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Opera in english

The Stage. 12 April 2019

Does the old argument about the merits of opera in the original language versus in translation still need to be fought? It certainly isn’t going to find a solution. We have different versions of opera, and they happily exist side by side. But the boring old controversy still turns up pretty regularly.

Times and tastes change. As recently as the 1950s, Glyndebourne was the only opera house that performed in the original language. At every other company – including Covent Garden, Sadler’s Wells and Carl Rosa touring – singers, who were usually British, performed in English. However, the founding staff of Glyndebourne, in the 1930s, were refugees from Nazi Germany, and they regularly called upon international singers to come and spend the summer working in Sussex, so it became a natural home for work sung in its original language.

Today, opera here flourishes on myriad stages and screens, sung in the original language with surtitles, or in English. English National Opera sticks to the vernacular policy established by its founder, Lilian Baylis, while the other subsidised companies, the Royal Opera House, Opera North, Scottish Opera, Welsh National Opera and Opera Northern Ireland, generally sing the classic repertoire in its original language. But they sometimes perform in translation too. The Royal Opera House’s recent Monteverdi operas at the Round House, Shostakovich’s The Nose on its main stage and Handel’s Berenice, in the smaller Linbury Theatre, were all sung in English. 

The national houses are complemented by many smaller companies who perform in various venues – in English. Graham Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company is one, whose work is performed by professionals alongside untrained members of the local community. There is  Streetwise Opera, with professional and homeless performers, Music Theatre Wales, which tours UK premieres of contemporary works, The King’s Head in London – and others who keep pub opera alive and kicking with updated versions – Těte à těte, an experimental company that produces new commissions; there is even Silent Opera, heard on headphones. Opera in English is unlikely to be phased out. 

Others have moved towards using original language with surtitles, an easier option, and the purveyors of summer opera, Holland Park, Garsington, Grange Park and The Grange, all perform original librettos, but comedy with titles doesn’t ever work. Just as well there are very few funny operas. Hearing the original libretto has a particular flavour, you can usually recognise a few words and after all, no one needs to understand each and every word whatever language they are in.

Let’s remember that the words are written as much for the actor-singers as for the audience, who will never be able to make out all the words in ensembles anyway. A great example of this comes in Verdi’s Falstaff, that most brilliant of Shakespearean operas, where nine singers sing together, each with a different text explaining their separate points of view. 

If there used to be a problem with sung translations, it might have been because the words were old-fashioned and sounded clunky. A few decades ago, at my first visit to Carmen at Covent Garden, I heard: “Toreador now guard thee, toreador, toreador…/ Bear thou in mind when combat thee elates,/Two dark eyes fondly regard thee/ And love is your reward.”

Maybe slightly mannered English was acceptable then; now it isn’t. Now, when you go to the theatre and hear a play in translation, you don’t usually think about the translator behind the work, and few care to know who has written it. And yet it is hugely important in making the work flow.

We translators are chameleon-like writers who must match the original’s inflexion, sense, rhyme, clarity and singability. It was great to rewrite those lines I heard in Carmen so long ago: “Toreador be ready, toreador, toreador…./ And think of this before you draw your sword,/Two dark eyes watch you fight/And love is your reward.” 

Composers have always wanted audiences to understand the words. How could it be otherwise? Britten wanted his works translated for performances abroad; Mozart wrote The Magic Flute in German for a popular audience in Vienna, rather than for the `elite’ audience for his operas on Da Ponte’s Italian texts (Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così…). 

Italian composers of the 19th century including Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi all wrote operas to French texts for their Paris premieres, Verdi commissioned English translations of Otello and Falstaff for their London premieres, I have the Tosca translation (published by Ricordi) that my grandmother heard in London in 1905 on my desk, and even Wagner was certain that Lohengrin would go down in Australia best in English, though he didn’t of course go there. 

An opera translator must hear what’s on the page, and try to ensure that the new words – written to be sung and heard, not read or said – fit the music like a glove. This has to include stresses, rhymes, allowing for the singer’s needs – phrasing, breathing – and remembering the problems of the words `going over’ in a large space.  

It’s a major responsibility and rather challenging work, but a wonderful way to discover a great work of art. And eventually, in rehearsals, a librettist/translator becomes a collaborator in real time, no longer sitting alone with a pile of dictionaries, but working with the singers, director and conductor, and being inspired by them.

One must be ready to rewrite – even one syllable can make all the difference – and to be as responsible to the singers and the audience as to the composer and original librettist. The demands across the centuries of, say, Monteverdi’s or Puccini’s Italian, Rameau’s or Bizet’s French and Wagner’s unusual German, are all as unique as their music. 

Lyrics and texts for the musical theatre deserve to be heard and not read. But let’s decide that expediency should be the guide to using translation or not. The recent La Forza del Destino at the ROH, with a cast of international stars, could never have been in English. The words are vehicles for the music so, as long as opera is great musical theatre, anything goes. But when it is in English, maybe spare a thought for the writer who took it there. 

Opera’s new voices: 10 composers making overtures to greatness

The Guardian, 15 February 2016

The Opera Guide is the first opera reference book compiled solely for publication online. At last reference books can be kept up-to-date, and this concise version of my previous opera guides contains state-of-the-art information on the 100 composers whose operas are most often performed, along with 250 operas that are their best works. Starting with Monteverdi and Cavalli, it ranges all through the repertoire to Peter Maxwell Davies, Kaija Saariaho and Thomas Adès, who have all written new operatic works to be premiered this year.

I first realised the need for such a book in the early 80s. There was, then, Kobbé’s Complete Opera Book of 1976, with 109 composers, but Britten’s Death in Venice was as far as it went; but no one had yet covered Birtwistle or Maxwell Davies, who were writing operas, let alone Philip Glass who had written eight stage works by 1985. I wanted to know about a lot more and, with several brilliant advisers, set about commissioning specialist writers to cover hundreds more opera composers. Penguin published four editions between 1993 and 2005 – both The Viking Opera Guide and the New Penguin Opera Guide contained 850 composers. But now there are more to add and it’s startling to see how quickly the opera world has changed, which composers (according to Operabase) are most popular and which no longer are.

Of the 100 in this new concise book, more than 50% have flourished since 1900 and 18 of them – almost 20% – are living. As David Pountney points out in his feisty Foreword, opera is now more diverse than it has ever been in its 400-year history.

A few composers who were in the 2005 concise edition are omitted in The Opera Guide. Mark Adamo, Franco Alfano, Arrigo Boito, Ferruccio Busoni, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Douglas Moore, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann and Judith Weir have been relegated as their operas aren’t in the current hit parade. Most of these composers are mainly renowned for writing in other genres: Schubert and Schumann didn’t cut the mustard as opera composers, Boito was a better librettist (for Verdi et al) than a composer etc. But they will all be back; there is a plan to revise and update all the material for more eBooks containing 1,000 opera composers.

Here are ten who are in the new guide – and the work that made their name or brought them popularity – but whose works may still be unfamiliar even to seasoned opera buffs. All of them are still writing operas, though only two, Bolcom and Rihm, had when I began research for the Viking Opera Guide in 1985. The other eight hadn’t begun, but then neither had John Adams, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Thomas Adès, who are now among the most familiar of contemporary opera composers.

Gerald Barry (born 1952): The Importance of Being Earnest

Gerald Barry composed his first opera in the late 1980s, but his adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s comic masterpiece, first seen in 2011, established him as a composer whose quick-fire dialogue and manically allusive music can be genuinely comic – a rare skill in opera today.

