Now 'here's a how d'y do'! We found ourselves onlookers
at the party, not in the right mood to share the inordinate pleasure
with which a satisfied audience and our broadsheet colleagues (1
took in this revival of ENO's The Mikado.
There are possible clues in their reviews to why that was: it is all
to do with shared experiences and history - 1885, 1986 and, in 2001,
back to the 1930s. It is one of those time-travelling shows in which
period(s) sense and familiarity with the caricatured characters and
their quirks are central to enjoyment, as is knowing what will come
Probably we were among a minority at The Coliseum who
had not previously seen Jonathan Miller's 'ground-breaking' 1986
production, one of those which had swept away ossified D'Oyly Carte
tradition and created its own. ENO has made a speciality of G&S
operetta (with spoken dialogue). Iolanthe had been one of the
first to be given new treatment after copyright lapsed in the early
'60s; I enjoyed it hugely.
Gilbert's Japan had always been England, however
costumed. The Mikado is a one-joke operetta; located in
Gilbert's 'topsy-turveydom', in which everything means its precise opposite,
not nonsense but, like Aristophanes, 'sense upside down' (Sichel). It
is Good to watch in its opulent 1930's hotel setting - nostalgic for
some people, bleak times to remember for many others. The Stephen Lazaridis
set is one of those lavish sights (now usually non-affordable) which
stimulate nostalgia, and which used to draw applause as the curtain
went up, especially from older theatre goers. The extravagant costuming
is likewise a reminder of the time when operettas were in their heyday.
But the bubble of commercial assurance for revival after revival might
burst, even though it has not yet done so for The Mousetrap,
another West End cult show close by The Coliseum, running on and on,
year after year.
For a new audience, things started badly under Mark
Shanahan with the Overture, a pot-pourri of tunes played dully in a
darkened auditorium. If Jonathan Miller had returned to direct it personally
for the new Century, he might have let the lights remain up so that
we could - sacrilege! - chat until curtain-up (were the Victorians silent
as mice during Sullivan's overtures?) or - better - might have incorporated
some stage business in front of the curtain, equivalent to what one
gets in the latest opera and ballet DVDs. Having enthused to a sceptical
wife (not British born and bred!) about Sullivan's orchestration skills,
those were not in evidence this time round - was the ENO orchestra resting
on its laurels after giving their all to The
Rake? And - more sacrilege, so whisper it - from the middle of the
circle (fine for seeing) if you didn't know them, many of Gilbert's
words were lost, and no surtitles to help.
The singing was generally adequate, but not so memorable
as to demand individual mentions. We admired best Richard Suart's
Ko-Ko, whose traditional, topical 'little list' of contemporary celebrities
ripe for execution was commendably articulated and drew knowing laughs,
learn from one of the cognoscenti that he was overacting this year,
with overdone funny voices and consequent diminishing returns. We tried
hard, but laughed little - so best to move on to an extraordinary venture
mounted in Camberwell's South
London Art Gallery, which regularly (though too infrequently) hosts
unclassifiable contemporary musical events at the forefront of innovation.
Station House Opera is an international performance
company, which has toured its visionary work worldwide. Mare's
Nest is an amazing piece of illusionist theatre, combining
vigorous live action with full size video and film of its four principals,
and some other personages only appearing in a virtual space, another
world between two back to back screens.
No intelligible words and no singers in this 'opera',
in which the sound component is mainly percussive amplification of what
we watch, and less important than the web of visual mystery which entangles
us in this exploration of real and imaginary relationships between two
men and two women. The four people and their life-size video doubles
inhabit the real and imaginary, half-physical and half-virtual space,
often occupying both at once. Mare's Nest is described as being
'about double, triple and quadruple lives interacting in the complex,
augmented space where architecture and video meet'. The synchronisation
between live performers and their virtual companions (who may or may
not be the same people) is uncanny, and the technology absolutely stunning.
What it means remains elusive and confusing; each person
on stage has multiple existences, with different ideas about the others
and of who they really are themselves - notions of identity are the
central issue which challenge viewers' own certainties. You can only
see half of the action at one time, so the audience circulates around
the gallery, constantly moving to peer round the edges of the screens
to see what is happening the other side. Because of its complexity and
the impossibility of seeing everything, half price tickets are offered
for a return visit!
Indescribable in words, worth a long journey to experience
live, Mare's Nest which originated in Geneva, is at South London
Art Gallery until 22 December (book through email@example.com)
and moves on to Glasgow Tramway in March 2002.
