Mary comes to London

mary's hand

Clare McCaldin as Queen Mary in rehearsal for Mary’s Hand at Holy Cross Church, Cromer Street

She has been over a year in the making. Now Mary’s Hand, our new operatic monologue for Queen Mary I is about to arrive in London (following its premiere in Chester 5 weeks ago). Mary’s Hand is part of this year’s Tête-à-Tête the Opera Festival. We’re really pleased to have been able to secure Holy Cross Church, 5 mins walk from the British Library in King’s Cross, as our venue for the two performances on 1 & 2 August.

Queen Mary has been ill-served by history  and Mary’s Hand is an opportunity to, if not redress that perspective, then to refresh it, investigating the circumstances of her life and decisions through lyric drama. It’s good to be able to do this in a Roman Catholic church. As a site-specific piece, Mary’s Hand always absorbs the character of its venue, colouring (if not changing) the nature of its performance. For example, when Mary first arrives here on stage at Holy Cross she sits in front of the altar in the sanctuary, the resolutely Catholic Queen Regnant, defender of a faith under assault from the Reformation. The images that we had taken at St. Paul’s Knightsbridge are not only separated from the altar by a screen but also incorporate a chequered dais, perhaps re-positioning Mary in the Tudor court.

Clare McCaldin as Queen Mary. Photo by Robert Workman (at St. Paul’s Knightsbridge)

Yet, these are just the readings of one or two images from a continually moving stage picture, conceived by writer-director Di Sherlock as a response to the available space. We hope that you’ll be able to come and experience Mary first-hand at Holy Cross and – through that classic operatic triumvirate of song, staging and storytelling – make up your own mind about her. There is a video trailer below:

Preparing Mary’s debut

It can seem like a great luxury to have a try-out performance of a show before it even reaches the public domain; but in my experience it is always worth the considerable effort.

Clare McCaldin as Mary I

Photo by Robert Workman

At the end of April we ran Mary’s Hand with a half-finished costume and three generous instrumentalists who learned the piece on the day and were unfazed by the idea of the music’s order changing mid-performance. We were delighted and reassured by a very positive response from our invited audience. We have used that feedback and our own impressions from two intensive rehearsal days to improve and tighten up the piece. Some discoveries can only be made in front of an audience and we were grateful to our friends and colleagues for their input.

Mary’s sumptuous dress is now finished and brilliantly captured by Robert Workman in some wonderful shots of me in rehearsal (left). After the show opens in Chester on 21 June, there will be two performances in London on 1 and 2 August. We are also in discussion with various venues outside London for dates in 2019 and hope to take the show to locations connected with Mary’s story.

More information about the performances is available here.

Mary’s Hand try-out run

Last night we performed Mary’s Hand for an invited audience of friends, colleagues and supporters. The successful performance came at the end of an intense week of rehearsal, with writer Di Sherlock also directing the staging, and Martin Bussey conducting the ensemble (trumpet, oboe/cor anglais and cello) in his own composition. The run was also the crucial first test of Andie Scott & Sophie Meyer’s meticulously re-created dress in the performance situation. Clare was tireless in her work throughout the week and especially on the day, giving a fine, forthright and affecting performance as the maligned Queen Mary. We’re really pleased that our audience enjoyed the show and had engaged with it sufficiently to make all sorts of illuminating comments about it afterwards.

More work is now needed, not only to finish the dress with the money raised during our successful crowdfunding campaign (the goal sum achieved on the morning of the run) but also to review the performance and fine tune its component parts before the public performances from June.

Bohemia in Soho


Bohemia is alive and kicking, we discover, thanks to Celine’s Salon, which we attended last night at the Mediterranean Cafe on Berwick St. Salon curator and Mistress of Ceremonies Celine Hispiche (far right in photo) has been hosting evenings at a range of venues for the last few years. She presents her own material and generously opens the floor, encouraging anyone who wants to try out new work in front of a supportive crowd. Having started in London, Celine is now looking at taking the model further afield to give a much-needed voice to writers based outside London. At last night’s Soho event we heard poems, songs and an absinthe-soaked extract from a novel, all linked by the theme of Bohemia.

