Hugh Davies, 2nd Violin for ENO

Wednesday 14th October 2009, BBC Maida Vale Studio 2

Arrive close to start time to find Ben (Norris), my RCM (Royal College of Music) student, already here. Jonathan Manners, ENO’s Orchestra Manager, asked me some time ago if I would mentor another RCM student – it was a very positive experience when the scheme was introduced in 2008 so I’m happy to do it.  But I had forgotten that today was the first of his five rehearsals with me as mentor.  Never mind – Ben puts me at ease and it is clear straight off that he has the social skills for the music profession.  And the musical ones?  Absolutely no problem there either; I have been playing professionally since 1970 and though the music doesn’t get easier, the ability to assess ability does.  I arrange seating with my colleagues in the section whereby I can have Ben with me on the outside of the 5th desk (of the second violins). We are rehearsing Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle with Ed (Edward Gardner, ENO’s Music Director) and it is clear that Ben is extremely well prepared, musically confident and blends.  Technically it is not especially difficult music for violin (how will he cope with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring next week?) but the ensemble skills required for playing with a professional orchestra need a lot more than playing the notes.  He has them, no question.  In the break Ben shows me a piece he is preparing for a RCM recital – Sequenza by Luciano Berio (1976).  OMG!  Supremely difficult writing for solo violin. Thank heavens it hadn’t even been composed when I was at the RCM! 

Monday/Tuesday 26/27th October 2009, Blackheath Concert Halls

Ok Ben, here we go!  Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is on the stand.  It’s a fantastically exciting piece to play.  But it is also taut, edgy and rhythmically demanding; not a piece for novices!  One has to be neither proactive nor reactive – just active at all the right places and times.  The opportunities for loud and embarrassing individual mistakes are many and proliferate with repeated rehearsing – happily, thoroughly prepared as before, Ben avails himself of none of them and sails through unscathed. I arrange with our Principal 2nd Violin, Nicole, for Ben to sit alongside her on the front desk of the second violins for half a rehearsal which is a different and very useful experience.  These three days prove to me again how beneficial this ENO Evolve scheme is all round – RCM students  experience life (not just musical) in a professional band, we members of the ENO orchestra see what talent is coming up from the colleges, and ENO as a whole raises its profile for the Double Bill.

Hugh Davies teaching at his son's school

Hugh Davies teaching at his son's school

Ben Norris, student violinist at the Royal College of Music

When I received the news that I had been selected to take part in this year’s ENO Evolve scheme I was incredibly excited. The opportunity not just to observe but to actually take part in rehearsals with an orchestra of ENO’s caliber promised to be an experience I could take a lot from. I was not disappointed.

Before the first rehearsal, there was a meeting held at the RCM (Royal College of Music) with Jonathan Manners, ENO’s Orchestra Manager, and all of the students taking part in the scheme. At this point it became immediately apparent that a lot was expected of us in taking part in the scheme, both from the RCM and ENO. Upon getting the music, I made sure to prepare the parts, listened to recordings, and really made sure that the second I walked in to the first rehearsal venue I could be as professional as possible and act as a first-rate ambassador for the RCM.

The first rehearsal was an experience I shall never forget. Before a note had even been played, I could already feel the warmth and friendliness of the orchestra and I was made to feel very comfortable and welcome. My mentor, Hugh Davies, II Violin for ENO, was very accommodating and really made me feel at-ease, chatting to me and answering all of my questions.

Once we started playing, I was immediately overwhelmed by the sound. Having never played with an orchestra of ENO’s quality I found the most striking aspects to be the quality and contribution of individual players, the dynamic variation between the incredible pianissimo and huge fortissimo and the way in which the orchestra worked as a strong team. I also found that when surrounded by players who were fully contributing and playing well, I too played better. After the first rehearsal I simply could not wait to play with the orchestra again. It had been a thrilling experience.

