Francesco Cilea’s L’arlesiana is an Opera I wasn’t at all familiar with prior to my glorious trip to Opera Holland Park at the weekend. However, the cast de force had put it on my radar and the performances given in the intense, powerful three act Opera have cemented it as one of my favourite Operatic experiences to date.
Sung in Italian with English surtitles, it wasn’t initially easy to follow, however once the tale took off and the intricacy of the relationships between the central characters unfolded, I was hooked. The story revolves around Federico (Samuel Sakker) and indeed his mother’s world centres around him too, that’s Rosa Mamai (Yvonne Howard), she’s obsessed with her eldest son and his happiness. She has a younger Son too, L’innocente (Samantha Price) and he is dismissed as a simpleton, even though he’s usually hovering on the edge of the action – listening and learning. Baldassare (Keel Watson) is the wise friend everyone seeks out for advice, akin to Old Deuteronomy from Cats, he’s always there to help and has the respect of his friends. Federico is in love with a girl from Arles, she has bewitched him and even his Uncle Marco (James Cleverton) approves of his choice. However, all is not as it seems, it takes a visit from jealous love rival, Metifio (Simon Wilding) to bring Federico to the realisation that his love from Arles is not true to him. Meanwhile, Vivetta (Fflur Wyn), whom Federico has known for years, really is in love with him and Rosa Mamai is keen that she be the distraction her son needs in his hour of anguish.
It’s a rollercoaster, the build up and pace occasionally slow – however the good, bad and ugly elements of love are dealt with in detail. The tale cleverly lulls the watcher into a false sense of security as it appears that Federico’s head has been turned, Metifio is off the scene and Rosa Mamai believes her pride and joy is happy…
The set instantly transported me to a quaint farmyard, it was such a simple design yet provided maximum effect and fit the period superbly. The Opera Holland Park Chorus were a tight ensemble adding an extra dimension to the seven-strong cast. Samuel Sakker has an extraordinary voice, he gave a passionate, pained and well-balanced performance as the love-torn, pampered son. Samantha Price gave a beautifully engaging and nuanced performance as his young brother, I saw her play Iolanthe for English National Opera and she never fails to impress me. Keel Watson was a strong and confident presence in the role of Baldassare and James Cleverton was suave with an instantaneous air of confidence as Marco. Fflur Wyn wowed as Vivetta – such powerfully stunning vocals and the acting ability to match. Simon Wilding is a performer whom I am familiar with and he cut a menacing figure as Metifio. Stealing the production as the doting, obsessive mother – Yvonne Howard as Rosa Mamai. Not only did her vocals match the splendour of her heart-wrenching performance, the raw emotion she delivered in every nuance resonated. You could hear a pin drop during her act three aria.
Towards the close of the second act I found myself so entranced by the action on stage that my glance left the English surtitles while I got caught up in the emotion. It’s an Opera I’d be happy to watch again, however I will always remember my first viewing in such amazing surroundings. If you want to book your tickets to see it for yourself, follow the link: operahollandpark.com/productions/larlesiana/
SWAP’ra is a charitable organisation founded by a group of artists working in the opera industry. We have come together as a team of volunteers to build a supportive community to effect positive change for women and parents in opera by:
celebrating professional achievements in an industry where women are underrepresented in so many areas
collating data from existing artists in the industry and offering effective and workable solutions for companies
establishing a friendly, supportive and non-judgemental community
providing a platform for performance and publicity challenging preconceptions to improve attitudes towards women and parents in the arts
Entertainment Views were very excited to learn that these inspirational women are hosting a fantastic gala:
The SWAP’ra Gala will raise money for the various creative projects we have lined up, including our grant for opera parents, our mentorship schemes, and further performance opportunities for less established female artists. SWAP’ra is run by five volunteers and everyone in the gala is generously donating their time and expertise, stage managers included.
Hosted by star of stage and screen Fiona Shaw*, the SWAP’ra Gala is a celebration of the incredible wealth of female talent in the opera industry. A series of semi-staged scenes conducted, directed, performed and accompanied by some of the UK’s best loved artists, the evening is not one to be missed. Featuring music from opera favourites such as Le Nozze di Figaro, Madama Butterfly, and Eugene Onegin as well as contemporary work by female composers Elena Langer, Roxanna Panufnik and Josephine Stephenson, the gala promises to be a spectacular event showcasing nearly 40 much-loved soloists, from rising-stars to the stars themselves.