Lastly, The Hackney Chronicles,
a real through-sung opera, and a true operatic milestone of significance
which cannot be overestimated. I Can Sing is a dual purpose education/music
project born of the Hackney Music Development Trust's aim is to enhance
the role of music in the education and cultural life of its people;
it was an element in a British history project at Lauriston Primary
If any composer holds up hope for the future of musical
theatre in this country it must be Jonathan Dove. Best known
for Flight at Glyndebourne, Palace
in the Sky at Hackney in late autumn 2000 was the most inspiriting
community opera I have ever encountered, and it must have played an
important part towards the restoration of the Hackney Empire and cultural
revitalisation of the area.
For his new opera, Jonathan Dove returned to work again
with that deprived London borough. Children helped create TheHackneyChronicles,
and will have learnt a great deal about theatre too in preparing for
its immaculate première presentation.
Some of the young singers were also responsible for stage management,
scene shifting, making props, PR, box office and front of house, all
done most professionally; with great dignity we were requested to remain
seated during scene changes and to switch off our mobiles.
Alasdair Middleton wrote a libretto of considerable
sophistication, and Jonathan Dove produced a characteristic score
which held attention with its musical quality and neither of them 'talked
down' to the youngsters. The Hackney Chronicles looks set to
have an enduring life, as does Britten's music for children.
Dove stretched his very young singers, who sang their
tricky choruses lustily and tackled numerous solo spots with admirable
confidence, introducing them to many operatic conventions on the way.
They were variously Anglo-Saxons defending the River Lea against Viking
invaders; thespians saving their threatened theatre by the Thames from
Puritan killjoys and lease-holding Profiteers; Victorian body-snatchers
supplying murdered victims for medical experiments (a macabre black-comedy
scherzo scene, close to the edge), and a last act set in an Underground
Shelter during the Blitz (that section alone might benefit from reconsideration
before its next production?). The demanding accompaniment was played
by Music Director Jonathan Gill on the school upright, with unflagging
energy and great accomplishment. Too many names to list; great credit
The afternoon premiere was an entirely gripping hour
and a quarter, and one which we were privileged to attend in the company
of Rodney Milnes of The Times and Tom
Sutcliffe, author of Believing in Opera (Faber &
Faber), our opera 'bible' about innovative approaches which have revolutionised
opera production. Opera for children has come a long way since the pioneering
work of Benjamin Britten, and Dove and Middleton have taken a heroic
step forward in entrusting everything on stage to children of primary
school age, with neither spoken text nor professional adult stiffening
The ambitious plans of HMDT
are for The Hackney Chronicles
to be produced (newly) in each of the Borough's 59 Primary Schools.
Its effect will resonate widely in Hackney and far beyond.
Peter Grahame Woolf
Background Press Release (abbreviated)
HACKNEY MUSIC DEVELOPMENT
TRUST Ė HMDT
I Can Sing! A Childrenís
Opera for Hackney
I Can Sing! represents
a new initiative for hmdt, involving students directly in the
process of creating a musical production. The programme enables a professional
artistic team to work in schools over a term-long residency and inspire
and direct the students to mount a 45-minute musical performance.
It is hmdtís intention
to commission this new work for the young peopleís repertoire and create
a production with a long lifetime, leaving a lasting legacy for students
and teachers to use music as a means of developing skills and creative
To commission a children's
opera for primary schools which will be performed, stage-managed, designed,
marketed and produced by the students on the school site with the aid
of a small professional team. The piece, The Hackney Chronicles
consists of four stories from Hackney's history from the Anglo-Saxon,
Elizabethan, Victorian and Second World War eras, periods chosen to
coincide with the Key Stage 2 curriculum. The project will involve working
with a newly created teacherís pack, which takes a multi-disciplinary
approach to the subject matter, encompassing the History, Geography,
Science, English, Maths and Music curricula. Throughout the term, students
will work on different aspects of the project with teachers and visiting
artists, culminating in performances for both parents and the rest of
The piece will be rehearsed
and performed in schools as a termís project using the pack with a team
of visiting artists and a school year group. hmdt will run a
minimum of 3 residencies of the project each school year, and the
project will go to all 59 Hackney primary schools during the productionís
lifetime. Every production will allow for individual elements of
design in order that each school can develop and have ownership of their
own performances. In essence, the result is an opera for children, by
Students will visit relevant
sites such as the Imperial War Museum, The Globe Theatre and the Ragged
School/Museum of Childhood, Museum of London. Partnerships with these
organisations means that the visits are especially designed for schools
participating in the hmdt project and include activities specifically
focused on areas covered in the piece.