George Benjamin (b. 1960): Written on Skin

One of the leading European composers of his generation long before he wrote his first opera, George Benjamin is a meticulous creator of refined sounds, whose music has acquired an extra expressive dimension since he began writing for the stage. His second opera, Written on Skin, premiered in 2012 and has already received more than 70 performances in major opera houses around the world.

Wiliam Bolcom (b. 1938): A View from the Bridge

Though he’s widely respected in the US as a versatile and eclectic composer and pianist, Wiliam Bolcom and his music aren’t yet well-known on this side of the Atlantic. Premiered in 1999, A View from the Bridge sticks closely to Arthur Miller’s play, perhaps partly because Miller was its co-librettist.

Jonathan Dove (b. 1959): The Adventures of Pinocchio

Jonathan Dove’s facility for writing operas has produced 25 stage works in 20 years so far – surely deserving an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. Flight, composed for Glyndebourne and set in an airport lounge, and The Adventures of Pinocchio, commissioned by Opera North, seem especially likely to become repertory works.

Detlev Glanert (b. 1960): Caligula

Detlev Glanert inherited from his teacher Hans Werner Henze an open-minded view of tradition and a wonderful flair for orchestral colour. Caligula, based on the terrifying play by Albert Camus, was the first of his full-length operas to be seen in Britain, when ENO staged it in 2012; his 13th opera, Solaris, received its world premiere that same summer.

Jake Heggie (b. 1961): Moby-Dick

With Dead Man Walking, first seen in 2000, Jake Heggie became the most popular opera composer of his generation in the US. His more recent operas, including Moby-Dick and Great Scott (of the Antarctic) also have emotive, easily accessible subjects and scores composed in a similar quasi-lyrical style.

Tobias Picker (b. 1954): Emmeline

The near Broadway set-piece style of Tobias Picker’s operas, starting with Emmeline in 1996, has proved enormously successful, especially in the US, while Fantastic Mr Fox, based upon Roald Dahl’s story has become a family favourite too.

Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952): Die Eroberung von Mexico

Arguably the leading European composer of his generation, Wolfgang Rihm’s vast output ranges across almost every conceivable musical genre. His operas have been equally wide ranging too – from the expressionist world of the early one-act Jakob Lenz, his most widely performed stage work, to the wordless experimentation of Séraphin, via the Artaud- inspired extremes of Die Eroberung von Mexico (The Conquest of Mexico).

Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952): L’Amour de Loin

Kaija Saariaho’s early music was much admired for the refinement and elegance of its sound world, which often made use of electronics. But when she began composing operas, her style became much more direct and harmonically clear; her latest stage work will receive its premiere in Amsterdam in March, though so far only her first opera, L’Amour de Loin has been fully staged in the UK.

Salvatore Sciarrino (b. 1947): Luci mie Traditrici

No opera composer working today has a more distinctive sound world than Salvatore Sciarrino, with his use of harmonics, key clicks and instrumental extremes, as well as vast spectrum of vocal effects. He often approaches his subjects, which have included Lohengrin and, in Luci mie traditrici, the life of the wife-murderer/composer Gesualdo, from an ironic and often humorous perspective.

LARGO AL FACTOTUM – The Translator

LARGO AL FACTOTUM – The Translator

I never expected to work in opera, though I first saw one in 1955 – performed in English at Covent Garden. Then in 1985 when I was accompanying and teaching at the Guildhall, ENO urgently needed a new Don Giovanni translation as their proposed writer had been offered Les Mis. My then-husband, who was translating Greek poetry when we met, suggested we could do it and six sleepless weeks later there was a draft DG translation on Mark Elder’s desk. I started learning the craft from working on several shows with Mark, and I’ve continued to learn from directors, conductors and singers ever since; I’ve clocked up over 60 translations of librettos and a few other theatre and concert works too.

My first task is to get to know the piece as well as possible. Recordings run 24/7 at home and away, so a process of osmosis fixes the score in my head. I also make a literal translation of the libretto. With a challenge like Rameau, I type out the ancient French text just to try to get the libretto into my head, pedantic I know, but useful. Eventually the translation begins to emerge, kind-of somersaulting out into English; I try to echo the original as closely as possible and make the vocal lines fit like a glove. The most important advice I’d give to a wannabe translator is to remember you are writing words to be heard, not read. And those words must work for the singers and the production as well as ‘going over’ clearly and fluently to the audience without bumps or colloquialisms; they may have an intricate rhyme scheme too… It’s even more important to be a musician than to be a linguist; you must hear what you see in the score.

Working closely with so many great directors and conductors – and composers too – has been wonderful. In rehearsals I love to be there in the corner, watching a new production emerge, listening to how the words sound and tweaking them for the singers if something could be improved, which it often can. And singers often have the best ideas; I feel quite guilty about adopting those into my work but I’m grateful to every one of them. Their artistry – not to mention energy, patience and good-humour – never ceases to astound me.

There shouldn’t be, but there always will be controversy around performing opera in English versus the original. Curiously, listeners only complain when they can’t hear English words, in other languages they don’t listen in the same way. I think both can work well and I’m happy to see that Covent Garden, WNO and Opera North are regularly producing shows in English as well as the original these days. My preference – as in the spoken theatre – has always been for the direct communication of our own language, especially with English-speaking singer/actors. But I may be biased.

The Birth of the Third

This article was commissioned by Boosey & Hawkes for publication in their annual pocket Music Diary for 1996. AH

The Birth of the Third

29th September 1946 was a major milestone in the evolution of what we now know as radio 3. On that day a new, literally third, network started broadcasting at 6.00 pm and ran until midnight. Before then the existing BBC networks, the Home Service (now radio 4) and the Light Programme (radios 1 & 2) had included plenty of music, the first Director-General, Lord Reith, believing that culture should be programmed side-by-side with more popular entertainment.

Indeed, there had been ‘good’ music broadcasts from the very beginning. In 1922, one of the first to be invited to the studio was the tenor Lauritz Melchior. As he thought that the louder he sang the further his voice would carry – perhaps even to his native Denmark – his first note shattered the microphone and shut down the generator. The first live relay was in 1923 – of act I of The Magic Flute from Covent Garden, in 1927 Reith arranged with Sir Henry Wood to broadcast the proms on radio and in 1930 the BBC Symphony Orchestra was founded with Sir Adrian Boult in the dual role of principal conductor and BBC Music Director. Music on radio has thrived from the start.

That network which opened in 1946 as the Third Programme was the brain-child, some said the love-child, of Sir William Haley, the second Director-General of the BBC. His dream – which came true – was for an on-air space with no fixed framework, unlike the other two networks which had set times for news and other regular programmes. It began somewhat tongue-in-cheek, with one of the ‘How to…’ satirical series by Stephen Potter and Joyce Grenfell, ‘How to listen’ including `How Not To, How They Used To, and How You Must’. More seriously, the whole of Shaw’s play Man and Superman – lasting about five hours – was broadcast a few days later. Perhaps it’s hard to imagine it today, but in that first week of the Third people were reporting total suspension of normal life as they all gathered around the wireless: ‘the doorbell went, but we couldn’t get up to answer it’. The Third was an immediate success – in that post-war mood people were ravenous for Art.

With its 50-50 proportion of music and the spoken word, the Third provided cultural nourishment to a whole generation. To such luminaries as Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Harold Pinter and Sir Peter Hall – all from working-class families – and myriad others it was a brilliant vision of a hitherto unavailable artistic world, and as such it undoubtedly had an enormous influence – as Hall says in his memoirs: ‘I feasted on music and drama, nothing widened my horizons as much as the Third Programme. It was frequently demanding and difficult, but it challenged and I was stimulated and entertained’.

