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The second church I visited for my Vivienne recce was in the village of Steeple Gidding. The church is now deconsecrated, but a beautiful and well-kept venue, if a still a bit chilly in May. Just along the ridge from Little Gidding, this church also looks out over ravishing countryside and extensive earthworks – signs of much earlier inhabitants in the area – now grazed by sheep and cattle. The night before we perform Vivienne, Ruth Padel will be reading some of her poetry here, interleaved with the movements of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross.
Alas, not all venues in which I get to sing are equipped with a Steinway, and we will be using an electric piano. That seems heretical at one level, but it would be a pity not to perform a piece like Vivienne in such a pertinent setting solely on account of the keyboard. I don’t know any professional pianist who enjoys playing an electric piano but the better ones are a godsend in venues with draughts, variable temperature and an uneven floor, and often much better than a ‘real’ piano that has not been cared for. I am always impressed by my various accompanists who, over the years, have conjured beauty, volume and expression from the most unpromising-looking instruments. Fortunately, I will have Libby “Liberace” Burgess with me on this occasion.
First stop, Little Gidding itself. Like most people, I assumed that this had been a place of great significance for TS Eliot, hence his choice of the name for one of The Four Quartets; but according to my host, Hugh Black-Hawkins, Eliot only visited the place once (after a big lunch in Cambridge), attracted by its connections to Nicholas Ferrar and King Charles I. The original house is long gone, but the building that Eliot visited still stands and continues its long-standing service as a retreat house.
“Forty paces” away from where the original manor stood (still somewhat disputed) is the Church of St John, an ancient and beautiful little space, in front of which stands Ferrar’s own tomb. Alas it is too small for a performance of Vivienne but worth a visit, as the interior and panelling are wonderful.
Another possible venue for the performance is the Festival marquee that will stand on the lawn between the house and the church. However, I have discovered over the years that tents are not best suited to acoustic performance and I decided against it.
Little Gidding church and house are poised on the top of a hill, with an uninterrupted view of surrounding area for miles in all directions. Perhaps Eliot was lucky enough to see it on a perfect spring day as we did. Certainly the spirit of the place stayed with him, resurfacing when he was writing The Four Quartets many years later. The church is still a focal point for visitors seeking to connect with him and a book of his poems lay ready for us on the pew when we arrived. Just as the church is open to everyone to walk in and reflect, so Eliot’s enduring verse is on hand to the passer by as a channel for their thoughts, it would seem.
Yesterday was the last performance of Vivienne in 2013 and, I am happy to report, another triumph, with a big and appreciative lunchtime audience in the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House. The success of the piece in artistic terms was again confirmed by the consistency of the response we had from this audience, which matched the enthusiasm and sentiment of those who have seen other performances. I was particularly grateful to my production team (below, L to R: Joe Austin, director; Christopher Nairne, lighting; Simon Kenny, design)
who came along to make sure this final performance was of the highest quality. Libby Burgess was, as always, a wonderful musical partner at the piano as we explored Vivienne’s fragile state of mind.
My task is now to develop a schedule to tour Vivienne and I hope to link performances to the twin anniversaries in 2015 of Vivienne’s marriage to Eliot (100 years) and Eliot’s death (50 years).
This week I got a wonderful surprise from the team at Edition Peters. The famous music publishing house, who deal with all my colleague Stephen McNeff’s music, has produced the vocal score of Vivienne. I am thrilled that McCaldin Arts has received a pre-publication copy of the score, having premiered and produced this piece which has enjoyed such success.
The copy arrived just as we prepare to perform Vivienne for the final time in 2013, in a lunchtime slot in the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 25 November.
Last night we performed Vivienne in the October Gallery as part of the Bloomsbury Festival. It was an important opportunity to try the piece somewhere that is not a dedicated theatrical space, and to discover how far towards a concert performance we can take the staging without losing its power.
Once again we had an appreciative and knowledgeable audience, and it seemed right that a performance of Vivienne should take place in Bloomsbury, with Eliot’s publisher Faber & Faber only a stone’s throw away.
Two more performances of Vivienne are taking place before the end of the year. The first, on Thursday 17 October at 6pm, is part of the Bloomsbury Festival and can be seen at the October Gallery. The advance tickets have now all been taken but there will be more available on the door.
The second and final performance of 2014 takes place in the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House, on Monday 25 November at 1pm, as part of the lunchtime recital series. Booking for this performance opens on 16 November. A proportion of the tickets is retained and available on the day.
Tickets for both performances are free.
We have finished the second of two performances of Vivienne at The Forge, Camden as part of the Camden Festival and so the summer run of Vivienne has come to an end. The positive reception of this short but concentrated music theatre piece has justified all the hard work that went into bringing it to the stage. On both nights at The Forge the audience stayed after the curtain calls to speak us about their experience. Clearly Vivienne is a strong, involving work and many people wanted to share their impressions of a personal connection formed with me in the role of Vivienne, and to praise the contributions of Libby at the piano and Joe in shaping the piece and my performance.
Vivienne has been a very successful collaboration for the whole McCaldin Arts company. Building on previous experience of working together and a mutual understanding of each others’ abilities and strengths we have created something rich, powerful and – importantly – entertaining.
I’m also indebted to a number of family, friends and acquaintances (all listed in this week’s programme) who supported this production, not least via the Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that ensured a properly staged production. It’s been wonderful to see a number of those who have supported Vivienne in this way also coming to see the show.
A comprehensive digest of published feedback on Vivienne can be read here via Storify. We have also read the latest print edition of the New Statesman which described Vivienne as “a treasure”, Andy Rashleigh’s libretto as “witty and endlessly allusive” and the Tete a Tete Opera Festival show as “elegantly performed by mezzo-soprano Clare McCaldin and the pianist Elizabeth Burgess”.
Vivienne will return in the Autumn at the Bloomsbury Festival in October and at the Royal Opera House in November.
The first outing of “Haydn’s London Ladies” was a great success and we attracted a very appreciative audience from among the visitors to the Foundling Museum. The museum’s beautiful upstairs salon was the perfect intimate venue to try out this new lecture-recital format, in which I speak as much as I sing. The narrative traces the relationships Haydn established with four particular women during his years in London, and we sing and play the music associated with these women. Most of the music is by Haydn but there are a couple of pleasing oddities that I unearthed during my research at the British Library. Here is a short video of the event.
My particular thanks to Richard Hetherington (piano) and Joe Austin, my trusty script editor and text advisor.
I’m ready to go with the first performance of Haydn’s London Ladies, this weekend at the Foundling Museum in London, a beautiful Georgian building with strong musical associations. I’ve been working with Joe Austin, who has directed other McCaldin Arts projects, and Richard Hetherington (with whom I have previously performed at the Foundling Museum) to get to the heart of the story about Haydn and his lady-friends in London and I am looking forward to finding out how the audience responds to the combination of narrative and music. Haydn is still under-valued as a composer and I hope this show will remind people of how great he really was.