My work tends to involve interpretation rather than my own original writing. I am always impressed when I encounter the desire for self-expression that gives people the courage to stand up and present their own stuff. This is not least because in writing about what moves or frustrates them, they unavoidably show a portion of themselves, whereas I like to hide behind other writers’ genius. I sing some of the finest songs and texts ever written, which is not only a privilege in itself, but I rarely feel that I could have said it any better. However, without last night’s Salon, we wouldn’t have enjoyed the glorious quirkiness of Manifesto of the PLO (Pedestrian’s Liberation Organisation, complete with balaclava and zebra head-band), and other louche delights skewering the agonies of the human condition. Happily, and in spite of of gentrification in the area, certain Soho characteristics remain eternal. Drink continues to be a central, celebrated element of the Bohemian life as we encountered it last night and oils the wheels of some fantastic creativity. I suspect the juices were still flowing long after we retired for the night.

For more information about Celine’s Salon and future dates, see Twitter @hispiche
For Celine’s musical in development about singer and dancer Betty May @BettyMayMusical.

 

Schumann & Shakespeare – 16 July 2017

Schumann & Shakespeare by Clare McCaldin Stephen Dickinson has written a new group of songs for me entitled A Shakespeare Quartet, which we will be premiering together on Sunday 16 July at 3pm. The songs are settings of speeches from four different female characters in Shakespeare’s plays: Rosalind’s teasing of Orlando (As You Like It), Viola to Duke Orsino (Twelfth Night), Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s watery death (Hamlet) and Hermia’s dream (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Stephen will be accompanying me in these new songs, as well as in a duet he wrote last year for baritone Paul Sheehan and me, setting Prospero’s closing speech from The Tempest.

Stephen has also written a new Benedictus duet for us, commemorating the death of his great-uncle Oxley Jones Frost, who was killed in action on 15th March 1917 aged 24. This will be performed alongside a Pie Jesu which Stephen wrote in 1997.

Paul will also be performing Finzi’s Let Us Garlands Bring, accompanied by Michael Papadopoulos, and the three of us will open the concert with three duets by Schumann: Tanzlied, In der Nacht and Ich bin dein Baum.

The concert is at St Paul’s Church, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge at 3pm on Sunday 16th July, and lasts an hour without an interval.

Transforming the Operatic Voice with TORCH

A few months ago I blogged about a forthcoming project at TORCH, the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, with Dr Toby Young of Somerville College. We have titled our work Transforming the Operatic Voice and this Monday was our first experimental workshop exploring different vocal genres and stylistic uses of the voice.

Toby and I were joined by regular McCaldin Arts collaborator Libby Burgess (above seated) and a new team member (above left) Heather Cairncross. Heather’s singing career spans a wide variety of genres from early music with the Monteverdi Choir to the chameleon vocals of the Swingle Singers, jazz and pop.

Heather Cairncross & Clare McCaldinWe worked with a range of songs and arias from different periods and challenged ourselves to analyse what we did intuitively (or through training) in one genre and to apply this to music from a different vocal heritage.

Nuit resplendissante (Gounod)
Ombra mai fu (Handel)
C’est magnifique (Cole Porter from the show Can-Can)
We’ve only just begun (The Carpenters)
Someone like you (Adele)
The Salley Gardens (folk arr. Britten)

We discussed technical issues (support, soft palate, mask resonance, consonant production, vowel shape and purity) and stylistic questions about the creativity of the response to the melody, situation, use of amplification and text. This was early-stage work to homogenise our language and understanding in preparation for making a new set of songs. The two versions of the song-cycle will be performed acoustically and in a recorded ‘studio’ form by me and Heather respectively, and we will be looking for points of contact and difference between the two performances, based on our experimental learnings.