Sir William Glock, then a young critic and pianist and later Controller of Music, was sent on a talent-scouting tour of occupied Europe early in 1947, soon after the Third had opened. He was astonished by the sheer quality of what he found – Britain had heard no foreign musicians since before the war. An early head (later called controller) of the Third Programme and another fine pianist, was Étienne Amyot. He built valuable post-war bridges to world-class performers – and very soon the Radio Times offered star-studded casts. The critics wrote of a revolution in music as the Third brought in a vast wave of repertoire that wouldn’t otherwise have been heard. And it wasn’t only contemporary; the early music movement, then called pre-classical, began immediately largely thanks to the labours of Denis Stevens; the likes of Machaut, Dunstable and Monteverdi were also gracing the waves.

The famous features department was the distinguishing hallmark of the Third and the source of some of the BBC’s best-remembered programmes. Louis MacNeice, the literary polymath who had joined the BBC in 1940, had already written more than 70 features for them during the war. His most famous contribution was The Dark Tower, a fantasy-parable about a spiritual quest with music by Benjamin Britten, broadcast in 1946. Another imaginative producer, Douglas Cleverdon, commissioned Under Milk Wood from Dylan Thomas and, after a tortuous gestation during which the script inevitably got left in a pub, finally and famously managed to get it on air on 25th January 1954.

Talks, another prominent and Reithian feature of the network, were given ample space – the American critic, Lionel Trilling, once spoke for 65 minutes non-stop. In 1951, when Fred Hoyle announced his famous ‘steady state’ theory of the universe on the Third, listeners were stunned to hear that the creation didn’t involve God – the theory being based on an assumption of atheism – and despite Hoyle’s engaging delivery, didn’t take him very seriously because he had a Yorkshire accent. The ratings varied; Bernard Williams the philosopher, was told after his first broadcast in the 1950s that so few people had listened that it would have been cheaper to telephone each of the listeners individually.

Though things had changed somewhat since unseen men in evening dress read the news, Oxford accents were still de rigeur – and extremely so to Richard Baker when he joined the Third as an announcer in the 1950s – and the network seemed bound to cause satirical merriment if not downright criticism as ‘dons talking to dons’. But it was able to laugh at itself too as it did in Henry Reed’s series of satirical plays about a fictional composer called Dame Hilda Tablet. Not surprisingly she combines Dames Ethel Smyth and Elizabeth Lutyens (who almost sued) but also Britten, because she lived with a soprano called Elsa Strauss. Her first opera to be performed on the Third Programme was originally to be titled Milly Mudd, but it was prudently renamed Emily Butt before transmission.

In the mid-1950s, when the competition of ITV began, the BBC cut back radio; despite public outrage the Third lost one third of its air time. When Glock became Controller of Music in 1959 he refused to compromise standards despite limitations, and one of his brainwaves was the Thursday (later Tuesday) Invitation Concerts – these adventurously programmed events ran until the early 70s. The first, on 8th January 1960, offered Janacek’s Diary of a Man Who Disappeared (sung in English) and Berg’s Chamber Concerto with the weekly arts review, Comment, in the interval. The following week Yvonne Loriod gave a piano recital of music by Debussy and Messiaen. Incidentally that evening continued with typical Third Programme fare – the UK premiere of a radio monologue The Dark Valley by W.H. Auden with music by Matyas Seiber and the fifth in an early music series, Masters of the Late Renaissance, by the Deller Consort.

On 30th August 1964 the BBC, trying another way of parrying commercial competition, began to use the third network for music throughout the day on Sundays (the separate Third Programme took over in the evening as usual). Then from 12th December 1964 weekday mornings and Saturdays were filled with music too. Finally from 22nd March 1965, with the addition of music all afternoon, apart from sport on Saturday afternoons and one hour of further education – Study Session – on weekdays from 6.30, the new Music Programme ran through every day. It combined popular programmes from the Light Programme such as Bandstand and Your Midweek Choice with higher-brow favourites brought in from the Home Service such as Record Review, Talking About Music, This Week’s Composer and Music Magazine, with its immortal signature tune – Schubert’s An die Musik.

The Music Programme aimed to attract a large audience, but there was a definite uncertainty between the notion of ‘good’ music and what ‘good’ music actually was. There have always been sceptics to argue that music is not ‘wallpaper’; it must be listened to. In the 1920s Sit Thomas Beecham saw the growing popularity of broadcasting as a sign of moral decay in the British people. Cassandra-like he thundered, ‘We – the laziest nation in the world – are becoming comatose… people are having their music brought to them.’. Even Glock was uneasy about the ‘popular’ nature of the Music Programme (though a glance through the Radio Times for the 1960s is to glimpse an exciting catholic variety) and Britten too, in his 1964 Aspen award lecture, called the loudspeaker, despite its obvious usefulness, ‘the enemy of music… not part of true musical experience’.

In 1969 the McKinsey report Broadcasting in the 70s proposed that the evening Third Programme be abolished due to low audience figures. In fact the figures hadn’t changed much since 1946 – the maximum was never more than a quarter of a million and it quite often dropped below measurable levels. As a result Radio 3 began and the Third Programme faded away. John Drummond, appointed Controller of Music in 1985 and of Radio 3 in 1987 was the first to combine the task of running both the Music Programme – previously organised by the Home Service music department – with the former Third Programme.

Nicholas Kenyon, now controller of radio 3, sees today’s network as part of the continuing evolution and change that began in the 1920s and grew through the heady post-war days and all-day music in the 1960s to the radio 3 of 1970 and beyond. In this Third Programme 50th anniversary year some archive oldies will be re-run – reminders of the programmes that are some of the rather distant ancestors of today’s rather different cultural climate.

The late Humphrey Carpenter helped me with my research for this article. The history of the third network was the subject of a book by Humphrey: The Envy of the World – Fifty Years of the BBC Third Programme and Radio 3, which was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 1996. AH

Words for Music

This article appeared in MAGMA POETRY, issue 58, published in spring 2014


When we talk, or listen to speech, the process is involuntary and entirely natural. At the theatre, naturally we expect to be able to hear the words and make sense of what’s happening and, after all, audience comes from audire (meaning: to hear). Speech in a foreign language will demand more attention, and not all the words will be intelligible. For this reason plays are usually translated and, if a translation is fluent and apt, there is no need for the audience to be aware that they are hearing a translation.

In an opera house, things are entirely different, listening is a more complex process. Music drives the shows, and it’s the music, not the words, that usually sticks in the mind. Operas are `by’ their composers and very few librettists’ names are known, although Mozart was probably at his best with da Ponte, Sullivan didn’t add up to much without Gilbert, and Rodgers’ greatest hits were mostly to lyrics by Hammerstein. But the idea of words versus music has sometimes been worth discussing: Richard Strauss, in his anachronistic last opera, Capriccio, discussed the subject head-on, while Antonio Salieri even used the title Prima la musica… poi le parole… for a satirical operetta in which librettist and composer come to blows.

The words in opera provide the framework upon which the work is built. And because singing is a more complicated activity than speaking, the words of librettos and their translations must first of all be technically comfortable for the singer. Secondly, they must clearly `go over’ to the listeners in a large space – along with their music. Writing for opera and for singers is tricky – one is almost stepping through a metaphorical minefield – and quite a few operas have survived in spite of their awkward texts but, though that situation is far from ideal, that just proves the Prima la musica argument.

From the audience perspective, ‘Going to the opera’ may mean hearing a repertoire piece you assume you already know – La bohème, Carmen, Aida – and if not a quick look at a synopsis will remind you of the plot. It’s unlikely that you’ll hear all of the words, especially so if they’re not in your native language. There isn’t much time to consider them; too much is happening, so it’s best if they’re clear and direct. Some assume that surtitles now solve the problems, but they both add another dimension and cut corners. Comment is seldom made of the way they devalue both the work and the audience experience. They are seldom truly elegant, and drive a bulldozer through any skill – let alone detail, subtlety, shape and style – in the original text. Singers cannot communicate directly with an audience that is constantly reading something else, above the stage, and comedy is impossible; if the audience laughs, it’ll be at the titles and not the timing of the production. In opera, words are to be heard and not seen.

