Post-production review on Playing Strephon

Playing the part of Strephon next to the excellent Lisa House as Phyllis.  Photo courtesy of Gale Foster.

I can’t help but think that White Horse Opera should do more comedies.  It brings out the best in both the performers and the audience.  My three favourite main opera productions with the company (not counting touring productions) have to be La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker), Orpheus in the Underworld and this production of Iolanthe. In each production the chorus was a key component and heavily involved.  Not only that, but thanks to the vision and management of Graham Billing and Chrissie Higgs each member of the chorus was an individual character.  For example in La Sonnambula each performer was encouraged to create their own character quirks and decide what their role was in the town.  In Orpheus each chorus member was a particular god and then a party-goer in the underworld.  Finally in Iolanthe, both male and female choruses were customised.  For the female fey, their magic wands were all different as were their outfits.  The male lords had very different costumes to each other and some brandished wine glasses, trumpets and even a hunting rifle!

I believe this gave each performer more buy-in to their parts which in turn provided more energy on stage.  Being able to feed off this energy and react to it gave both the principles and the audience is why the show was a success and received so much positive feedback.  The other reason for its success was Roland Melia’s orchestra.  The Musical Director stripped the original orchestra by half to just include a flute, violin, keyboard, cello, clarinet, percussion, oboe and trumpet.  Any parts not being played by the other parts, the very talented Tony James was asked to fill in on the keyboards.  This had the advantage of not only sounding great, but it meant that the singers on stage could be clearly heard.  This of couse wouldn’t work if the musicians weren’t of a very high standard.  Fortunately, Roland managed to find very talented musicians for these parts.

For Strephon, playing the role straight and with conviction is what worked for me.  Thanks to the reactions and energy of the ensemble it was a treat of a role to play!

 

The cast of Iolanthe with Matt Dauncey as Lord Mountararat.

Playing Strephon

This week, I have the pleasure of performing with White Horse Opera in Market Lavington School, outside of Devizes in Wiltshire.  The group are performing Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, or The Peer and the Peri. First performed in 1882, the story is of a fairy who married a mortal and what then happens when fairy law and the law of Victorian Britain clash.  It is all good fun and happily lampoons the House of Lords.

Into this arena comes Strephon, who is the offspring of the aforementioned peer and peri marriage. Because of this he is both half a fairy and half a mortal, which produces its own unique blend of difficulties.

So what is needed in preparing for the role of Strephon?

The quick answer here is a sense of humour, a lyrical baritone voice and a good costume.  He is an Arcadian shepherd (essentially he is from an idyllic pastoral setting) who is in love with the Lord Chancellor’s ward, Phyllis. Character-wise he is the romantic male lead as part of the ‘how will they get together?’ section of the plot.

The not-so-secret trick of playing Strephon seems to be to play him straight.  He is an instrument of comedy in the show.  His strange predicament of being half a fairy is an ongoing joke and he doesn’t seem to realise how shallow he and Phyllis appear. This culminates in the song ‘If we’re weak enough to tarry’ where the couple decide that they should marry as soon as possible in case they should change their minds afterwards.

It’s very silly and the music is very beautifully composed with some poignant moments as well as plenty of laughs.  If you are in the area, it should be a brilliant evening’s entertainment.  For more information visit:  http://www.whitehorseopera.co.uk/.

Playing Doctor Bartolo

A post-production review:  Opera with a pinch of improvisation!

Photo courtesy of Dajana Kovac.

It is said that the best way to move on from one project is to start another and that was certainly the case after performing in TITCo’s production of Into the Woods. With Tessitoura’s production of Barber of Seville I had a month to learn the lines and music for the part of Doctor Bartolo.  The production had its difficulties; for starters there are many difficult passages to sing, which at times (especially for the Count and Rosina) was the equivalent of doing vocal gymnastics.  The dialogue lines (replacing the recitative, or sung dialogue) were also adapted and completed with about a month to go.  Finally, the director also had to pull out of the production and so Harry (playing Don Basilio) took on the role of stage director. Thanks to his general direction and character tips the scenes took shape, but the performers still had room to contribute and suggest possible moves and expressions.

These difficulties actually brought out a freedom in the performers.  The best part of being involved in this show was seeing how my fellow performers and I managed to adapt to either someone not remembering a line or trying something different.  Couple that with three very different venues (2 churches and a medieval barn) and every performance was unique.  An example of this was when Sam, who played the Count, wanted to change the joke name he gives my character.  Rather than calling Doctor Bartolo ‘Barbaro’ (Italian for Barbarian) he went with ‘Fartolo’, which makes more sense to English audiences, and got a big laugh on the night!