Prior to the session we had also compiled a fascinating list of singers performing outside their normal musical or vocal territory. To see the list and listen to the tracks, click here.

 

 

 

Broody Mary

img_4187

Two images of Mary I and Katherine of Aragon (top)

McCaldin Arts is excited to announce a new project with an old friend: Martin Bussey, whose music I first sang at the Ludlow Festival a couple of years ago.

We agreed we want to make a work featuring the Tudor Queens Katherine of Aragon, her daughter Mary I, Elizabeth I, with reference to the other wives of Henry VIII.  Martin is extremely well-read in this area of English history, which I am definitely not. So I have been catching-up by reading various books by Alison Weir, David Starkey, Jessie Childs, David Loades and Anna Whitelock.

Mary I has had a bad press. It suited her successors to denigrate her and she is chiefly remembered as Bloody Mary for her persecution of Protestant heretics.

But there’s so much more to her that she has become the key figure in our project.

Mary’s rule was in many ways unhappy, even disastrous, but she made political and legal changes without which it is unlikely that Elizabeth I could have reigned so successfully. Mary’s private story is not only sad because of her inability to bear the child she so longed-for but is also at the heart of her failures as a ruler because her deeply Catholic conscience could not substitute for the political astuteness she lacked. Several books have recently rehabilitated Mary’s image and our piece is essentially sympathetic to her in recognising her significant achievements while acknowledging her as a woman of her time.

Having completed our research and found our target, we are now ready to start writing the piece. I think I will leave that bit to Martin.

Listen to Martin’s song A Church Romance which I sang on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune with Iain Burnside.

 

Shedding some light with TORCH

TORCH Research Centre in the HumanitiesI’m delighted that I have been accepted, with Dr Toby Young of Somerville College, Oxford University, for a Knowledge Exchange Fellowship project with TORCH, the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities. Our work is entitled Transforming the Operatic Voice and is a ten-month research piece to explore the philosophical and technical space that exists between operatic and pop singing. We aim to develop innovative approaches and techniques with which to compose and perform contemporary opera and other vocal music. In addition to vocal production, register and timbre, we will be examining aspects of groove, pitch manipulation, expressivity, ornamentation and treatment of text.

Toby is a composer whose work explores the boundaries between pop music and sonic art. His academic research looks at the philosophy of creativity, in particular exploring the relationship between aesthetics, culture and the creative mind. This joint piece of work with McCaldin Arts brings together Toby’s academic expertise and experience as a practicing musician with our skill-set based more specifically in live acoustic performance.  A series of public workshops will explore the commonalities of approach in opera and pop and form the basis of a new programme of work by McCaldin Arts.

Conference Call

Clare McCaldin & Toby Young at UCLThis summer’s exploratory project with composer Toby Young and the dancers Estela Merlos and Thomasin Gülgeç has had an extended life, in the form of a joint paper delivered by Toby and me at a recent conference.

We made a twenty-minute presentation on Discourses of metaphor and gesture: towards a collaborative language as part of the day organised by the UCL Institute of Education. The overall conference title was Music and movement as process and experience and, as the event was hosted by the Royal Academy of Dance, a significant portion of the audience were teachers of dance and those in development as teachers.

The day revealed a wide and interesting range of philosophical approaches to the experience of dance as well as the process of making, and examined the important issue of how dancers and musicians communicate.

 

 

Towards a new language

FullSizeRenderLast week I worked with composer Toby Young and two dancer-choreographers, Estela Merlos and Thomasin Gülgeç to develop a new multi-media work from scratch. Thanks to the generosity of the Rambert company – with whom Estela and Thom previously danced – we based ourselves in a studio at Rambert’s spacious new home on the South Bank.

This was the first time that the four of us had worked together as a group. We carried equal weight as creative decision-makers, which was a first for me. As a singer I am still far more used to being handed a completed score at the end of the process, rather than encouraged to contribute to the thought and structure underpinning a piece. I found it challenging and rewarding to have to think in this way.