The theory, that theatre in the language of the audience communicates most directly, is supported by the fact that composers have always wanted their works to be performed in the language of their audience. Handel, living in London, wrote all his oratorios in English, to be sung by the people, wheras his operas, written for The Opera of the Nobility, are in Italian. Mozart’s Die Entführung and Die Zauberflöte were intentionally written for German speaking audiences (rather than upper-class audiences who expected Italian in the tradition of grand opera). Donizetti and Verdi wrote their Parisian commissions to French librettos – e.g. La fille du régimentand Les vêpres siciliennes – and Verdi himself commissioned translations of his Italian works when they were performed outside Italy. At Wagner’s instruction, the first Lohengrin in Australia was in English, and the greatest British opera composer,
Benjamin Britten, said: ‘I believe passionately in the intelligibility of the words – opera being a fusion of music, acting, painting and poetry, of which the last named
demands to be understood. Because I do not speak Italian, it was not until I heard Mozart and Verdi opera sung in English that I realized to the full their fabulous subtelty, wit and dramatic aptitude.I always encourage my works to be sung, abroad, in the vernacular, even pieces like the Spring Symphony and the em>Nocturne, which contain some of the greatest English poetry. Of course something is lost, but not a great deal when you substitute the gibberish which can result from singers using languages they do not understand and cannot pronounce’. (On Writing English Opera, 1960).

In the 1950s and ’60s opera was performed in English – except at Glyndebourne, many of whose staff came from ‘the continent’ after the war. I was taken to all kinds of musical shows by enthusiastic relatives – those were the days of Gilbert & Sullivan, My Fair Lady, with Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway), Flanders & Swann, Julian Slade’s Salad Days etc. There were so many memorable and singable lyrics that I loved, but those for opera did rather often seem clunky. It is a little surprising to think that this lyric for Papageno’s entrance in The Magic Flute passed muster for hundreds of performances: ‘A fowler bold in me you see, a man of mirth and minstrelsy’. And at Covent Garden I heard Carmen (and didn’t like it much) – these words still haunt me:

‘Toreador en garde, Toreador!
Bear thou in mind when combat thee elates,
Two dark eyes fondly regard thee
And love is your reward…’.

from the French:
‘Toréador, en garde! Toréador, Toréador!
Et songe bien, oui, songe en combattant
Qu’un oeil noir te regarde,
Et que l’amour t’attend…’.

I now recoil in horror to hear the inversion (line 2), the non-rhyme (lines 2 & 4), the awkward stress (line 2 on ‘-lates’) and the two disgraceful added syllables (line 3, on ‘ly re-‘) that require extra notes – not by Bizet!

Maybe this is a bit clearer…
‘Toreador be ready, Toreador!
And think of this before you draw your sword,
two dark eyes watch you fight
and love is your reward.’
(AH: 2001)

Take Che gelida manina – literally What an icy little hand – that familiar moment in act I of Puccini’s La bohème -, we use five words for seven syllables where the elegant Italian needs only three words. The old translation, Your tiny hand is frozen, isn’t forgotten. But to my ears (not eyes) that isn’t such a brilliant solution. The Italian, beautifully set by Puccini (he set words innately), has accents on cold and hand, – ge– and –ni-. The old English therefore accents ti– (tiny) and fro– (frozen) – so there’s no stress on hand – the most important word. Modern solutions such as ‘How cold this little hand is…’ or ‘This hand of yours is freezing’ aren’t perfect (perfection in translation is elusive) but at least they put the musical accents on the two important words and echo the original.

Here’s another example: this answer from Alice Ford to Falstaff’s saucy proposal is from the English translation commissioned by Verdi himself from William Beatty Kingston for the British premiere of Falstaff at Covent Garden in 1894. It works with the music but one can’t imagine it sung today (and there’s an extra syllable in line 2, on ‘never’).

‘On me all gauds would seem unsightly
To flaunt in silks I never propose.
I wear a kerchief knotted lightly
A simple girdle, a fragrant rose.’

And – about a century later – a newer version, still with a whiff of Shakespeare.

I know that precious jewels don’t suit me
And gold’s a power that I abhor,
I’ll wear this veil resolutely,
Perhaps a flower, I ask no more.

(AH: 1987)

And here’s the original:
Ogni più bel gioiel mi nuoce
e spregio il finto idolo d’or.
Mi basta un vel legato in croce,
un fregio al cinto e in testa un fior.

Boito took his cue from this short sentence in the play The Merry Wives of Windsor: ‘A plain kerchief, Sir John: my brows become nothing else; nor that well either.’ Extraordinary; but Boito understood what Verdi needed.

Opera translation is a practical skill in which elegance and poetry persistently get jumped off the top of the agenda. A lot else takes priority: being faithful to the flavour of the original libretto, in shape, sense, rhythm, stress, timbre (sound of the words); including vowels and phrasing, breathing opportunities that suit the singing voice and also attempts to echo the style of the original, not forgetting the important rhymes that give the sound a certain kind of energy. It’s best not to use closed vowels that a hard to sing, or colloquialisms (they will jump out and put fluency out of kilter). Words (night/knight, beech/beach) and expressions that might have a double meaning and anything that might prompt an audience to laugh at the wrong moment are no-go areas. As music itself is inexplicable in words, I can only say that if something poetic emerges from the melding of words and music that’s great, but the practicality of the work and its need for immediacy and clarity take priority. It’s a hard task, and the constant rhyming, usually a given in librettos up to the end of the 19th century, will make the task take twice as long as it otherwise might.

Great librettos are fairly unusual. Not much attention is usually paid to them, but comparing Figaro and Tosca to their sources is instructive. Beaumarchais’ play The Marriage of Figaro and Victorien Sardou’s Tosca are seldom performed now but comparison with their corresponding librettos shows how little, after a lot of cutting and much skilful reorganising, they correspond to the originals. There is hardly a quote from either in their librettos. Boito worked from an Italian translation of Shakespeare and Falstaff is gleaned from Henry IV, Parts I & II as well as The Merry Wives of Windsor; very few actual phrases words from the original sources are used which is just as well – for a British audience Shakespeare’s totemic language is perhaps too great and too demanding to be dominated by music.

A librettist has to face more or less the same responsibilities as a translator, though there is a more daunting level of freedom to face. A translator must know the work inside-out, text and music, before starting the job, but the librettist starts with a blank sheet and has to assist the composer too. As in writing a play or fiction, there comes a time when the characters take on a life of their own; then the source book is put back on the shelf and something individual takes over. Mozart and da Ponte’s Figaro is a different man to Beaumarchais’ hero. With very few exceptions – Büchner’s Wozzeck and Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande are the most famous examples – a libretto that is a ‘boiled-down’ play doesn’t usually cater for the special needs of opera.

Opera functions on myriad levels. Writing the words is a crucial part of the work’s creation, and creating something entirely different or new out of a marvellous (or less marvellous) source is the challenge. After the intellectual puzzle, the responsibility to the composer, performers and audiences – there is then likely to be further work in rehearsals, tailoring the piece with singers and conductors, directors etc. In the case of a new work, several years may elapse between conception and premiere. Hearing and watching the finished article can seem miraculous at the end of such a journey, but it’s only really gratifying if the audience has a good time. The responsibility for that is the composer’s, but the audience will most truly rewarded if they have heard and understood (some of) the words.