In the later rehearsals, Hugh arranged for me to have the opportunity to sit on the front desk of the second violins for half of a rehearsal. Although initially slightly stunned that such an opportunity had been arranged for me, I found myself increasingly looking forward to it rather than being apprehensive. On the front desk, I really began to feel the intensity of the teamwork which goes into making this such a first-rate orchestra and I temporarily felt like a real part of that team.

Upon reflection, taking part in the Evolve scheme has proven to be one of the most invaluable experiences I have had whilst a student at the RCM. Just working with someone like Edward Gardner would have been a fantastic experience, however to feel like a part of the ENO Orchestra and experience first hand how he works with the orchestra and singers was a truly remarkable experience. I’m really looking forward to taking part in Tosca rehearsals in 2010.

denise ben (1)

Ben Norris, violinist at the Royal College of Music

Sing Hallelujah

October 14, 2009

Walking along the street at the weekend in my home town of Lewes I bumped into John Hancorn who conducts the East Sussex Bach Choir. An enthusiastic conversation ensues about Sing Hallelujah. It seems Lewes will be doing something special on Dec 13th, and I hope something radical such as the downloadable Gospel version from the Sing Hallelujah site, which will reflect the true spirit of Lewes, a town known for shaking up the establishment. They will be joined throughout the autumn by the dozens of choirs from all over the UK who have now signed up to the Sing Hallelujah site. We hope that every size and shape of community choir will want to get involved; check out Karl Daymond’s Male Voice Choir in Chepstow for a performance starting on Dec 6th at 1759, the exact year of Handel’s death, and also Karl’s Singing Club, none of whom read music but will sing a unison version of the melody. Really anyone can join in, no matter what level of singer you are or what knowledge of music you have.

 

This exciting collaboration between ENO and BBC has so far been a joy with both organizations hungry to reach out to new audiences and widen the appeal of classical music. Our joint BBC/ENO teams are beavering away planning the Glasgow and London live events www.bbc.co.uk/sing and I feel it is really building up steam with some wonderful content for the website to be unveiled in the next few weeks.

 

Today I have talked through the designs for ENO’s production of Messiah with director, Deborah Warner. Hot on the heels of her provocative new production of Brecht’s Mother Courage at the National Theatre, Deborah and her team are now putting the final touches to their concept and looking forward to the first day of rehearsals. The stunning designs are being created by Tom Pye, and with a wonderful cast, led by tenor John Mark Ainsley, the ENO Orchestra and Chorus and the conducting of Handelian expert Lawrence Cummings www.eno.org I feel sure that we are in for a treat.

 

Handel was the most versatile theatrical composer of the baroque period and many of his oratorios have a dramatic narrative hence the rich history of oratorio stagings over the last 10 years.  

 

Key to Deborah’s concept for the production is an amateur community group drawn from Westminster and representative of a contemporary urban community. Our staging of Messiah and the Sing Hallelujah project are all about community, the joy of singing together, the thrill of participating, challenging the  preconceptions that the place for Handel’s Messiah is in church, a scriptural oratorio exclusively for a Christian tradition. In fact the annual Christmas performances of Messiah came about because Handel would conduct the work to raise money for charity. It has over the years, after what must be millions of performances, and with the great Hallelujah Chorus, become Handel’s most celebrated work. There can be no better way to end a year of celebrations for this great composer than by coming together to hear, learn and sing this wonderful work.

 John Berry, Artistic Director, ENO

  JEP_9563

 

Part one – LBH (Lilian Baylis House)

L'Amour de loin

A fly on the wall…

Pressing the buzzer of Lilian Baylis House, home to English National Opera’s rehearsal space and I find myself almost nervous!  A quick reassuring chat to the lovely Odette on the door, and I plunge in to the rabbit run style corridors looking for ‘Rosie’ and ‘Elaine’ – no more information as yet as to appearance of either, but I am confident I shall find them, or bump into them through sheer luck… here’s hoping…

I soon find Stage Manager Rosie who is busily getting bits ready for the rehearsal which is about to start in 5 minutes.  She warmly welcomes me and directs me to a chair stage right to watch the action unfold.  And unfold it does as people start to emerge from the lunch break.  I watch as a man gets what seems like a pair of giant wings strapped to his arms, and closer still another amuses himself by juggling several plastic fish.  Is this part of the show?  I sincerely hope so!

