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The Royal College of Music Benjamin Britten International Opera School: the art of nurturing tomorrow’s opera stars. (ED)


Much as I love recitals and orchestral concerts, there is nothing quite like a night at the opera to really fire one up with marvel and enthusiasm for the fact we still live in age when great performers are to be heard on the stage. Whilst some might look back fondly to a ‘golden age of singing’ I celebrate the present and look forward to the future. Why? Simple, because music is a living art form that has successive generations to carry it forward in performance. In recent days the international musical press has busied itself with comment over the new production of Tosca at Covent Garden. How could they have done away with Zeffirelli’s famed and classic production for that? Is Angela Gheorghiu the new Callas as Tosca? Obviously not. To compare may be inevitable but ultimately it is also a mistake: doing so can unreasonably block the chances of fully recognising qualities in the new. Nowhere, one can argue, does ‘the new’ matter more on several levels than in conservatoires and university music departments. These are the nurturing grounds of tomorrow’s stars.

London has long been blessed as a musical centre, but even many of those who enjoy the riches it offers listeners can miss what happens at the young professional level. (I refuse under any circumstances to use the words ‘student’ or ‘student level’, for this does scant justice to the highly professional performances to be enjoyed). For opera during recent seasons I have been drawn back with increasing frequency to one venue: the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music. This small theatre in South Kensington, cunningly buried behind the RCM’s brick facade, is one of London’s hidden gems.




The only custom built opera house to be built in London since the war, the Britten Theatre is the beating heart of the Benjamin Britten International Opera School, one of the foremost training centres for opera singers in the world. The staff and students form a tight-knit community in which the overall aims are clear: striving for the highest standards, professional advancement and the gaining of much needed experience. To this end the School mounts up to three fully staged productions a year, with staged scenes often performed at intervals in between. This is the face the public sees, but it is behind the closed doors at other times that much hard work is done.

It is notable that the School’s approach to teaching is one that builds on tradition. Previous alumni include the likes of Dame Joan Sutherland, Dame Gwyneth Jones and Sir Peter Pears. Current Prince Consort Professors of Singing are Sir Thomas Allen and Sarah Walker, who complement a teaching staff formed of international standard operatic artists, amongst whom the British tenor Neil Mackie, until recently Head of Vocal Studies, is perhaps most noteworthy. Mackie’s was a ‘hands on’ approach which paid enormous dividends both in the progress of the singers under his tutelage and the public perception of the Opera School. It is not just top ranking singers that give of their time and experience. Conductors (Sir Colin Davis and Jan Latham-Koenig, for example) and opera directors such as Paul Curran, Ian Judge and Jude Kelly regularly spend decent amounts of time in and around SW7. It was for the Benjamin Britten International Opera School in 2002 that Sir Thomas Allen made his acclaimed directorial debut, with Albert Herring.

 

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To give the impression that working towards a particular role or production is all that occupies the time of those who spend two years completing studies there would be misleading, even though the major assessment is founded upon contributions made to staged productions. Support in becoming a fully rounded professional is an integral part of the experience, to take them forward into careers with confidence after graduation.

Diversity of experience also seems key to the ongoing success of the School. A look back at the productions mounted since the School’s 2001 launch gives some indication of this:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (November 2001, barely some three months after the launch): Melanie Eskenazi, Seen and Heard’s London editor commented: “Overall the best production I have seen this year, since both direction and singing comfortably upstaged anything from either of our main houses.”

Oedipus Rex and Gianni Schicci (2002): The Metro, London’s free daily paper, effused “the vocal standard is awe-inspiringly high … a knockout evening of operatic brilliance.”

Die Zauberflöte (2003): Melanie Eskenazi commented that “one was spoilt for choice in terms of promising singers to note for future reference.”

The Turn of the Screw (2003): Melanie again: “Michael Rosewell united the varying strands of the small orchestra with great subtlety and experience.” I was also at a single performance of the run, with the ‘B’ cast, I recall. It’s more often than not normal practice to field two casts, who sing two performances each. Alas all too few of the press caught this cast. I felt Simona Mihai’s totally committed performance as the Governess to be the strongest sung and most vulnerably acted I had seen to that point, and it is still the case. A wonderful, if haunting, evening that made my spine freeze such was the emotional power of the performances.