Mark Wigglesworth

Mark Wigglesworth

OPERA May 2003, pp.530-535

Mark Wigglesworth is happy that he’s been invited to conduct, not one but two productions, at Glyndebourne this summer – La Bohème and The Marriage of Figaro. This young (nearly 39) conductor began working with the world’s top orchestras as soon as he left college, and has a huge concert hall repertoire. Comparatively speaking his opera list is small and select (about ten major works so far), but the unanimous admiration heaped upon his recent performances at ENO and Covent Garden has marked a turning point in his career. After the itinerant apprentice years he seems ready for a quieter lifestyle, and what he wants to conduct more than anything else is opera.

He’ll be particularly pleased to be at Glyndebourne because the Sussex countryside is home to him. He grew up there and has stayed – he now lives in a remote village near the sea when he is not at his London pied à terre or conducting concerts abroad. And the working conditions at Glyndebourne will suit him down to the ground. At the moment he doesn’t have a regular job with an orchestra (though he has had several) but he relishes the opportunity to rehearse intensively, spend time with one group of singers and give several performances of the same work.

It seems that Wigglesworth always knew where he was going. ‘I used to go and play my piano pieces to Ward Swingle (the founder of the Swingle Singers) – a family friend – and he was the first person to suggest that I should conduct, which at the time I thought was a compliment, only now do I see that it maybe wasn’t… I can’t even remember how old I was, but I have always assumed that this is what I would do. The first operatic experience I remember was auditioning for one of the little foxes in The Cunning Little Vixen at Glyndebourne and being desperately upset when I didn’t get chosen. But the reward was a ticket to the dress rehearsal. I remember being painfully bored through La Voix Humaine (I was only 10) in the first half, but loving Vixen‘.

He went on to a boarding school, Bryanston, that encourages individuality and a certain ambition (its musical traditions seem to nurture tough conductors, his predecessors include Mark Elder and John Eliot Gardiner), which Wigglesworth thinks was ‘both a good and a bad thing, but it was great because music was something you did, not something you listened to. Other people’s performances were never as important as your own, though obviously they were much better’.

So it wasn’t until he went to study for a university degree in Manchester that he began to go to ‘other people’s’ concerts. ‘I didn’t go straight to music college. I think there’s no rush for a conductor, and the later you start the better. I went to hear the Hallé every week during Skrowaczewski’s first years – I sat in the front row for 50p -and that’s where I heard Beethoven’s symphonies for the first time. And though I wasn’t officially part of the Royal Northern College of Music, that pool of talented players was available’. He organised concerts, forming an orchestra called the Manchester Sinfonietta, and then went on to the Royal Academy in London, firstly to study with George Hurst, but also because the Academy was the only college that offered a three-year conducting course. ‘In my first year at the Academy I did one concert. In my last I did nearly twenty. I would sit by the door and ask people who came through to play for me. Some would just say no, but enough would play. I did whatever was possible’.

That’s rather a modest assessment of his Academy years. He also formed the Premiere Ensemble, so named because it included a new work in every concert and, in august 1989, when he had only just left the college, won the prestigious Kondrashin Conducting Competition, and was immediately catapulted into a brilliant but punishing international career.

But he talks much more animatedly of what now seems to have been the really important event at that time. Paul Daniel, then music director of Opera Factory, asked him, in 1991, to assist him on Don Giovanni and conduct some performances. ‘I learned an unbelievable amount from him and from [the director] David Freeman, and still believe that Opera Factory is, or rather was – alas, profoundly right in its approach, that opera is not about singing at all, but about expressing drama through the voice, that way round, not expressing the voice through the drama.’

Wigglesworth then took over as music director when Daniel went to Opera North, so his first intensive operatic experience was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with Opera Factory and his own Premiere Ensemble conducting The Rake’s Progress, Birtwistle’s Yan Tan Tethera and the revivals of Mozart’s Da Ponte operas. At that time he was also associate conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and went on to spend four years as music director of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (1996-2000). So, though he worked twice at WNO (Elektra in 1995, The Rake in 1996), it’s only in recent years that opera has again begun to assume the major role in his professional life and to occupy as much of his time as concerts. But with three stunning debuts in as many years, Glyndebourne in 2000 (Peter Grimes), ENO in 2001 (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) and last year Covent Garden (Die Meistersinger), all of them superlatively received and reviewed, he set off on a path which looks as straight as a roman road. He triumphed with the new Così at ENO last year now there’s Glyndebourne, followed by Così again, then… there will be more.

The recent triumphs, apart from the Così, were revivals, but Wigglesworth doesn’t really believe in the term. ‘David Freeman taught me that there is no such thing as a revival. You may use the same sets and the same costumes, but with different people singing, you start all over again.’ His approach to stage rehearsals is surprisingly hands-on, and several have confirmed that he’s terrific to work with as he comes to rehearsals so thoroughly prepared. Last year he cancelled all his engagements in order to spend several months preparing to conduct Die Meistersinger at short notice and, in January, knew precisely when he would be studying La Bohème. ‘The time issue is fundamental. I spend three or four months on one piece if you include the study – I’m doing 2+2+3 weeks’ preparation for La Bohème.

Glyndebourne will be his first Puccini experience – ‘I find the score, and the structure and the orchestration perfect’ – and he regards the opportunity to work on it with an orchestra (the London Philharmonic) that hasn’t played it since 1976 as ‘an amazing luxury, to rediscover the traditions for himself with them. I aspire to provide a unity within which the singers can be completely free. I would never make a singer do something that they didn’t believe in. It’s the same with a solo in an orchestra, if they must play it, they must believe in it. It would be easier to be a tyrant but if I can enable performances that are fulfilling for the people who are making the sound, they’ll be fulfilling for the audience as well.’

He has realised while spending more time doing opera that the human dimension of the theatre means more to him than the concert platform. ‘Concert life is quite solitary, you don’t have time to get to know people. But on the first night of an opera you’re not the only one that’s under pressure. I genuinely believe that an opera performance is more important than a symphony performance – it’s at least 50% longer, more work has gone into it, the public have bought their tickets in advance and invested more emotional commitment.’

The ENO Così was due to be ‘revived’ this autumn at the Barbican, while the renovation of the Coliseum is completed. But, for various reasons, only Wigglesworth and Andrew Shore (Don Alfonso) will be returning and there will be new sets and five new singers, cast from ENO’s young principals, and a new director who has directed only once before – the actor, Sam West. Concern that Così might be a hard one for an inexperienced opera director was dismissed; ‘It is and it isn’t, but once you know what you think about it it’s quite easy. I think it makes sense for a theatre director to begin with Mozart, It’s quite conversational and an awful lot easier than something like Tosca.’

And West won’t be alone. Wigglesworth firmly believes that, in an ideal world, director and conductor do the production together. ‘With a few exceptions, there is never a good reason to separate the music from the characterisation. To have music rehearsals at the beginning of the rehearsal process is alien to me. To have them towards the end is much more beneficial because by then everyone knows what the dramatic setting is, physically as well as emotionally. In Figaro how can you set the tempi of the Countess’s arias until you know how old the director, the singer and you believe she should be? I have no problem with the director making that decision but, if you have a good relationship, when he says something you disagree with, you will question it. I would love directors to come to my so-called music rehearsals and interrupt – I’ve no doubt that with Sam West that will be the case. It frustrates me when opera companies try to keep the conductor and the director apart – mainly for the traditional reasons – because they hate each other or because the conductor has disappeared to do a concert. Two minds working on something is more interesting than one, but it is hard for singers to take leadership from two people at once. They often say: “Oh I was just thinking about that high note”. But if they can’t respond to both then they should stick to concerts or plays.’