The final example I will give was certainly not scripted but worked because of how the cast reacted to the situation.  My character is getting a shave. Brendan, playing the barber Figaro, has shaving foam at the ready and is motioning it slowly towards me like a parent would ‘train’ food into their child’s mouth. I reacted by leaning back in my chair… my plastic, basic chair… SNAP.  I hit the floor.  There is an uproar of laughter from the audience.  I, both as a performer and character slowly get up, bewildered, helped by Brendan.  I try to stay in character, blustering, knowing that if I don’t I won’t be able to stop laughing myself.  Meanwhile Rebecca playing Rosina has swiftly replaced the chair.  Finally the Musical Director announces we will go from a certain figure in the score, and we carried on.  Blatantly a gaff had occurred but it was handled beautifully by the cast and the audience loved it.

It was a pleasure to be involved in a production with such on-the-edge energy about it, with such a talented bunch of performers!

 

Playing Doctor Bartolo

This week, I will perform with Tessitoura, a Bristol-based opera company that performs in unique spaces with a small but very talented group of singers and musicians.  This project is Rossini’s masterpiece, The Barber of Seville (1816). It follows the fortunes of The Count Almaviva, Rosina, Doctor Bartolo, Don Basilio to name but a few.  Oh, and a certain barber called Figaro.  This very special opera was based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ French comedy Le Barbier de Seville (1775) and is the first of a trilogy, the second of which – The Marriage of Figaro – was famously adapted into an opera by Mozart (1786).

I play the main villain of the piece, or perhaps more truthfully fodder for the Count’s trickery and Figaro’s scheming.  He is a physician and Rosina’s guardian, but he has grander schemes in mind involving marriage and money. This role appears to be the exact opposite of Enrico in Donizetti’s Il Campanello di Notte (The Night Bell) in which I was a bugs bunny-esque rogue.  Now I am Elmer Fudd!

So what is needed in preparing for the role of the Doctor Bartolo?

The role certainly requires an ability to say things quickly, as with the pitter-patter song, A un dottor dell mia sorte.  Otherwise it requires a mix of comic timing and a hint of malevolence.  But mainly, it is a straight-role, being a yin to the Count’s yang.  If he is outrageous, be grounded, and when the Count is calm, then Doctor Bartolo will no doubt be pacing the stage, raging (again, think Bugs and Fudd).  He is also an older man so I need to modify my behaviour to suit that persona.  I even have a prop (a cane) and a bow tie!

It should be lots of fun. The cast is very talented and Rossini’s music, sublime!  If you are looking for something to do this weekend, then do consider coming along!  http://www.tessitoura.co.uk/  It will be performed in St Matthew’s Church in Kingsdown Bristol, St. Mary’s Church in Stoke Bishop Bristol and the medieval barn in Winterbourne.     It’s also in support of the Above and Beyond charity.

Playing the Baker

A post-production review

Performing the Baker with Teresa Bray as Baker’s Wife and Jemma Brown as the Witch.

The Invitation Theatre Company has completed the show run of Sondheim’s Into the Woods.  So, how did it go?

From an overall perspective I have to congratulate everyone involved on what has been a tremendous undertaking and has provided local audiences the opportunity to experience this fairy-tale extravaganza in the intimate setting of the Wharf Theatre. As it turns out, a Sondheim musical requires a lot of dedication both musically and dramatically and a lot of hard of hard work has gone into this production.  Then there’s the set, costumes, lighting and sound effects needed to make this fantasy realm come to life.

This production was a journey all of its own.  The director modified the script considerably, making cuts in order to reduce the running length of the show.  This worked but did mean that some plot or character elements were missing.  The cast was guilty of poor attendance thanks to holidays and other show commitments.  This meant there were perhaps only a handful of rehearsals when the entire cast was available before show week.  Another unexpected issue was that our young performer playing Jack could not legally perform the show for 6 nights in a row.  Luckily, a drama student who had previously performed the role was able to learn it in super-quick time.  Finally, this is a very challenging production musically.  Not only are the vocal lines repetitive but with subtle changes each time, some sections are rhythmically and melodically unpredictable.  For ensemble numbers such as the Act I Prologue and ‘Your Fault’ you really have to know everyone else’s part as well as your own.

How did the part of the Baker evolve? During the final rehearsals the director praised my energy during one scene. That stuck with me.  Playing an Everyman character doesn’t lend itself to putting on any particular character traits but it made sense to me to convey his emotions by engaging with them.  So if he is nervous, provide that nervous energy.  If he is joyful, express that joy.  So in a sense, he becomes a focussed version of me rather than a character of his own.

