I am very lucky with my involvement with BK. Since its my baby, I can work on whatever texts I feel a connection with and I am free to create my own interpretations and production design. The other reason why I feel so blessed is that I get to collaborate with my best friend, conductor James Penn. We both come from pretty different viewpoints when it comes to opera; he’s fairly traditional while I am not.
I start out my process by finding a good translation, sitting down with the text and reading the words. I try to not listen to the music until I have a good idea in my head of the actions. I then read other books or texts that the words remind me of. For example, with Werther, I kept being reminded of late 19th century realist playwrights, such as Ibsen, particularly Hedda Gabler. I wanted to incorporate that level of intimacy and realism into my interpretation of Werther. When I start character discussions with my singers, I also make sure to pass on these inspiration texts. I give my leads homework and reading material to try and create the perfect character on stage. I make sure to take time and sit down with the singers and start to break down their emotional journey. I try to make sure the interpretation makes sense to them as well. Because I mainly work with emerging artists, I need to make sure what I'm asking them to do makes sense and is something they can be comfortable with. I make sure to work with them to develop a character that not only works with the overall arc of the opera but also works for them.
After I have read the piece and listened to it through a number of times – I use my commute to and from work to play the opera on repeat in the weeks leading up to the start of rehearsal – I sit down with James and discuss what we each think of the overall story arc. We tend to disagree at first, but through discussion and debate, we come to a level of compromise which I think is the best way to create new interpretations while still having respect for the traditional viewpoint. We then break down each scene and each character. It’s a lengthy but enjoyable process. I find that if I can convince James of my point of view for a scene, then it can usually translate well on stage.
I also take time to come up with the overall design: what time period, what style, the kind of staging required. James tells me what he thinks and I then incorporate his ideas. I think its very important to keep the communication up between director and conductor, make sure we’re on the same page throughout the creative process and make sure the musical interpretation matches the action happening on stage.
Sometimes the interpretations of characters stems from the design. For La Traviata, which opens in August, I started drawing costume designs in my sketch book and they were all very stylised and stark – all black and white and glitter. Without providing any spoilers for the production, it led to me revising my interpretation of Violetta and all the fragmented ideas that had been floating around in my head snapped together.
The other side of a production is working within the rehearsal and performance space. Since all of our productions are very low-fi, we don’t have complicated technical requirements. We also try to present opera in many different ways, such as our production of Carmen that was shown in the round. We like to create a level of intimacy by removing the distance between singer and audience. By designing a production with little to no set or technical requirements, it makes it portable and malleable. It can often fit into almost any space.
I try to find venues that have the right ambience and feel for the production. For Werther, which we have set in post WW2 Britain, we’re performing in an old Masonic Hall, complete with oversized portrait of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. The style of the venue fits the era perfectly. For Traviata, however, we wanted somewhere a bit more extravagant, to match the splendour of the music. The auditorium at 75 Reid Street fit the bill splendidly, even down to the beautiful grand piano. This again goes for La Voix Humaine. We wanted to emphasise the intimate nature of the piece. It’s a single soprano performing for 40 minutes. We’ve broken it down between 4 singers to help support the emerging singers we engage, and for the venue, we’ve chosen a very different location - Four at the Carlton Hotel. It is a series of 4 very small rooms, with each containing a single singer. The audience will move from room to room as the opera progresses. With the rooms being so small and opera singers being so very powerful, we might be selling ear plugs for that performance!
BK Opera presents Werther from Wednesday 26th April to Sunday 7th May. Tickets available here.