Roderick Williams.  What a star.  I like him a hundred per cent already.  He seems to glow warmth, musicality and talent.  His voice radiates from his body, completely natural on stage, expressive, true and utterly believable in character.  I sit and listen transfixed by him, and smile occasionally when he forgets his words and makes a joke. 

Ed Gardner conducts from the centre as Director Daniele Finzi Pasca sits nearby occasionally jumping up to direct, moving people about and talking to the singers and dancers.  Daniele is full of smiles and charisma and you cannot help but like him.  Ed conducts the pianist with the same gusto and magic as he would the orchestra, singing an occasional duet with the pianist as they fill in the chorus lines.

In the break, I introduce myself to Elaine, Staff Director.  She says this way of rehearsing is quite ‘bitty’.  Rehearsals are usually much more singing and music focused, but at the moment some people are doing costume, some are doing shadow puppetry, some are sorting lighting and others doing choreography. 

All the little bits however, I am finding really interesting.  The singing is stunning, the costume is taking shape and the dancers are compelling in the way they are moving about with silk, wings and bits of costume.  I am also happy to find how jolly the atmosphere is; it seems it is not all work as someone cracks a joke or another prances about the stage at a wrong note.  Or perhaps this is work; a fun, hardworking environment… I can’t wait to see more!

By India Bourne, ENO Baylis Assistant Producer

ENO's Doctor Atomic, the focus of intense debate

ENO's Doctor Atomic, the focus of intense debate

John Adams is absolutely right in his views on contemporary opera. During an interview with BBC Newsnight, broadcast on Friday 27 February, he said ‘alongside abortion and gun control there is no better way to get people shouting at each other’. The composer of Doctor Atomic, which opened for the first time in the UK at ENO on Wednesday 25 February, would have smiled if he’d seen the final few minutes of BBC Newsnight Review when a heated discussion between the three critics – Jeannette Winterson, Paul Morley and Tom Service – and dissolved into a cacophony of shouting and raised voices about his new opera. In comparison, the previous discussion of the newly opened Picasso exhibition was positively tame.

 

It was the second heated discussion around Doctor Atomic last week. On Wednesday 26 February an RSA and ENO debate explored ‘What really drives Scientific Development?’ and pondered the human dimension, ethic and moral considerations as well as political and economic drivers. John Adams and the director of Doctor Atomic Penny Woolcock joined a panel including eminent science writers Lewis Wolpert, Jim Baggot and Alom Shaha – it was certainly lively.

 

I seem to remember equally robust discussions in the media about ENO’s production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha (with Improbable Theatre and the Metropolitan Opera, New York) and Olga Neuwirth ‘ s Lost Highway, which we staged at the Young Vic theatre last year.  

 

Opera, and most potently, contemporary opera, is not for the fainthearted. It often sets off its own explosion of opinion (it is not unusual for some to give composers a masterclass in composition). Yet opera can make people think more about the world in which we live and has a unique ability to provoke the kind of discussion which Doctor Atomic has done over the last few months – bringing one of the most controversial events of the 20th century into focus again.  

 

I hope this is not the last opera from John Adams and we look forward to more productions from Penny Woolcock in the future.

 

John Berry

Artistic Director, ENO

Charlotte van Berckel from ENO’s Technical Director’s Office shares her experiences and her photographs from behind the scenes at the La bohème dress rehearsal

 

Its not the norm to have the crew in costume.  Normally, they don’t need to be. They change the set around behind the big curtain during an interval or interlude and so wear all black.  The efficiency of this change takes time and practice to perfect, and it has to be perfect otherwise there would be a grumpy show – noise, delays, broken sets….  However, the luxury of the big curtain assists in hiding possible hiccups and the black attire hides them. 