Wigglesworth is passionate about Mozart. `His tempi are so flexible and should be so responsive to characterisation, that a problem with the characterisation, or a rift between conductor and director will be more noticeable in Mozart than in anything else. The subtlety of the direction is not so crucial with certain other music, so for example in Elektra or Lady Macbeth, the director has a concept and the music plays itself in a way. If you had a slight disagreement in Shostakovich or Strauss, it’s not going to really affect your interpretation because the music has its own pulse.

It is quite surprising that all the operas Wigglesworth has conducted so far, with only two exceptions (Elektra in Wales, Die Meistersinger at Covent Garden), have been performed in translation. So he is keen to discuss opera in English and surtitles. ‘I think the arrival of surtitles is the greatest tragedy to hit opera since the death of Mozart, I really feel it that strongly. The brain can switch very quickly, but no one cannot read War and Peace and listen to Beethoven 7 simultaneously. Opera doesn’t have to be rationally understood all the time, the music affects you at a much higher level if you allow it to, but reading prevents that. It amazes me that so few opera companies are concerned about what makes opera special. It is far more elemental and more profound than a play with music, which is what surtitles are turning it into.’

I also hate surtitles because they deprive the singer of any creative subtlety in terms of timing, which goes for nothing if the audience are reading. In comedy, a singer may time a certain moment but the audience will laugh at a different moment. So singers and conductors are becoming lazy in identifying with the text. I’m convinced surtitles are wrong; if you don’t hear every word it doesn’t matter, but if you can’t hear more than 20% the singers and the conductor are to blame; the audience needs to relate to the text. Working in English is a compromise, but it’s nothing, nothing, compared to the other compromise, which is that the audience doesn’t have to listen. A good translation won’t be noticed until people realise how much part of the experience it was. If surtitles arrived at ENO I would, without hesitation, withdraw at 24 hours’ notice.’

So, were he running an opera house, what would he do? ‘Tragically, to get rid of titles is not an option in today’s world. I’d try to raise the money to do what the Met has done (put titles in the back of the seats…). At least I could then to try to persuade people that they can get a better experience by not switching them on.’

Given Wigglesworth’s passion, impeccable track record and profound commitment to opera, one would hope, and bet, that he’ll be running a major house in the fairly near future. His enthusiasm for texts in translation and ensemble work suggests that he would one day be an ideal music director for ENO. But, wherever he works, the conditions would have to be right; this fiercely single minded conductor knows exactly what he wants and what he won’t accept.

I wish I’d been there

I wish I’d been there

Friday 12 July 1946

Packed a hamper – potted-shrimp sandwiches (white sliced), gulls eggs (!) and ginger pop… Took the train to Lewes from Victoria station – we looked so odd on the platform in long dresses…. Benjamin Britten has written another opera and I was off to the first night… Gosh!!!

I remember post-war London as a drab place, grey and rationed; there were few treats. But in July 1946 Glyndebourne, having housed evacuees during the war, bravely reopened its 537-seat theatre with a new chamber opera, performed over two consecutive weeks by the newly-formed Glyndebourne English Opera Company.

Despite its new theatre and sophisticated facilities, today’s Glyndebourne has not lost its traditional ‘jizz’. But that occasion must have been uniquely exciting on myriad levels. The world premiere of a new opera (the first in a mostly-Mozart house), designs by John Piper, a cast including Peter Pears – familiar as Peter Grimes et al – and, making her stage debut, Kathleen Ferrier.

Straight after the premiere of Grimes in June 1945, its director – the Francophile Eric Crozier – suggested André Obey’s 1931 play Le viol de Lucrèce to Britten as a subject for his next opera. And when Britten first heard Ferrier (singing Messiah in Westminster Abbey in 1943), he had been struck by ‘the nobility and beauty of her presence, and by the warmth and deep range of her voice’. So he cast Ferrier in the title role, with Nancy Evans (later Mrs Eric Crozier), alternating performances. According to Lord Harewood: ‘Kathleen sang it fabulously but Nancy’s performance was sexier…’.

Ferrier was certainly daunted by The Rape of Lucretia, ‘Could I even walk on a stage without falling over my own rather large feet, not to mention having to sing at the same time – that is of course if i could ever learn the music!’ but soon ‘My mind was made up. I would learn that music if it was the last thing I did…’. The score, written in four months, was completed on 26 May and the company gathered on 10 June, so the four week rehearsal period must have been challenging, probably most of all for the inexperienced Ferrier. At the premiere, according to the opera’s librettist Ronald Duncan, ‘the composer stood at the back of the auditorium looking tense’ and ‘the audience response was polite but unaware’. The audience probably didn’t know what to think.

Though Ferrier died so long ago and so tragically (of breast cancer), she is still admired affectionately by musicians and public alike. Why? For the strikingly individual timbre of her voice, her innate musicianship and clear diction, the honest charm of her commitment and enthusiasm? Surely all of these… and as her centenary closes and Benjamin Britten’s begins, I still wish I had been at Glyndebourne on that summer evening in 1946.

On Opera Guides

From Where I Sit

Like any reference book, the New Penguin Opera Guide is of its time. Here in my study I have three editions of Grove: my grandmother’s copy of the third, 1929, edition; the 1954 (which my father found in a second-hand shop for my 18th birthday) and the 1980 New Grove which I worked on myself – amazingly I made the card index for it in 1970 when I was an impoverished student at the Guildhall. If you look up Rachmaninov in the 1929 (when he was still alive), there is a quite a complimentary biographical entry and the titles of his three operas are listed, yet in 1954 he is spelt ‘Rakhmaninov’ and is dismissed in little more than a column – his operas don’t even get a mention. Tastes change, and so do perspectives. Someone may find my book in a second-hand shop in 50 years’ time and say ‘Who’s Philip Glass? He got a lot of space in 2001’. Things have moved on even in the eight years since this book’s predecessor, The Viking Opera Guide was published.

When I originally started on the Viking project (in 1987) I contacted the best experts in their fields and was astonished when so many distinguished writers agreed to come on board; when you have David Cairns writing about Berlioz, Philip Gossett’s thoughts on Rossini and John Tyrrell on Janácek you feel safe to claim that the articles are definitive. l’m so grateful to those 100 or so people who wrote the book for me and it was a great learning curve too, to assemble the whole thing – a bit like a huge jigsaw puzzle and I have to say, it was the pieces of the ‘sky’ – the less prominent composers – who were the hardest to deal with.

For the Penguin edition I have left out a few whose works are unlikely or don’t deserve to be revived but I have added 80 new composers – most of them living, a few of them, perhaps, new to some readers, all of them indicative of the wider repertoire interests of the new edition. They include such diverse figures as Heinz Holliger, Simon Holt, Tobias Picker and Kaija Saariaho, and a few dead ones (Pauline Viardot and Charles-Marie Widor of toccata fame spring to mind) as well as incorporating several recent and rediscovered works.

I was determined to have all the 850 featured composers’ complete operatic works included and, as well as all the main repertoire composers, there is individual coverage for each opera by a great many others, such as Henze, Rameau, Rihm, Schoenberg, Weill, Zemlinsky. I’d like to think that you won’t find that depth of coverage in any other single-volume reference book in English. Even so, it’s still impossible to examine every opera by a composer like Donizetti, but for those that have been recently recorded I have added new entries – now you can read in detail about 52 of his operas (he actually wrote 68; it would be fun to include them all one day). Operas by other composers like Antonio Caldara, Antonio Draghi or Florian Leopold Gassmann are listed – but those less well-known figures will have to wait for research, recordings and/or performances to prove their eligibility for closer scrutiny – if and when there is another edition.