We had an agreed starting-point; the experience of being physically “locked in”, as described by Jean-Dominique Bauby in his memoir, The Diving-Bell & the Butterfly. We were keen to avoid literal narration or illustration; however, the immobility and the psychogical experience reported by Bauby, as well as by the rare souls who have recovered from being locked in, suggested themes around stasis, flesh, interior landscape, hallucination and memory. Memories overlap in the locked-in experience with hallucinations (constructed memories in some sense), erupting into the patient’s awareness and then abruptly vanishing. Through these ideas we also found ourselves circling back to a preliminary discussion about Camillo’s Theatre of Memory and the location of memories in physical space.

Estela Merlos, Thomasin Gulgec & Clare McCaldinA fundamental challenge for us has been to learn to understand each others’ terms of reference and, particularly, use of metaphor in relation to the work. Our creative starting-point was the same but once we start talking about abstractions, we came up against differences in the way we exploit metaphor creatively. This has been one of the most fascinating discoveries of our work together and our learning to communicate about this directly mirrored the search for a new language at the heart of the piece itself.

For example, the idea of a cave can represent any number of things metaphorically and, in a literal sense, might have suggested a way to think about the performing area. As an impetus for devising, ‘cave’ was something around whose many associations Estela and Thom could improvise as a way of generating choregraphic material. The idea ‘cave’ therefore not only generates, but also comes to signify, a created phrase or section. The noun becomes shorthand for that whole sequence and part of the map in the dancers’ heads that enables them to memorise their material. We non-dancers realised that the cave idea is not necessarily indicative of a scenario within the piece but is part of the chain of images forming the road-map for the dance, independent of a phrase’s technical ‘grammar’, which may continue to be tweaked for greater beauty or clarity.

Estela Merlos, Thomasin Gulgec & Clare McCaldinThe question of what overall shape the piece should take emerged relatively early, not least because Toby and I agreed that we like working within some kind of musical limits. Assessing and editing the quality of our own work was straightforward enough, but critiquing our colleagues’ work was much more challenging. The sheer beauty of what they do is undeniable but how do we know how good it is? As we ‘got our eye in’ over the course of the week and began to read the structure of their choreography more clearly, we felt more confident to offer our opinion. I suspect Estela and Thom may have had a similar experience with our musical offerings.

In the end, the piece comprised four sections: Rebirth – Animal – Immoveable – New Paths. Toby also proposed the idea of the madrigal – several different lines voicing a common experience – as an analogue for different kinds of inner voices, memories and hallucinations. Having settled on this, we immediately access to a classical language of imitation, ornamentation and vocal gesture that could be mixed with a the more modern forms of Drum & Bass. Toby still roughed out ideas on the piano as we improvised, but the laptop became a key tool to source, sample and mix sounds on the spot, including a heartbeat and electronic tones suggested by the worlds being explored.

Multi-tracking my voice on the three lines of the madrigal opened up options for me to sing live with myself or to participate in the choreography. We were all keen to explore whether we could cross even partially into each others’ territory. Estela and Thom sang a bit and I danced a bit. I can confirm that it’s not easy to move so fluently!

Estela Merlos, Thomasin Gulgec & Clare McCaldin Finally, how to finish the piece? We wanted to make a positive statement. Reports differ on the positive and negative emotions experienced by those who are locked in, but we didn’t want the experience of watching our work to leave people feeling hopeless about the subject. New Paths developed in part from Bauby’s description of “beginning to forge glorious substitute destinies for myself”. In the imagination one can experience the ecstatic freedom that is denied by the body’s actual immobility. Within the piece, this justified my move from the edge of the stage to full participation in the dance and was supported by a climactic build in the music. The rightness of this creative decision was bourne out by comments from our invited audience, with whom we discussed the piece after we had performed it.