‘Directing an opera is like planning a gourmet meal’

‘Directing an opera is like planning a gourmet meal’

By Priya Singh | | 17 February, 2018
Philip Blake-Jones, artistic director of London Festival Opera.
Philip Blake - Jones, director of London Festival Opera, speaks to Priya Singh about the origins of opera, the maestros who popularised the form, and how he is preparing for his big Delhi show.

The London Festival Opera, which you direct, will be performing at the Navrasa Duende Global Carnival in Delhi later this month. Could you tell us more about the performance?

A. We are bringing our performance A Night at the Opera, which features some of the most celebrated arias and ensembles from the operas of the great Western classical music composers, including Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Bizet and Puccini.

Q. What are the qualities that make your performances stand out?

A. We are bringing an outstanding international cast of singers and instrumentalists from Italy, Germany, Portugal, the Republic of Korea and Ireland, as well as the UK. We have created a programme that is perfect for seasoned opera lovers but also one that is ideal for newcomers to opera. The audience may be surprised to learn that the singers will sometimes come down into the auditorium and serenade them in their seats. Audience interaction is an important element of our performances, as is humour and fun.

Q. Could you give us an insight into the importance of costumes in A Night at the Opera?

A. A Night at the Opera is a programme of pieces from many different operas and our costumes will be beautiful 19th-century evening dresses to create an added visual impact.

Q. What makes opera unique and different from other classical art forms?

A. Opera combines so many aspects of Western art: great music, a plot often based on a famous novel, a good script, set design and costumes, plus the thrill of the developed, virtuoso human voice. The effect is one of the most dramatic and entertaining of allart forms as it is a combination of so many.

Q. How do you think opera has evolved over the past few decades?

A. Over the last decades the exposure of opera has increased. The great Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti did much to spread the word and showed a larger audience that opera is a most wonderful entertainment and not something stuffy or elitist. His performance of “Nessun Dorma” at the (1990) World Cup was sensational. This development has increased further with the internet. It is now possible to watch great opera at the flick of a switch.

Q. How well is opera being received in different parts of the world?

A. We have recently taken opera to Hong Kong and Africa (where we had an audience of 5,000!), and the warm receptions were thrilling. We also have a show called “Opera Magic” to introduce children to opera—to sing to a group cheering children absolutely loving opera is one of the most gratifying feelings!

Q. What kind of challenges do you face when preparing for a performance?

A. The most important aspect is the cast and assembling the best group of singers and instrumentalists—this is the starting point. We then choose the programme that will best show off these performers. Everyone can then prepare well in advance and be ready for the performance.

“It can be daunting performing for a VIP audience such as a member of the Royal Family or a World Leader, but we are there to entertain them just like any other performance”

Q. Is planning a performance in India any different from doing so in other places?

A. No, not any significant difference from planning a performance anywhere. My main aim was to create a programme that could feature as many great opera composers as possible and expose the audience to their wonderful music.

Q. It has become fashionable these days to fuse one genre with another. But do you think this does justice to the original music? Would you be open to fusing opera with some other form?

A. I would support any fusion provided that the different genres do not compromise or distract from one another. We have worked with dancers in the past where they have performed with us adding an extra visual impact for the audience.

Q. You will be performing in India for the first time? What are your expectations?

A. It is exciting, getting everything ready for our first visit to Delhi and I know that all the cast share this anticipation. I have to trust, as always, in the great music of the Western classical composers. I can’t wait to share these masterpieces with the audience!

Q. What are the key elements that make a good opera performance great?

A. As I have said previously, the quality of the artistes is the most important element. Without them we can do nothing. After that, it is creating the right programme for the performance. I always say this is like planning a gourmet meal. One must think about the overall flow of the meal and provide a light starter, a sumptuous main course, a refreshing sorbet and a selection of outstanding deserts etc. Each course must complement the other and result in a delicious harmony!

Q. Today it has become an international form, but where and when exactly did opera originate?

A. Classical Western opera as we know it today began in Italy in the 16th century in Venice. It then spread to other parts of Europe rapidly. France and Germany developed their own styles of opera but for many, Italy is the land of opera. Italy has produced some of the greatest opera composers, including Rossini, Verdi and Puccini, as well as many great opera singers.

Q. What is a typical performance day like?

A. After a good night’s sleep, the cast will assemble in the morning or early afternoon at the venue for the crucial rehearsal to make sure the pieces are ready for the evening’s performance. Meanwhile the Wardrobe Supervisor will be preparing the costumes and wigs. We will perform the first part of A Night at the Opera in impressive 19th-century Victorian evening dresses and then change into glamorous contemporary evening dresses after the interval.

After a good meal (the artistes need to eat two hours before the performance to let their digestion settle), we will then change into our costumes, warm up our voices and all will be ready for A Night at the Opera!

Q. What is more nerve-wracking—performing in front of the royalty or performing in front of important political leaders?

A. It can be daunting, performing for a VIP audience, such as members of the royal family or for world leaders.  But we are there to entertain them just like any other performance. For us all members of our audiences are VIPs! We have performed for a very wide range of audiences—from a charity performance for the President of Malta to a private soiree for The Spice Girls. So we have a lot of experience. A particularly memorable occasion was performing for the former British Prime Minister, Sir John Major, at Chequers, his official country residence, where the Prince of Wales was a guest of honour.

For me, the most gratifying response is when someone who has never been to an opera before comes up to me at the end of the performance and enthusiastically says, “I didn’t know that I liked opera. Now I do!”


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