The Baker, like all the characters who venture into the woods, goes on a journey.  It was important, especially with script cuts, to really show changes in his mood or character during the scenes.  In short order, he starts off relatively content, but becomes nervous and cautious when he starts his journey into the woods.  When he starts retrieving items to make the witch’s potion he becomes emboldened.  This is an important change as the Baker’s Wife needs to see the changes in him by the time they sing the duet, ‘It Takes Two’.

In Act 2, the second journey into the woods turns far more serious.  Again, expressing the part with sincerity and energy are key.  The main change here is showing his dependence on his wife before then having to achieve things without her guiding hand. To quote the character:  “It was my wife who really helped.  I depended on her for everything”.  I really liked developing this relationship and made sure that during Act 1 and the first part of Act 2 he can be seen looking to her for reassurance or moral support.

It was a pleasure to perform such pieces as No-one is Alone, Your Fault and No More.  They are beautifully written songs and it was a treat working with my fellow performers to bring this to life.  Thanks to choreography we were set in our positions and could concentrate on expressing and vocalising the characters.

Verdict Into the Woods is deceptively difficult and requires a lot of hard work and focus to pull off. The Baker is no different in that sense. He requires attention throughout the show and doesn’t really have a lot of off-stage time.  For this reason I’m happy the run is over.  It has been a wonderful experience, one I’m delighted to have had, but now it’s time to leave the woods.

Playing the Baker

I first came across Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods when my girlfriend at that time (now my wife) was a student at the University of Bristol.  The University’s musical society was putting it on in the student union building.  The whole experience was new to me, from the venue to the musical to the composer.  This made the whole experience all the stranger but all the more appropriate because the show itself takes the audience and characters alike off the path and into the woods.

What I discovered that night was a mix of well-known fairy tales characters and plots combining with songs full of clever lyrics appropriate to those characters. Although all seemed wrapped up by the interval, the show then began to evolve into something quite different and unexpected from the usual storybook ending.  To quote the musical:

Into the woods, it’s always when You think, at last, you’re through and then, Into the woods you go again, To take another journey.

I was very excited when I heard that one of my regular groups, The Invitation Theatre Company (TITCo), was planning on producing Into the Woods and I was thrilled to be chosen to take on the role of the Baker.  It is a wonderful ensemble piece, with layers of meaning and character development that makes is quite unlike my previous projects of Bizet’s Carmen and Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds.

So what is needed in preparing for the role of the Baker?

The Baker and the Baker’s Wife is a fable created by James Lapine for this musical.  They are a typical suburban couple wanting to have a child of their own.  It’s through them that we meet the well-known characters of stories, such as Little Red Ridinghood, Jack (of beanstalk fame), Rapunzel and Cinderella.  Unlike these fairy tale characters, the Baker and his wife are relatable, as are their wishes of starting a family.

Character note number 1 – Do not make the character too eccentric; there are wolves, witches and princes for that!  The Baker is the antithesis of these strange surroundings.

As a lead character, he has issues but is not so very flawed as the likes of Sweeney Todd or to a lesser extent Billy Bigelow from Carousel.  The Baker’s issues are to do with having lost his parents when he was young.  From a broken past he is trying to do the best he can. Unfortunately he has become over-protective when it comes to his wife and very afraid when his immediate world is under threat.

Character note number 2 – The Baker has a lot of pride and control issues.

Perhaps because of his fear of the unknown and things outside of his control, the idea of being a father not only excites but also terrifies him.  This is surely in part due to his fragile family upbringing. There is also a major argument where he and the other characters blame each other for an unfortunate string of events.

Character note number 3 – The Baker does not deal well with new responsibilities.

The potential difficulty with the Baker is that he is in danger of not being very likeable and risks alienating himself from the audience.  Happily he does have redeeming qualities, such as his determination to do what’s right and some very caring moments with his wife and other characters.

Character note number 4 – Don’t forget to make him amiable and to smile now and again.  He is human, after all.

So in summary, the Baker is the Everyman character in a fantasy world.  He has issues, as we all do.  He has too much pride, is overly protective and shirks responsibility. But he also has a good heart and loves his family dearly.  His journeys into the woods change him and those around him and he grows as a person because of them.

Rehearsing the scenes with the TITCo crew has been great fun and I can’t wait to go into the woods in June.

TITCo’s production of Into the Woods is on at Devizes Wharf Theatre from 5-10th June 2017.

http://www.titco.org.uk/