The other work I first found myself doing when embarking on the Viking Guide was translating opera. I had worked on a couple with my ex-husband, Anthony, who is a writer, but had then regarded myself primarily as an accompanist and teacher – I had been on the Guildhall staff since 1973. But Graham Vick’s invitation to translate Falstaff for his City of Birmingham Touring Opera was irresistible. I took a deep breath and spent four months puzzling over the score at the kitchen table. With all its double and triple rhymes, the nonet in the second Part of Act 1 took me about a fortnight – it was so challenging. I realize that it’s very unlikely that the audience will hear the words in the nonet, but I’m sure Verdi didn’t expect they would when he wrote it. But that is not the only point of translation. I feel that singers have a right to perform and the audience to listen in their own language because the communication is so much more direct that way. It’s foolish of audiences to say they can’t hear the words in English, but at least if it’s in English they might expect to. They never complain that they can’t hear the words when they are not in English – famously, in his operas, Richard Strauss didn’t expect his listeners to hear every word – opera, after all, has other ways of expressing meaning.

Since Falstaff, I have hardly stopped translating. That work has been conveniently complementary to the editing of an opera guide. If I get stuck with or weary of one, I can move from the kitchen to the study or vice-versa. And I love having a foot in both camps: dealing with writers and their work at home and working with opera companies at the coal face of the rehearsal room. Working on the Opera Guide can be a bit lonely at times – it’s live music that really keeps me going.

I’ve learnt everything from those I’ve worked with – what a privilege it’s been to discuss great works in detail with artists of the calibre of Colin Davis, Mark Elder, Charles Mackerras and Simon Rattle. Equally, I admire the singers and what they do so much. Some of my best memories are of adjusting a translation in response to clever suggestions from the likes of Ann Murray and Gerald Finley and watching the skills of great directors such as Tim Albery, David Alden, David McVicar and Calixto Bieito. And the apotheosis of it all came with writing a libretto – The Silver Tassie – for Mark-Anthony Turnage. He has said he chose me as I know how words work (the technical term is ‘go over’) in the opera house, and I suppose I ought to by now, though starting a new project always seems like an enormously daunting challenge.

So I count myself very lucky in myriad ways. I’m so grateful to my grandmother – a pianist and the second woman Fellow of the Royal College of Organists – who seated me firmly on this Steinway’s stool at the age of four, and to my parents for marinading me in music from the start – they took me to Covent Garden when I was only seven (which was perhaps a bit early for me). But from then on opera was a part of my life whether I liked it or not – I’m not sure I did then, but I certainly know I do now.

Gramophone, February 2002

Garden Opera in Kenya

Garden Opera in Kenya

Garden Opera perf at Fort Jesus, Mombasa 11.3.06

Day one: Heathrow: several huge trolleys glide towards me piled up with crates and boxes. The Garden Opera Company – seven singers, five players, two stage crew, one sound technician – and everything – microphones, sound desk, costumes, props (including the kitchen sink) – assembles for the night flight to Nairobi.

Garden Opera is a small scale touring company, known for its unstuffy approach and ambitious touring schedule that takes it to far-flung corners of the UK each summer. I first met them in 2001, when they performed my translation of L’elisir d’amore. Other works with them followed, including a commission to translate Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Intrigued by the reports of their two previous trips to Kenya with Carmen (the first opera production ever seen in Kenya) and Don Giovanni, I have jumped at the chance to join them on their third trip, with Cinderella.

Day two: The Stanley Hotel in Nairobi is redolent of old ‘Keenya’ with its Baden-Powell, Hemingway and Huxley rooms. The band and four soloists are rehearsing the Mozart Requiem with the Nairobi Orchestra and Music Society Choir; the rest of us are trying out the pool and the Tusker beer. The Company is here to take part in the music festival run by the Kijani Kenya Trust. Kijani, in Swahili, means ‘green shoots’ and this British-based charity, set up by the enterprising Lis Woods, raises money for HIV/AIDS work and environmental projects.

Day three: The festival opens to a capacity audience at All Saints Cathedral with local Kenyan music and the Mozart. At supper Peter Bridges and Martin Lloyd-Evans — the musical and artistic directors of Garden Opera
— enthuse about a music-theatre workshop they have been running for students from Kenyatta University.

Day four: Our bus goes north to Nanyuki, where I watch Peter rehearsing 50 school children aged 5-13 for their opera debut in Cinderella. They will sing the courtiers’ chorus and deliver invitations to the Prince’s ball.
The proceedings are attentively observed by the kindergarten class, immaculate in both behaviour and school uniform. We attend a concert by the London Adventist Chorale, also here to perform in the Festival at the
football stadium then, as a torrential storm begins, drive to Ol Pejeta where a tented camp has been specially constructed for Garden Opera to stay in. Sadly we find the rain has rendered it uninhabitable: the company huddles in one tent, but several [italics] dei ex machine [roman] appear and carry us away to the Sweetwaters Camp, which is paradise on earth.

Day five: Observed by a small parliament of giraffes, I sneak off on a dawn walk with a bird expert and a rifle-carrying ranger. After breakfast, Garden Opera’s chairman, David Walton, and I set off with Lis to the
cottage hospital at Nanyuki to visit the discreet VCT (Voluntary Counselling and Testing for HIV/AIDS) centre. Our return briefly halted by zebras crossing, we drive along the new road (signposted “OPERA”) to the Ol Pejeta performance venue where the company is to perform Cinderella. As we arrive, the stage (constructed for £150), is going up, Cinderella’s kitchen sink is ready. The chairman paints the set and the librettist irons the costumes. The performance goes without a hitch, the children are stunning (on only two rehearsals!) and the sound system is great. As the whole cast launches into: “But I have a dreadful feeling that an awesome storm is brewing…” in the great finale to Act I, when the mysterious beauty has just arrived at the ball, black clouds gather overhead, but the rain holds off. The Information Minister gives a speech, telling us he has seen opera in London and Berlin, but had much enjoyed not having to read a board above the stage to understand what was going on.

Day six: We are luxuriously accommodated at the Mount Kenya Safari Club, on the equator, founded by the actor William Holden (no relation). I hope their refurbishing plans don’t mean the old-fashioned charm will be swept away.

Day seven: In the garden of the original Forester’s house at the100 year old Nairobi Arboretum, adjoining the President’s residence, hundreds of school children arrive for the matinée, umbrellas raised to protect them against the sun. The show starts with the University students’ project, a 20-minute piece of music theatre about personal responses to AIDS. It is witty and unbearably moving; the natural musical and acting talent is remarkable. During Cinderella, a squabbling flock of speckled mousebirds almost upstages Prince Ramiro’s entrance.

Day eight: The company has a day off. We feast on grilled ostrich, camel and crocodile at the aptly names Carnivore Restaurant, then proceed to see rescued Rothschild’s giraffes and the David Sheldrick elephant orphanage on the edge of the National Park. Several members of the company are suddenly foster parents.

Day nine: A Mozart rehearsal resounds through the Grand Regency Hotel. The band then disappear to the Conservatoire to run master classes. They return overwhelmed by the utter enthusiasm amid utter privation of shared instruments, too few teachers and no one-to-one tuition. Tonight, in the colonial comfort of the Muthaiga country club (where Karen Blixen met Denys Finch Hatton), the Venezuelan pianist Elena Riu presents an eclectic programme at a fund-raising dinner in a marquee. Torrential rain defeats the canvas and forces both guests and the Lucia Alvarez Flamenco Group to complete the concert indoors.

Day ten: At the second, evening, performance at the Arboretum the environment minister and the Hon Charles Njonjo, formerly a member of Kenyatta’s cabinet, attend. Njonjo is helping to negotiate the lease from the government of the garden as there are plans to build a 1000-seat amphitheatre there, the first of its kind in Kenya, to be used for all kinds of public performance.

