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:

Mary’s Hand premiere in Chester

Mary's Hand

Photo by Robert Workman

Next week we perform Mary’s Hand for the first time. We have already run the piece in an early form for friends, colleagues and supporters. This performance at St. Mary’s Creative Space will be the premiere of the finished version. We’d like to share more about the opera and its creation ahead of this performance. Here is a short video introducing you to the team and their work. You can also read an interview with the composer Martin Bussey, published here today on composer Robert Hugill’s popular blog Planet Hugill. In addition, we’re publishing Di Sherlock’s libretto for the opera on this site – you can download and read it here.

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.

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.

 

 

 

Elizabeth and Jessie

Every so often someone casually suggests an idea to me that just grabs me, and one of my current projects in development comes from just such a moment. A friend noticed a connection between two very different singers: Elizabeth Schumann (above right), international classical diva, and Jessie Matthews (below right), darling of 1930s musicals, on stage and screen.

Each of these women reached the very peak of her profession, working with the creative giants of her day and experiencing the ups and downs, rivalries and challenges that the performing life unavoidably entails. It is fascinating to weave together the strands of their narratives as an introduction to their music and artistry, built around the curious facts of how their stories finally intersect here in England.

After the success of my first narrated recital Haydn’s London Ladies, this format seemed ideal for combining similarly varied musical items and historical anecdotes. The new programme ranges from Schubert to Rogers and Hart, from Covent Garden and Hollywood.

Elizabeth and Jessie is currently in development, for presentation in late 2017. Dates to be announced.

Can you feel the force?

A friend was telling me about a performance she had recently attended at Shakespeare’s Globe. She was a guest of one of the actors. It was mid-week during a very busy time and, while she wanted to be there, she was also half-wishing for a quiet evening at home. The play was Titus Andronicus – pretty uncompromising stuff, particularly in Lucy Bailey’s production. By the interval, she had realised that she needed to find a way of engaging with the performance, or simply go home. She decided to stay.

16 watch audience reactions web readyShe met her actor friend in the bar afterwards. He told her that immediately he had entered the stage he had spotted her leaning wearily on her husband and had directed his entire performance specifically in her direction. She was astonished to realise that not only was she identifiable at such a distance but that his assertion – “if I could get you [onside], I would also have got everyone else in the theatre” – had been borne out by her own experience and the crowd’s reaction at the end.

My friend understands about live performance. She is aware that performers can sense the energy of the audience but had no idea of what that meant in practice. She was surprised, too, to discover the extent to which a performer might sometimes be in a position to affect it in such a specific way.

A Concert.This is arguably more difficult to do mid-opera than mid-play. I’ve often looked at the backstage monitor at the Royal Opera to see who is sitting in the stalls directly behind the conductor. It’s generally very keen people, pleasingly electrified by their proximity to the action. Occasionally there is someone who drank too much wine with dinner and who is having a snooze, unaware that he (usually) is visible to the entire stage. It’s quite funny, and no doubt he would be mortified to realise he was being so closely observed. But consider what it does to the energy of the show if every time anyone onstage looks in the direction of the conductor, they see that person who has lost the will to stay awake. If someone is unconscious there’s not a lot that any of us can do, but in the case of my friend watching Titus, energy directed towards her arguably influenced her choice to stay to the end. Who hasn’t arrived at a show feeling wrung out, only to be caught up in the performance and leave feeling revived, wondering what happened?

This energy is, of course, hard to see but its ebb and flow is the powerful stuff of live performance, for good or ill. A mobile phone going off can kill a performer’s and audience’s concentration, and crash the energy of a carefully crafted scene. An actor forgetting his lines creates anxiety for everyone, but a brilliant ad lib or ‘rescue’ can generate excitement that has us all leaning in to see what’s coming next.

A last-minute cover thrown into an established cast can be like an energetic hand-grenade if there hasn’t been much rehearsal. This happens more frequently in opera than in theatre, particularly if a production has been revived regularly – it’s a case of taking whomever is available among the singers who have done the show in the past. The in-the-moment negotiations that take place under the nose of the audience may not be directly visible, but the sense of something going on adds a frisson that even live recordings can’t capture.

I recently heard a doom-laden prediction that in a couple of decades’ time, actors on film could all be digital and there may be no need for the real thing. Let’s hope that the invigorating magic of live performance remains more difficult to conjure electronically.

Farewell to Vivienne (for now)

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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)

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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.
viv_roh_25_nov 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).

Vivienne Published

ed_peters_vivienneThis 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.

Vivienne in Bloomsbury

october_viv_01Last 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.