 0027 by enobaylis

The set for La bohème is made up of two trucks – in this case two houses of sorts – that stay on stage throughout the show.  The majority of the scene changes take place in front of the audience and without the aid of the big curtain.  So, the crew must wear costume to make these changes look as subtle and unobtrusive and as natural as possible.  For La bohème they are as seamless and beautiful as I have ever seen.  As the two lovers descend from the artist’s loft and head in to the daylight the stage quickly fills up with people and the sets swiftly move, spinning in a carefully coordinated sequence of moves.  As they turn, the light changes and falls and different colours and shapes appear.  Activity must be the tool to blind us to the technique because before you know it the trucks are in place and the scene is set and happening.  The boundaries of each time frame have been blurred and the crew have disappeared back off in to the wings. 

See all of Charlotte’s photos on Flickr

 

 

The Show Goes On

February 10, 2009

THE SHOW GOES ON

Perhaps it was inevitable that, in the middle of one of the harshest winters on record, both temperature-wise and economically, the opening night of our new production of La bohème, directed by Jonathan Miller and set in the 1930s depression (with its own splattering of snow), should be temporarily postponed due to bad weather.

sky-arts-snow-shot3

Snow being dropped from the Flys during Act III

But the Company’s spirit remained intact, the first night transferred to Wednesday 4 February (after hundreds of phonecalls!) and with it the first multi-channel broadcast of its kind.

We assembled a marvellous production team with SKY ARTS (www.skyarts.co.uk/opera) and DCD Media to produce two live broadcasts from in front and behind the stage, both going out live from the Coliseum. It was a risky project given the broadcast production team had complete access to our production, creative team and singers. With cameras present throughout the rehearsal period, it was always going to be a challenge but we never doubted it would be a success. In the event, the broadcast team became part of the production team and the Company as a whole were the stars of the show, with the broadcast revealing a truly unique insight into the workings of ENO. This came across wonderfully in the rich and varied ‘behind-the-scenes’ footage.

camera crew and cast at the live broadcast on opening night

camera crew and cast at the live broadcast on opening night

Penny Smith, the behind-the-scenes presenter, found a surprisingly sympathetic balance between keeping the back stage interviews serious and involving for a potentially new opera audience. She touched on some big subjects such as opera in English and plenty of fascinating snippets from how singers warm up to how much perfume first-night audiences wear! Front of House, Petroc Trelawny, with his knowledge of opera and experience of live broadcasting, presented the performance marvellously.

Penny Smith backstage

Penny Smith backstage

The broadcasts revealed that opera is a rich art form for such a transparent approach. So many wonderful personalities; the furious paddling below the water line of technicians, singers, musicians and stage crew; and the palpable tension leading up to the first bars of Puccini’s marvellous score.

We’ve had a wonderful response to the broadcast (http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/sarah_crompton/blog) and from the public to the production (www.eno.org/video). Like all of Jonathan Miller’s productions (including the most enduringly popular like Rigoletto and The Mikado) the first reviews have been a bit luke warm, but the public love it and we expect it to run and run.

Meanwhile, as more harsh weather moves in this week, we turn to new challenges. John Adams’s Doctor Atomic premieres in the UK at the end of February with director Penny Woolcock (www.eno.org/video) and the superb Gerald Finley as Robert Oppenheimer and we begin rehearsals for a new work, directed by Katie Mitchell for the Young Vic theatre, which opens in April (www.eno.org/afterdido). Going to the Young Vic last year was a daring new idea at the time but it paid off – winning us the South Bank Show Awards for best new opera. Snow or no snow, the show goes on.