Dialogues of the Carmelites and The Rape of Lucretia (2004)

Così fan tutte and Die Fledermaus (2005): Of the former I wrote in these pages, “Così fan tutte is a jewel of an opera, and this shone though due to the contributions of all concerned, confirming in the process some names to watch out for. Anna Leese for me headed this list.” Melanie found Die Fledermaus a “sheer joy, from start to finish”.



What is not mentioned here is that many current School participants are also to be heard performing at significant national or international venues with established orchestras and conductors. Earlier this year, for example, I was bowled over when I heard soprano Eliana Pretorian sing Mozart with the OSJ and John Lubbock at Cadogan Hall. From the intimate confines of the Britten Theatre many singers find their way with remarkable speed and ease onto international stages of importance. Some even make it over the road to the Royal Albert Hall and the Proms, which shows that a great artistic journey does not have to be long in distance terms too! Recent graduates include Sarah Connolly, Jonathan Lemalu, Camilla Tilling, Anna Leese, Gerald Finley, James Rutherford, Ana James and Lilli Paasikivi, to name but a few.


The BBIOS’s latest production will open shortly, a double bill no less that features both of Ravel’s operas: L’heure espagnole and L’enfant et les sortilèges. Both are brief masterpieces of the French twentieth-century repertoire, rich in melody and material, but for all their artistic merit they are scandalously under-performed professionally. Conservatoires take them on with relish, as L’enfant in particular contains a range of roles that are ideal for singers perfecting their art. Taking full advantage of the exclusive opportunity to sit in on a morning of rehearsals, I went along last week to observe some of the preparation and training that the young professional cast go through.

First stop, a crowded and busy rehearsal room, where conductor Michael Rosewell takes the assembled cast through the ending of L’enfant to the assured accompaniment of a student repiteteur . With minimal fuss, work begins at near enough performance tempos on picking up points from the previous day’s stage rehearsal that did not quite work. Missed entries here and there or questions of ensemble balance against the orchestra are dealt with. Rightly, Rosewell and the language coach emphasise clarity of text in combination with the musicality of its performance. In a house as intimate as the Britten Theatre every word can be heard from every seat. Moments of slight tension arise – one cast member struggles with his French accent on a particular line – questions fly, but never tempers. “Are you in character as trees?” they are asked at one point. The quick reply comes: “No we are under the influence of trees”. Opening night is a week away, but if there are tensions it’s hard to spot them in this convivial and focussed atmosphere.

After forty-five minutes or so everyone transfers to the theatre stage. I had been expecting a stage rehearsal of the L’enfant’s ending, but as can be so common the plan changed at the last minute. Director Jean-Claude Auvray, a man of great reputation and no stranger to BBIOS productions having done two double bills before, wanted a complete run-through of L’enfant to see how it worked with the lighting in case alterations needed to be made. Whilst everyone else readied themselves, Auvray ran through some details of stage movements with Patricia Orr, the soprano singing the role of L’enfant. With minimal set in place the run-through began, with the repetiteur accompanying again and Rosewell’s confident assistant conductor on the podium. From my vantage point in the stalls it goes remarkably smoothly, although some details still require work. Only on occasion did Auvray intervene in the stage action, and then just to make slight positional adjustments so characters are better lit. (It is rather tempting at this point to run through some notes I made about the individual singers in their roles, but this would pre-empt my forthcoming review of the first night.) Auvray’s comments at the end were brief and focussed, often to individuals. In itself this showed how much of a common understanding Auvray had reached with his cast, some of whom would return that afternoon for a stage rehearsal of L’heure espagnole. “It’s a work in progress…” one cast member tells me afterwards. With that I cannot disagree, but it should be added that it’s a work that is really coming together.

As I leave, Michael Rosewell comments that L’heure espagnole is a work that requires “real panache” in performance, and they’ll need it in some measure to bring this deceptively challenging work off. The Royal Opera stages L’heure espagnole next season under Antonio Pappano, yet for some London audiences it will be Rosewell and his young professionals that set the standard. That Covent Garden’s Music Director has been seen at Benjamin Britten International Opera School productions in the past means shows he takes them seriously. Productions of L’heure espagnole are rare enough; an imminent trip to South Kensington demands to be made.



Evan Dickerson

The Royal College of Music’s Benjamin Britten International Opera School present Ravel’s L’heure espagnole and L’enfant et les sortilèges at the Britten Theatre, Prince Consort Road on 24, 26, 28 and 30 June 2006 at 7.00pm. Box office: 020 7591 4314. Tickets £5, £15 and £25.

 


 



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)