Conductors include: Jessica Cottis (Gala Music Director), Alice Farnham, Sonia Ben Santamaria, Susannah Wapshott
Directors include: Lucy Bradley, Poppy Burton-Morgan, Daisy Evans, Karen Gillingham, Sophie Gilpin (SWAP’ra co-founder), Francesca Gilpin, Ella Marchment (SWAP’ra co-founder), Ruth Mariner, Robin Norton-Hale
Singers include**: Rosie Aldridge, Giselle Allen, Jeni Bern, Mary Bevan, Katie Bird, Lee Bisset, Rebecca Bottone, Katie Bray, Katherine Broderick, Rhonda Browne, Rebecca Caine, Catherine Carby, Emma Carrington, Sarah Castle, Fleur de Bray, Anna Devin, Carolyn Dobbin, Anne Sophie Duprels, Jennifer France, Nazan Fikret, Catherine Hopper, Yvonne Howard, Jennifer Johnston, Gaynor Keeble, Gillian Keith, Fiona Kimm, Janis Kelly, Rhian Lois, Caroline Macphie, Diana Montague, Anna Patalong (SWAP’ra co-founder), Madeleine Pierard (SWAP’ra co-founder), Samantha Price, Gillian Ramm, Meeta Raval, Amanda Roocroft, Lucy Schaufer, Helen Sherman, Angela Simkin, Sarah Tynan (SWAP’ra patron), Kitty Whately (SWAP’ra co-founder), Catherine Wyn Rogers.
Here at Entertainment Views, I was bowled over by such a brilliant idea, this charity is such an innovative initiative. Many of you may know that I am a working mum, I work within the arts but also for the NHS. I was lucky to be able to return to my old job with a local NHS Trust following maternity leave and on a part-time, job-share basis. Although in the long-run I felt that childcare ‘issues’ forced my hand and had me seeking employment elsewhere – there’s no denying that I could have stayed in a job share, in a job that I had loved doing for seven years prior to becoming a mum. Everybody should be entitled to such a flexible opportunity.
Entertainment Views were delighted to chat with one of the Founders, Anna Patalong, about the Gala at Opera Holland Park on 21st July 2018.
Thank you for your time, Anna, tell me about SWAPra and where the idea originated from.
SWAP’ra is all about building a supportive community for women and parents in the opera world. We’re starting a conversation, raising awareness and creating positive change to allow opera careers flourish.
We’re a volunteer group of female opera professionals – three singers, two directors and a conductor; and three of us have children – hence the idea for SWAP’ra emerged quite naturally, although that wasn’t the only catalyst.
It was exactly one week before the Weinstein story properly broke and I had just read an article by director Sophie Gilpin (SWAP’ra co-founder) detailing some of the shocking disparities that still exist today between the number of top jobs held by male and female professionals in our industry. This, coupled with several practical ideas that were coming through a private Facebook forum (that sought to ease pressures on parents returning to work) gave me the idea to set up a platform that I hoped wold bring bright and talented women together, give us a stronger voice and see what suggestions we could come up with for an industry eager to be at the forefront of equality and opportunity.
I had only briefly met some of the members of our group before our first meeting, so was of course filled with some anxiety – will they think the same as me, are we capable of making this type of change, will people care? I suddenly felt a big weight of expectation and responsibility, but we did it, our first meeting! We’d started, we’d taken that first step and after discussing our different experiences and skills, I knew more than ever we were heading in the right direction.
What enticed you into a career in Opera?
Its a cliché, but I think opera is really something that chooses you rather than the other way around. I began as a pianist, but spent much of my youth obsessed with the theatre. I came to opera quite late, receiving my first singing lesson whilst at university. I’ve been hooked ever since!
How easy do you find juggling parenthood and a career in opera at the moment? Are you encountering any flexibility in the industry?
I am very fortunate to have the help and support of my family and partner (who is also an opera singer) to cover childcare and fill in when I can’t, but it’s still no walk in the park. The opera industry is equally demanding and rewarding (arguably part of its appeal) but it’s clear there are things that can be done, as in every industry, to support those who might struggle through parenthood.
At SWAP’ra, we recognise that support is not afforded to everyone, some professionals don’t have family flying out for babysitting duties, others face financial challenges or they’re simply not able to organise schedules around feeding times.
This is why SWAP’ra exists, to help ease these problems – and we believe our network (made up of supportive opera professionals) is crucially important in that effort. We hope it will generate workable ideas and create positive change from within our industry that will alleviate pressures on new parents and help maintain a talented pool of the highest quality opera professionals, no matter their parenting status.
Already we have encountered positive feedback from leading companies in the industry, who have not only been receptive to our aims, but have actioned them too. Opera Holland Park have this year put into place new systems of scheduling and pioneered our ‘Parent Pack’, inspiring other opera companies to follow suit. We cannot thank them all enough.
In our experience, opera companies often work as a ‘family’ and are always keen to help their artists wherever they can, greatly encouraging for all of us at SWAP’ra.
Yet, when speaking at a career development day at my old college (GSMD) recently, it is clear this is not a view widely understood in our industry. The main question posed to me by the majority of the female students (and some men) was ‘Will I be able to have a career and a family?’ Many women are reportedly still being told that they must choose.