John Berry

The Curtain Call seen by the cameras

The Curtain Call seen by the cameras

Charlotte van Berckel from ENO’s Technical Director’s Office shares her experiences and her photographs from behind the scenes at the Boris Godunov dress rehearsal

It’s cold in the lighting box today and the auditorium lights are not on.  The teams are still working on the Show and I’ve developed a panic-induced mini cold sweat.  ‘But its 0945?! How I am supposed to see what I am doing and be ready in time for curtain up’ I ask myself loudly.  I love these little conundrums – so different from my desk job.

Peter Rose crosses the stage as Boris Godunov

Peter Rose crosses the stage as Boris Godunov

 

 

I am taking photos of Boris Godunov today for the Technical and Production Department; the show starts at 1030am so I don’t have long to set up the camera – the one thing that the success of my day depends on.     

Charlotte’s photos of the performance on Flickr

Unlike the press photographers who bring vast quantities of equipment and set up in the stalls using tripods, we (the Technical Department) have a small digital Canon G9 which I attach to a bracket and fix to the lighting bar on the front of the dress circle just above the stalls.  A long USB cable connects the camera to the laptop that I’ve set up in the lighting box underneath.  The software allows me to operate the camera – aperture, shutter speed – remotely and I can see the photos as I am taking them, and of course compare and improve.  It’s the same as taking a picture from an actual camera; instead of staring through a view finder I am staring at a screen. 

Success depends on making sure everything is functioning successfully.  Today I can’t log on to the laptop, which happens to be new and so learning skills are required; the USB cable isn’t in its normal place so I need an extra pair of hands which are hard to find as everyone is busy; and it’s dark (did I mention that) so I have to wait to position the camera correctly.  I am probably over-worrying a touch as this is actually the first of two dress rehearsals and therefore closed to the public; meaning that I don’t need co-ordinate the complex timing of the camera instalment with the entrance of ENO’s faithful public.  That always adds an edge to the procedure.

I get it done and sit in the lighting box testing it.  ENO staff and the creative team trickle in to the stalls just before curtain up.  There’s always a bit of buzz at this time; moments of chatting before the darkness and the orchestra. I make sure I have the sound turned up in my little tardis so I get the full experience.

 

Boris is not an easy show to take photos of.  The lighting is subtle and low (and people keep moving.  Don’t they know I am trying to take a photo of them?  Low light + people moving = blurry blurs) with lots of strong visual contrasts.  As I am primarily here to take reference photos of the set (for when we put the show on again or for companies who might rent it from us) I need to make sure I record all the elements and in all the different configurations; today that means overexposure.  These don’t make for pretty pictures so I also take a set of more visually balanced photos.  It’s a good learning curve and a challenge for me – the quest for perfect exposure is eternal it seems – but it’s also useful to have these photos for directors, agents, or our production department: anyone who might need copies.

 

I go backstage the following day; to observe the other side and to see how the magic is made.  There’s a lot of waiting.  Talking.  Movement.  People whisper, others don’t.  I feel a bit nervous.  Don’t want to get in the way of activity or interfere with any zone that the performers may be in, waiting.  It’s all a bit dark.  How does everyone else see where they are going?  Best if I just keep still for a while and watch.  Got my camera with me after all and do not want to make a fool of myself.  Lots of activity going on but not sure what it means.  Seems that everyone plays a key role.  Activity begins and ends out of nowhere.   The back stage show seems to consist of sequences of moments.

 

There are no scene changes in Boris; only opening and closing of doors and things.  Staff and performers stand together; performers waiting to cross the threshold, staff ready to assist and facilitate. This makes for wonderful shadows and silhouettes and glimpses of the stage and audience beyond.  And standing in the background I get to see this show within a show.

 

Backstage at Boris on Flickr

 

 

Having time and space to read is a treat. I can’t read on the move, fitting in a page here and there, blotting out noise and bustle. All too distracting. Peace and quiet, a sense of calm, having a good run at several chapters is for me fertile ground to tackle a frustratingly growing pile of books. 

