OPERA TAKES OVER MONTGOMERY SCHOOL
Mid Wales Opera’s creative team have been sent back to school this week – swapping their usual cast and orchestra for an entire junior school in Montgomery.
Artistic Director Richard Studer, Music Director Jonathan Lyness and freelance singer/vocal coach Maria Jagusz have spent a week in Montgomery Church in Wales School – working with more than 40 children to design, write, costume and perform their very own opera from scratch.
Head teacher Judith Baker has been delighted with the results and she told us: “The children have been buzzing with this all week, they have been working across ages and in groups to share ideas and I have not seen one session where the children were not fully engaged.”
“Every child has been able to contribute and share their gifts. We are in the business of educating the whole person, and giving them access to working with these high quality professionals with such incredible experience in their field was something we could not afford to miss.”
The children’s production is based around the cartoons which inspired Janacek’s Opera “The Cunning Little Vixen” but in their version, their fox cub hero, Joey, travels through the Arctic and into space, meeting lovelorn killer whales, space cows and moon monkeys on his travels.
Teacher Nicky Steer has seen her classroom transformed into a stage, costume workshop and Director’s studio. She said: ”This has been an amazing opportunity for the children to work with a Music Director, Artistic Director and singer and they have been enthusiastic at every stage of the creative process.”
The week-long residency is funded through the Arts Council of Wales Creative Collaborations fund, and designed specifically to suit Montgomery school, addressing key areas of the curriculum including extended writing and creativity and encouraging team work across age groups with children aged 7-11 taking part.
General Manager Lydia Bassett told us: “Not many junior school children get the chance to make their own opera in a week – but that’s exactly what these children have done this week, and they have done a brilliant job.”
“We have been working with schools across Montgomeryshire for many years, but this is a whole new way of working for us and for the pupils. They have been able to develop a story, write songs and dialogue and create sets and costume from scratch in just a week with our staff working alongside them for the whole school day.”
A thoroughly entertaining shot of Mozartian optimism: Mid Wales Opera's Magic Flute reviewed by Richard Bratby: The Spectator
The Magic Flute
Mid Wales Opera, touring until 4 May
The backdrop is a hexagonal matrix, glowing in neon blue. Mist billows from the wings, and as a figure in a pink gas mask huddles in the foreground, a Victorian funeral party marches slowly across the stage. ‘Where am I?’ asks Tamino in the first scene of The Magic Flute and in Richard Studer’s new production for Mid Wales Opera, the answer seems to be the faintly eerie world of 1970s British sci-fi – an episode of Sapphire and Steel perhaps, or Tom Baker-era Doctor Who. Well, why not? Mozart and Schikaneder – whose libretto invokes Egyptian gods while specifying that Tamino should wear ‘Japanese hunting costume’ – clearly weren’t too fussed. I’ve seenThe Magic Flute staged as a world war one drama, a manga cartoon and a homage to Magritte. It works every time.
No, what’s most surprising here is that this production exists at all. In 2015 Mid Wales Opera – which had been touring small venues in both Wales and England since 1988 – ran into funding difficulties and went ominously quiet. That, it seemed, was that. MWO’s recent appointment of Studer and the conductor Jonathan Lyness as a new artistic leadership was the company’s first real vital sign in some time. These two have form, including a particularly raw and passionate Jenufa at Longborough last summer. And by the look of their new Flute, which opened on Friday night in Newtown, Mid Wales Opera isn’t merely off life-support: it’s back in the game and punching straight into the same league as English Touring Opera, a company whose only artistic compromises relate to the size of its venues.
The casting’s the key. These are youngish singers, but they all have credible CVs, and three performances would stand out in any production: Sion Goronwy’s imposing and sonorous Sarastro, Galina Averina’s vulnerable, eloquently-sung Pamina and – as the Queen of the Night – Samantha Hay, who’s sung this role for ETO and Welsh National Opera, and whose interpretation only seems to grow in haughty brilliance. William Wallace (Tamino) and Frederick Long (Papageno) had an enjoyably blokish comic rapport. Crucially, since there are no surtitles, they all enunciate the English text clearly and naturally. There’s no chorus either, but Lyness conducts his ten-piece orchestra with zest and intense expression – and for good measure, plays Papageno’s glockenspiel too, as Mozart himself did in 1791.
As for that production: thanks to some deft lighting, it doesn’t look bad, and Studer’s designs clearly delineate who’s on whose side (Monostatos in black feathers as a kind of anti-Papageno was a neat touch). The theatre was full, the laughter frequent and at the transcendent moment when Pamina steps forward to share Tamino’s ordeals and Mozart’s score brims over with dignity and compassion, I felt that essential, unmistakable pricking behind the eyes. If you’re within striking distance of Bangor, Aberystwyth, Pontardawe or Newport, go and see it. You won’t just receive a thoroughly entertaining shot of Mozartian optimism – you’ll be doing something positive for the future of British opera.
SMALL STAGES - a new idea for touring chamber opera
Devised by the new artistic team behind MWO, the Small Stages programme is designed to serve communities that MWO’s Main-Stage performances cannot reach, engaging and developing audiences for opera and keeping unusual repertoire alive and well across Wales.
The pilot tour features a newly created chamber version of William Walton’s comedy classic The Bear in November 2017 with three rural community hall performances close to MWO’s home venue of Hafren in Newtown before taking to the road for a further 12 performances.
Directed and designed by MWO’s Artistic Director Richard Studer, The Bear is performed by three singers and five musicians with no conductor, in a new performing edition by MWO’s Music Director Jonathan Lyness with permission from Oxford University Press and the William Walton Trust.
Written in 1967 and celebrating it’s 50th anniversary next year The Bear combines entertainment, comedy, parody and great tunes.
Based on Anton Chekhov’s play of the same name the opera tells the tale of a widow, Mme Popova, unendingly mourning the death of her husband until the arrival of the rough-hewn yet charismatic land agent, Smirnov (the “bear” of the title) demanding payment of debts. Passions run high and their sparring culminates in a duel during which the two appear to have fallen unexpectedly in love.
The Bear lasts one hour and is sung in English. Each performance will conclude with an informal presentation of operatic excerpts performed by both musicians and singers, tailor-made for each venue, with refreshments and the opportunity for informal discussion and chat with the performers.
MWO’s SMALL STAGES 2017 tour of The Bear is generously supported by The Foyle Foundation and The Ashley Family Foundation.
Jonathan Lyness says: “The Bear is a brilliant introduction for audiences new to opera and a fabulous opportunity for all music lovers to hear Walton’s great comedy classic; in its fiftieth anniversary year these chamber-scale performances are designed to have the widest possible appeal.”
Richard Studer writes: "What is exciting about this project is working with community venues to present professional opera in areas under represented by the traditional touring model at an accessible price (typically under £10) but also to give an opportunity for performers and audience to engage directly with each other in informal settings celebrating some of the great and sometimes neglected 20th century comic repertoire."
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