the main roles taken by the ‘Western’ singers performing Monteverdi’s music. The Indian cast sang mostly in their mother tongues, so as well as Striggio’s Italian we heard Urdu, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Punjabi and Bengali. For them, standing rather than sitting, acting and projecting emotions and voices into a large theatre would have been outside their usual comfort zones. They stood their ground, so to speak, and drew us into their enchanting musical world. Eurydice (the young Tamil singer Ashnaa Sasikaran), Hope (Yarlinie Thanabalasingham) and Prosperina (Chandra Chakraborty) were performed by experts in the Carnatic traditions of southern India. Instrumentalists in the Hindustani traditions also took major singing roles: Kaviraj Singh is a santoor player who also sang Caronte and Kirpal Singh Panesar provided the evening’s deus ex machina simultaneously singing and playing the role of Apollo.
The result of this cultural exchange was utterly compelling: the audience was entranced. The company’s success reflects on the richness of talent in today’s society and hopefully the subsequent tour will be extended to encompass the capital and other cities. It’s worth shouting out that projects like this can help to ensure the renewal and survival of opera by spreading the message that the genre is infinitely versatile and inclusive. This was a one-off, though, surely impossible to repeat. Instead, the next step must be to commission artists with feet in both musical traditions to create a true blend of contemporary, rather than historical, cultural styles. Clearly, this project was no competition between sound-worlds but a sensitive convergence of musical cultures which succeeded more than anyone probably dared to imagine. But, it has to be said, the experience was predominantly a musical one. The theatrical and dramatic experiments of the early baroque were largely overshadowed by the intricacies of Indian music which, while opening up new aural vistas, evolved at its own pace. When the evening’s climax is an enthralling duet between two percussionists (Shahbaz Hussain on tabla, RN Prakash on ghatam (water jug)) you know that Monteverdi has taken a back seat to something very different - and rather more fun.
Music by Claudio Monteverdi and Jasdeep Singh Degun
Musical arrangements by Ashok Gupta
Original Italian text by Alessandro Striggio
Translations by Ustad Dharambir Singh MBE and Shahbaz Hussain
Additional translations by Chandra Chakraborty, Amarjit Dhami, Saikrishnakumar Rangachari, Deepa Nair Rasiya
Sangeet (Music) - Deepa Nair Rasiya
La Musica (Music) - Amy Freston
Charavaaho (Shepherd) - Xavier Hetherington
Apsaro (Nymph) - Sanchita Pal
Charavaaho (Shepherd) - Chiranjeeb Chakraborty
Orpheus - Nicholas Watts
Eurydice - Ashnaa Sasikaran
Charavaaho (Shepherd) - Vijay Rajput
Charavaaho (Shepherd) - Laurence Cummings
Apsaro (Nymph) - Claire Lees
Charavaaho (Shepherd) - Simon Grange
Apsaro (Nymph) - Frances Gregory
Silvia (The Messenger)- Kezia Bienek
Caronte - Kaviraj SinghNambikkai (Hope) - Yarlinie Thanabalasingam
Proserpina - Chandra Chakraborty
Pluto - Dean Robinson
Apollo - Kirpal Singh Panesar
The creative team
Music Director/Harpsichord - Laurence Cummings
Music Director/Sitar - Jasdeep Singh Degun
Director - Anna Himali Howard
Set and Costume Designer - Leslie Travers
Lighting Designer - Jackie Shemesh
Choreographer - Urja Desai Thakore
Sound Designer - Camilo Tirado
Touring to Newcastle (05 Nov), Nottingham (12 Nov) and Salford (19 Nov) and available on OperaVision from 31 October
Watching the Zappa biographical documentary yesterday brought to mind the occasion when, on 11th January 1983, I made my way over to the Barbican, London in the hope of getting a ticket to Frank Zappa's concert with the LSO. It was sold out, and there was already a long queue for returns by the time I got there. But I was on my own, I remember, and I thought I stood a chance of someone not turning up at the last minute. The audience made their way into the auditorium; people in the returns queue gave up and dispersed, but I persevered. Then the miracle happened: not only was I approached with the offer of a ticket - you had to be wary of touts - but it was a comp! 'It's fine', the guy said, 'I'm a roadie!' I got one of the best seats in the house sitting amongst members of Zappa's team.
A shout out to the Youth Orchestra “Il mosaico” from the St. Gallen area of Switzerland. It’s been in existence for many years and by 2000 it was acknowledged as the leading youth symphony orchestra in the country. I caught them at a recent concert in Cortona, Italy (28 May 2022) in the beautiful surroundings of the deconsecrated church of San Agostino as part of an Italian tour that had been arranged to replace one to Ukraine.
