View from the rehearsal room

 

Royal Academy Opera’s new production of Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers opens on 3rd February at Hackney Empire. Conductor Gareth Hancock and Director Martin Duncan offer their perspectives on this hilarious classic and the challenges of performing it

 

Orphée aux enfers may be based on ancient Greek mythology, but there’s absolutely nothing dry or dusty about it. Indeed, it caused a scandal when it came out for its raucous humour, and it offers today’s audiences a feast of high-energy choreography and attractive melodies in a form with which they will be familiar. Director Martin Duncan (above right) says: ‘People who don’t know it will be surprised at how entertaining it is. It was Offenbach’s first full-length piece, an operetta — a precursor to the Gilbert and Sullivan operatic style, to the work of Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hammerstein, and ultimately to the modern musical.’

It was a huge success when it was first performed in 1858, as Duncan explains: ‘It was satirising the times ­­— social conditions, the government — as well as Classical French drama, and the original Gluck opera. It also makes fun of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, which up until then had been sacred, and treated in a very Classical way by opera. This is a French farce version, with Orpheus and Eurydice a married couple who can’t bear each other — each is having an affair on the side. At the time, it was shocking to put these Classical characters in such a farcical situation. We can’t quite reproduce that shock, but we’re left with a very entertaining piece.’

‘At the time, it was shocking to put these Classical characters in such a farcical situation. We can’t quite reproduce that shock, but we’re left with a very entertaining piece’

Royal Academy Opera’s production features two completely separate casts, which offers the maximum opportunities for our students, and also allows for two different interpretations, as Duncan says: ‘Among the singers there is a variety of styles, personality, nationality, stage knowledge and experience. Everyone has their own individual style, so we are tailoring each show to the different sets of people and their different chemistries.’

The songs here are sung in French, but the dialogue spoken in English, and while this makes it easy for audiences both to understand the action and enjoy the music, it presents special challenges for the students, as the conductor and Director of Royal Academy Opera Gareth Hancock (above left) explains: ‘French is a difficult language to sing because the essence of it is that it’s fluid. It doesn’t have big beats anywhere, while Offenbach’s music is very foursquare, with big downbeats. Singers want to land on them, but they have to learn to ignore the barlines and go with the stress of the text, otherwise it’s like going through a sentence giving all the wrong emphasis.’

Singers have to find this balance between expressing themselves and the demands of text and music, says Hancock: ‘The thing is to allow them freedom within the discipline of a framework. Many singers come with a free version, because that’s their interpretation, and then you have to rein that back to what’s on the page.’

Another challenge is to find the comedy, and for Hancock, this, too, is partly a musical issue: ‘You don’t just go, “This is the funny thing — boom.” It’s about how to travel from one funny word to another funny moment, and how you treat the funny space within the music. You have to have such a fluency with the language, even if you don’t speak it, to understand the rhythm of it, and then you can ignore the musical stresses.’

Duncan adds: ‘It’s hard to teach comic timing. It’s like having perfect pitch — you know if a piano is out of tune. When the comic rhythm of a line doesn’t work, it jars. It’s like doing the steeplechase — if you take off at the wrong time, you crash into the fence and don’t get the laugh. There’s also a give and take with the audience. It takes a long time to learn.’

‘There are many fantastic numbers, and they all have their place in the story. They all have a certain colour to them, and their musical pacing through the opera is very organic’

Everyone will recognise the famous ‘can-can’ — known here as the ‘Infernal Galop’, but there are other musical treats, says Hancock: ‘There are many fantastic numbers, and they all have their place in the story. They all have a certain colour to them, and their musical pacing through the opera is very organic.’ They are aided in this production by a brand new critical edition by Jean-Christophe Keck, published by Boosey and Hawkes.

Duncan describes his interpretation of the work as ‘Folies Bergère does Greek gods.’ He’s not trying to be controversial, though: ‘I’m just trying to do the piece as it’s written, for someone who’s never seen it before. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m not setting it in an abattoir!’

As for any snobbery there may be about Offenbach or operetta, both Hancock and Duncan are clear that light opera is a good thing for singers, audiences and venues alike. Hancock explains why: ‘It’s good for people who think they’re serious operatic singers to approach something lighter, and to find their own way of doing it. It’s much better than demarcating everything and saying, “I’m a musical theatre singer,” or “I’m an opera singer and I just do that.” These days it’s essential that there’s an acceptance of crossover.’ Duncan agrees: ‘The German opera houses do it all the time — My Fair Lady or West Side Story, alongside Tosca or Aida, on consecutive nights, and the chorus will be in both. I see no problem with this — I love it all.’

 

Orphée aux enfers runs from 3rd February until 6th February at Hackney Empire. Find out more about the cast listings for the 3rd and 5th, and for the 4th and 6th. Book here

 

Photo: Robert Workman