Reading on a plane maybe, a train, never on the tube and occasionally late at night.  

Now with some space this summer to reflect on 2008, reading is the most cathartic of pastimes. Yet it’s a contradiction. On the one hand you need concentration, yet it somehow clears one’s mind making space for fresh thinking and new ideas. That’s crucial for me, at the end of one season, and before the start of another.  With Mohsin Hamid’s thoughtful and gripping writing (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) I was off the starting blocks. It’s a relatively short novel: you can read it in a day and it was easy to immerse oneself in his gritty political insight. I had already read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of A Yellow Sun, and her sensitive and beautiful writing in The Purple Hibiscus was a treat.  Jonathan Coe’s The House of Sleep I found needs to be read in large chunks. It has a wonderful, but complicated plot, constantly shifting time periods and needs concentration. Yet it’s witty and intense, centred around a group of students who are drawn back together by a series of coincidences involving their obsession with sleep. A surprising and original book.  

However, reading this summer makes me think of my dear friend and colleague Anthony Minghella. I must be one of many who think about him daily. A wonderful man with a big heart, such modesty coupled with strength and integrity.  He was a writer at heart. Yes, a great director and producer, but every conversation with him centred around words. He wanted to tell a story and therefore writing a script, screenplay, radio play or synopsis for an opera was about how it would speak to an audience. His award-winning direction of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, which we are presenting again next year, is a wonderful legacy for ENO. His death is a great loss and everyone at ENO – in particular members of the Chorus who worked with him and our front of house staff with whom he built a close relationship – will miss him. 

Buraki Dancer Madam Butterfly

Buraki Dancer Madam Butterfly © Johan Persson / ENO 2005

 

 
                                                                                                           

Wedding Madam Butterfly
Wedding Madam Butterfly  © Johan Persson / ENO 2005

As we seek a new collaborator for the new opera by Osvaldo Golijov it makes me think that the role of the librettist in opera is often taken for granted. However, behind great operas are great stories and universal themes like solitude, loss and tragedy will always provide compelling narrative for music theatre. Identifying talented writers and working closely with them to create new work for the operatic stage is very much part of ENO’s future programming.  We want to create new work that has the potential to connect with a contemporary audience and sometimes reflect a certain mood of society.  Great works, such as John Adams’s Nixon in China and Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, have explored historic events and we look forward to the UK premiere of Dr Atomic next season.  We are currently developing a number of large-scale pieces with exciting writers and composers, some in collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera, ….but more about that later. More immediately, Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliot, has written a new version of Pagliacci, and the great poet and writer Sean O’Brien has done a new translation of Cavalleria rusticana. Our 2008/9 season will open with this new production of Cav & Pag, directed by Richard Jones.  Find out more about this and other Autumn productions with our new Digital Opera Guide.

Gerald Finley as Oppenheimer

Gerald Finley as Oppenheimer

Satyagraha

Satyagraha © Catherine Ashmore / ENO 2007

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As Guardian readers will already be aware, there’s a debate raging within the publication’s pages – both in print and online: a debate inspired by Joe Queenan’s article on the ‘tortuous’ nature of new classical music, and to which ENO’s Artistic Director John Berry has responded.  Given the contraversial nature of Queenan’s argument that new classical music leaves something to be desired, it’s not suprising that a whole host of responses have appeared online, making for some fascinating reading!

 

Read Joe Queenan’s full article:  http://music.guardian.co.uk/classical/story/0,,2289751,00.html 

Read John Berry’s full article:  http://music.guardian.co.uk/classical/story/0,,2290929,00.html

Tom Service’s Blog:  http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/music/2008/07/no_were_not_as_bored_as_you_ar.html  

 

You can also listen to John Berry and Joe Queenan debate live on air on WNYC radio! 

 

JOIN THE DEBATE!  What do you think about new classical music?…  

 

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