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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
She 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.
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.
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).
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.