A team of experienced professional
artists: Director, Music Director and Technical Director will work for
three weeks in school to produce the opera. Students will form a company
and audition for roles covering all aspects including performance, stage
management, sound, lighting, makeup, marketing and publicity. Performances
for the school and parents will be accompanied by an exhibition of all
the creative writing and design work produced as part of the project.
The Hackney Chronicles
has been written so that is reflects all aspects each period covered.
Students will gain an insight into the language and music of each era
as well as aspects of historical dress, lifestyle and behaviour.
IMPACT OF PROJECT
I Can Sing!
enables students to work side by side with professional musicians and
theatre artists, role models with whom they might otherwise not be in
contact, who will help them develop creative skills and physical and
emotional expression. The programme uses the vocabulary and language
of theatre to boost creativity and imagination, encouraging students
to learn the use of movement and voice to create drama on stage, develop
knowledge and skills in acting and directing, and explore the elements
of technology involved in the process of theatrical production. Each
element of the programme offers challenging personal and community goals
BACKGROUND TO I CAN
Hmdt director Adam Eisenberg
and Project Manager Tertia Sefton-Green devised the project based on
Adam's experiences of running an children's opera project whilst Director
of Education at San Diego Opera and Tertia's work with devisary and
creative projects and research into curriculum based projects. The decision
to focus on Hackney's history as the basis for the piece contributed
to its uniqueness. The commissioned piece is funded by the Paul Hamlyn
Jonathan Dove (composer)
and Alasdair Middleton (librettist) began work in Lauriston School in
September 2000 with a series of creative workshops to devise stories
for the piece and initiate musical ideas. Nearly all of the material
created and written by the Year 5 class in these workshops has been
incorporated into the finished work The Hackney Chronicles. In
July 2001 Jonathan and Sarah Alexander (director) worked with Lauriston
on the first draft to ensure that the piece was musically and dramatically
The teachers' pack of lesson
plans was then written to cover all the curriculum subjects by focusing
on the issues and ideas covered in the piece. It includes resources
such as local maps, newspapers and literature of the periods for comparative
THE HACKNEY CHRONICLES
After a Viking raid the
Anglo-Saxons mourn their destroyed village. A boy, Aelfric, tries to
rally them. They dismiss him as mad and set about bringing in the harvest
without which they will starve.
In the distance they hear
the Vikings returning and are terrified. On the Viking ship the norsemen
sing of their war-like ways. Panic stricken, the villagers don't know
which way to turn. They eventually decide to divert the river Lea and
make the Vikings sail past them. They set about building a dam. The
confused Vikings find themselves sailing further and further away from
The rejoicing villagers
begin to rebuild their village.
A play in the Theatre of
Shoreditch is coming to an end. The audience praises the actors and
Hackney in general. A group of Puritans denounce the Theatre and Hackney's
low moral standards.
The landlords of the Theatre
jealously speculate on the amount of money the actors must be making.
They decided not renew the actor's lease on the land and to keep the
The actors return to have
their new lease signed. The landlords refuse. The actors are thunderstruck.
The landlords rejoice.
During the night the actors
return and dismantle the entire theatre, taking it away to its new site
The next morning the landlords
are dismayed at the Theatre's disappearance. The Puritans rejoice. The
people of Hackney wonder what will be built on the empty ground.
Hackney is being plagued
by grave robbings and mysterious murders. A group of lazy body-snatchers
are murdering innocent passers-by at night and selling them to doctors
for scientific experiments.
Watched by mad Madge a
group of body-snatchers lure a seller of white mice to his death in
the Birdcage Inn. They hide the body in a well. The body is discovered.
The murderers are apprehended. As they are being led off to execution
the doctors beg for their bodies.
In an air-raid shelter
people of Hackney listen to the planes and bombs outside. They worry
about what's going on around them. Four girls think about their father
who is away fighting. They are starting to forget what he looks like.
A group of mother wonder whether they shouldn't have taken the opportunity
of evacuating their children. A boy thinks about America and bananas
and all the things he will do when the war is over. The raid finishes
and the people come out of the shelter. They survey the damage. They
start to clear up and rebuild their lives.