Having never taken to cinema relays, the experience of watching opera at home has been better than I would have imagined, (albeit at the mercy of an internet connection). Think of some of the advantages: (1) No travel involved, no late-night trains home. (2) Cameras get in on the action, close up, saving hundreds on the cost of a front stalls ticket. (3) No irritating audience neighbours. (4) Watch in comfort when you feel like it. (5) Subtitles rather than surtitles. (6) Rewind as required. (7) Truly international viewing. (8) Excellent sound, voices clearly audible. (9) Participate in watch party chats. Of course, the thrill of experiencing a live-performance in-house is lacking, but so are the chances of contracting the virus. Watching great opera while also staying alive: a no-brainer!
How will new viewing habits affect the future of opera? Since it receives taxpayers' support, It seems only right that the Royal Opera, for example, makes available its output for all to see, regardless of geography . So will there be a two-tier audience? Theatre attendees paying lots to be there while those at home watch for free? How about an annual subscription for the UK's output of opera made available on a special channel? Or does this new situation herald the demise of grand opera houses altogether?
I've just finished a short piano concerto. The orchestral accompaniment is strings only - could be single strings, too. I wanted the piano and strings to work together rather than have the pianist stand out as a celebrity, so I called the solo part 'piano continuo' since it plays all the time. I know one of my many weaknesses is that after a couple of minutes I go from one thing to another; the result here is a kind of suite of pieces which may feel disjointed; of course, they're meant to complement each other like a multi-course meal. In fact, there are connections running through the piece and it's technically written as one movement, so I hope it will have some coherence . This Kandinsky in Grenoble sort of looks what it sounds like, to me at any rate.
The recent death of Andrew Sinclair, international opera director, has suddenly brought to mind the period when he and I most closely worked together. The occasion was his direction of my chamber opera Caedmon, produced by The Garden Venture at the Royal Opera House in 1989.
Small-scale opera is a thing nowadays, not surprising given the economies involved. Lots of popular classics have been doing the rounds - La Boheme, Carmen, La Traviata, G&S, etc., as well as arrangements of less mainstream works. Anything to get opera out and about and attract new audiences everywhere is to be greatly applauded. But it has to be admitted the resulting musical experience without orchestra and choruses is likely to be underwhelming compared to the experience that was intended. Just as we like ‘Early Music’ to sound right with period instruments, so grand opera ideally needs to be savoured as the ‘real thing’, performed by the forces and in the spaces it was written for. But it’s worth noting that theatres in the 17th and 18th century (1000 seats) were nowhere near as large as those built in the 19th century (around 2000 seats) - and these are dwarfed by the monster new-builds and extensions of the 20th (3000 to 4000 capacity). In these auditoria, most spectators are distant from the stage, many spy on the performance through opera glasses and typically listen with acoustic enhancement (amplification) even if they’re not aware of it. By contrast, small-scale opera in intimate venues allows the audience to feel close to the stage and feel more involved in the drama. Clearly, voices don’t need to be so large (and wobbly) and don’t have to strain; they can, more often than not, sound more detailed and beautiful. The challenge we face, therefore, is to create new, tailor-made, small-scale works that appeal to audiences everywhere and enhance the repertory of sung dramas that are so powerful and compelling.
Last night was aired one of the best TV arts programmes I've watched in recent years. It was like something from the good old days when the BBC took risks, rose to its subject matter and didn't dumb down to an audience only thought to be interested in cake-baking, auctions or murders. Guardian review.
I’ve just finished reading The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. I'm doubtless late to the party but just in case there’s someone reading this who hasn’t yet got around to dusting down this hefty tome, let me explain that Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften is widely regarded as one of the world’s great novels, compared by some to Ulysses or The Remembrance of Things Past (The Times). No doubt it is something of a cult work in German-speaking lands.
A project in the autumn and winter lockdowns recently has been to finish another Lorca setting. My operatic version of Así que pasen cinco años I've called In Five Years' Time, which seems a more natural translation than 'When Five Years Have Passed'. Death is a theme of the play and very much in the headlines right now.
About a year ago I finished this chamber opera on a play by Oscar Wilde. I was keen to write an Italian-style opera although never sure what I meant by that.
Written before the pandemic outbreak, this could hardly have been more timely. A rhyming libretto by Leo Doulton at first had me stumped: how could such a doom-laden scenario be treated as a 'comedy of manners', as he put it?
Gilles' Requiem is one of the most lovely works of all time!
Composer and musician