We hope that by publicising the many inspiring women that are doing brilliantly (read their interviews on our website) and providing mentorship schemes in the future, we will be go some way to changing this outdated and restrictive narrative.
What’s your ideal ultimate outcome for all of your hard work with SWAP’ra?
I guess put simply, it’s to help remove all barriers that prevent women and parents achieving their full potential in opera and to arrive at a point where female conductors, composers, directors are no longer the exception to the rule.
What can we expect from the SWAP’ra Gala? Why should everyone buy a ticket and come to see it?
The SWAP’ra Gala will be the largest gathering of female operatic talent ever seen in one line-up, on one night, anywhere in the world.
We have huge stars lined up, including singers, conductors, directors, composers and musicians, to perform some of the most beautiful and breath-taking scenes from across the repertoire. Every single penny of the gala will go towards our future projects and we are eternally grateful to all the incredible artists and professionals that have supported our cause so far, giving their time and talent for free.
The Entertainment Views family will be there supporting such a worthy cause and can’t wait to see such a terrific line-up. Once again, thanks to Anna for her time, thanks should go to all of the amazing women who founded SWAP’ra, you’ll all be making such a difference.
Soprano, Eleanor Dennis arrived on my radar when I attended Three Choirs Festival at Worcester Cathedral. Her voice is so exquisite that it still resonates almost a year on. Since then I’ve been keeping an eye on her career and have thus far been unable to make the requisite journeys see her on stage. However, I am delighted to be seeing her next month when she appears in Three Choirs Festival again, in Hereford.
I’m delighted that she’s allowed me to chat to her about her career to date, so without further ado…
Thanks so much for talking to Entertainment Views, Eleanor. First of all, tell me what inspired you to pursue a career in Opera.
I grew up in a very musical household in Aberdeenshire. My parents were both involved with the Haddo House Choral and Operatic Society, who put fully staged operas on every year. They couldn’t always find a babysitter, so my brother and I usually ended up onstage in the big chorus scenes. My first operatic memory is being in the Peter Grimes opening chorus, aged about 4, and having the time of my life! From then on, opera just became the thing I loved.
Earlier this year you appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with ENO, tell me about the experience and what you enjoyed most about playing the role of Helena?
I absolutely loved being involved with this production – it’s so iconic. Helena is immense fun to play – she has some glorious music to sing, and is so feisty! I really enjoyed the physical challenge presented by this particular staging, I came offstage feeling like I’d done quite a workout!
Last year I saw you perform at 3 Choirs Festival at Worcester Cathedral, what were the challenges of singing Mendelssohn’s St Paul?
St Paul is quite unusual, in that the soprano role is mostly accompanied recitative, rather than arias. This can be tricky, as in recit, you’re responsible for conveying the story to the audience. I think the main challenge for me was making sure my text and intention were clear enough to get the message of the work across to the audience.
What do you find are the main differences between performing Oratorio and Opera? Do you have a preference?
They are two very different beasts, both as dramatic as each other, but in very different ways. With opera, you can really lose yourself in a character, with the costumes, set and distance from the audience. With oratorio, it feels more intimate to me, it’s just you in front of a chorus and orchestra, creating a piece of drama, with words and music alone. I love both equally – although you do get some wonderful frocks in opera!
You’re currently appearing in Cosi Fan Tutte, tell me about the production and the character you’re playing.
It’s a really beautiful period production, set in Naples in the 1790s, when the opera was written. I play Fiordiligi, one of two sisters, who have a very cruel trick played on them by their fiances… she goes through a real rollercoaster of emotions, and I’ve found it fascinating to play her. It helps that she has the most sublime music to sing!
What are your personal highlights in Cosi Fan Tutte?
My absolute favourite part of the opera is the duet Fiordiligi sings with Ferrando in act two, where she finally gives in to her feelings for him. It is so perfectly written – it conveys the tumultuous emotions so clearly. I also love singing her act two aria “per pieta” – for me, it’s Mozart’s finest soprano aria.
What are your ambitions for the future? Any roles you’re keen to play, in particular?
I’d love to take on some of Strauss’ great heroines – Arabella, Marschallin – and maybe even dip my toe into some Wagner… All in good time, though! My favourite opera is Peter Grimes, so I’d also really like to play Ellen Orford.
Who are your favourite composers and why?
I think Mozart will always be my favourite to listen to, and to sing, he had a real understanding of the human voice. I also love Britten, for his amazing word painting, and you can’t really beat Puccini when it comes to high-emotion arias.
What’s coming up for you next?
I’m heading to Madrid next week to do Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at the Auditorio Nacional de Musica, which I’m really looking forward to. It’ll also be great to head back to ENO next season, where I’m doing 1st Lady in Magic Flute.
Cosi Fan Tutte has completed its run as we go to press, however, as you can see there are plenty of opportunities coming up to see Eleanor performing. Another great big thank you to her for a superb interview.