Day eleven: We fly to the coast — great views of snow-capped Kilimanjaro. On the beach the temperature soars above 40 degrees. There are to be two performances in Mombasa at Fort Jesus, the magnificent but crumbling 16th-century Portuguese fort in this Arabic town. As the sun sets the Garden Opera troupe perform their party pieces, popular arias and Mozart’s Piano Concerto K414; the music director coaxes a lyrical performance out of an electric keyboard.

Day twelve: The last Cinderella performance — and the last standing ovation, takes place as the muezzin intermittently calls the faithful to prayer. Les Baillie of Safaricom, Kenya’s largest mobile phone network,
announces that his company will support the construction of the amphitheatre at the Nairobi arboretum. All profits from performances there will go to the Kijani Trust.

Mark Elder


In mounting a new production of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, ENO is returning to one of the works that shaped the company’s profile soon after its move to the Coliseum from Sadler’s Wells nearly thirty years ago. And returning to conduct it is Mark Elder, ENO’s music director throughout the 1980s. This will be Elder’s third new production at the Coli since he left in 1993. His first guest appearance was for Lohengrin, the second was Tristan and Isolde, with David Alden, who will now direct The Damnation of Faust.

Elder has a very special affection for Berlioz’s music and hardly a year has passed when he hasn’t included Berlioz in his international concert repertoire. `He, Berlioz, has always been there for me. Beatrice and Benedict [which Elder conducted at ENO in 1990] was one of the operas we put on when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge in the late 60s. I was the repetiteur and the conductor’s assistant. I also played the bassoon in the orchestra, so I was in on the whole genesis of that production. My enjoyment of and involvement in opera started then, with that sense of being a part of the process. I shall never forget how thrilling it was to play in the middle of Berlioz’s particular sound world. Very soon after that I decided that Romeo and Juliet and The Damnation of Faust were two of the most important 19th century personal achievements. If I now had to pick fifteen outstanding works from that century, those two would be there.

From the moment Berlioz first encountered part I of Goethe’s great play, in Gérard de Nerval’s translation, he was hooked. In 1828-9 (at the age of 25) he set eight scenes from Faust. Though he published this piece, for soloists, chorus and orchestra, at his own expense as opus 1, he soon withdrew it thinking (as he says in his memoirs) the work was crudely and badly written – he rounded up all the copies he could find and destroyed them. Nearly twenty years later – still obsessed with the Goethe – he decided to attempt another Faust composition and, perhaps with hindsight, incorporated some of his earlier material into a new work. This four-part piece is not a `conventional’ opera in any sense, but rather a series of lyrical scenes, based loosely around the Faust story, and as such – it was successively called grand opera, concert opera, opera legend and finally dramatic legend – it is unique in the operatic canon.

The quixotic and mercurial nature of the work perhaps reflects the spirit in which it was composed – part of it, literally on the hoof. As he bowled along in his post chaise on a tour of Austria, Hungary, Bohemia and Silesia, Berlioz wrote the score with an ease he rarely experienced at any other time. The music flowed out of him as the ideas occured, regardless of where he happened to find himself; the choral refrain of the Peasant’s Dance was written by the light of gas-jet in a shop in Pesth, when he had lost his way.

The work was a dismal failure in Paris at its premiere in 1846, but was much better received abroad. After his first concert in Drury Lane, London in 1848, he wrote: `my music has caught these English audiences like fire on a trail of gunpowder. I had the very devil of a reception, I had to repeat two of the scenes from Faust and all the press notices were favourable’. Indeed, Faust was one of Berlioz’s favourites among his own works, but he couldn’t get it performed for economic reasons; a good performance needs a huge amount of chorus rehearsal, not to mention top-flight soloists and orchestra.

This Faust has a feel-good association for Elder, as he remembers how striking that 1969 ENO production (by Michael Geliot, conducted by Charles Mackerras) was. He remembers how avant-garde it seemed, with the use of film conjuring up extraordinary dream-like images. `It was strongly cast (with Raimund Herincx, Alberto Remedios and Janet Baker) and I saw it from very high up, a long way away, and there were two red setters in it.’ Although Elder has conducted the work in Australia and at the Proms, this will be the first time he has performed it in the theatre.

Elder is sure Berlioz did envisage Faust on the stage. `He certainly dreamt about it – he wanted to write an opera on the Romeo and Juliet story and told a friend that he was writing a four-act Faust opera. Though he was an innately theatrical composer, he knew his dream could never come true. So he had to be practical. After the disastrous premiere of Benvenuto Cellini, he reckoned that his chances of getting his music heard would be better if he tried to write within the confines of the concert hall. But I’m sure he didn’t compromise himself in what he wrote. He thought of the concert hall, but his responses to the words and the situations were theatrically motivated. This is why one can take the orchestra into the pit, because you immediately have the feeling that the music belongs there. And luckily for us, he eventually came back to the theatre with The Trojans and Beatrice and Benedict.

So the fact that The Damnation is not really an opera doesn’t matter a damn, especially in these days of such disparately conceived theatrical repertoire. `As with any operatic production whether it’s convincing in the theatre depends on the tone of the performance and whether the design, the production and the music-making come together in a well-balanced whole. You can describe it as a dream, because it moves so sharply, it changes mood as fast as the imagination can change, as quick as light, much faster than complicated theatrical scenery can change, so the lighting is literally very important if you do this work in the theatre. We’re going to present the four parts without an interval which gives a terrific momentum to what is a very short evening. Everyone has to be like chameleons, they’ll have to change the colour of what they do just like that!

Elder agrees that the orchestra will be in for a good time, rehearsing and performing this score. `More than any other composer of his generation, Berlioz treated the orchestra as a cauldron of colour. He stretched the ways in which orchestral sound could be broken down and made up again, and pushed the instruments beyond the frontiers of what was routine and comfortable. Indeed, he was capable of inventing new sounds, and of experimenting until he was sure he got what he dreamt of.

`Though it’s often the case in opera that crucial events of the story happen off-stage, this piece is the most extreme. It’s a series of pictures of aspiration and hope and failure and disillusionment. After all, the bare bones of the story are simple. Faust is an immensely learned, high-achieving man, but he feels unfulfilled and aspires to the happiness that eludes him. When Mephistopheles [the devil] suddenly appears and offers him the world, it’s an offer he can’t refuse. Mephistopheles then whisks him off to different localities, different atmospheres, to give him a chance before it’s too late to find the woman of his dreams, he offers him sensuality. But it’s all a chimera. You could say that it’s a piece about people being alone. These characters never really contact each other, nothing is ever fulfilled and a deep, Romantic yearning finally hits Faust when he pits himself against the whole of nature, before finally tumbling down as Mephistopheles’ slave.

`I think it’s a great operatic event, and it’s good to label it in that way. There are three wonderful singing-acting roles of great colour, magnitude and challenge, and the chorus has to be immensely flexible – happy and light, fleet of foot one moment, worshipping the next, drunk the next. It gives them a marvellous evening, with very thrilling music to sing, ending up in hell of course, with the men singing the nonsense language of the damned.

`Berlioz is a one-off, his phrase lengths are very elusive, in a way that Gounod’s or Mendelssohn’s phrase lengths are not. When you start at the beginning you must feel the whole span of the work right to the end. He was an eccentric, a visionary, like a French Tippett in a way. He wrote what came from his amazingly vivid, individual and uncompromising musical imagination without caring whether or not it fitted into prescribed conservatoire trained moulds. As a personality he was totally original. You have to be inside that eccentricity, you have to love it. That’s not a problem for me – I certainly do.’