So my most recent confirmed booking is a slightly unusual one. It’s a return to a previous job (thankfully, these are getting more and more frequent!), and one I found highly musically and personally congenial, leading the orchestra for Hashtag Opera Company. (By the way, if you follow the link, I’m in the cover photo, just to prove I’m not lying – but you can’t see much more of me than my nose alas … ) Last year, I led for their concert performance of Verdi’s early Giovanna d’Arco (Rochelle Hart, in the title role, is the main mover of the company); this March, the company, and several of the same musicians, return to the same venue for Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.
There’s a separate post to be written on Donizetti, a once aristocratic-household name who has practically disappeared from musical view while some of his peers continue to hold high status.
However, if you’ve followed the links to date, you may be wondering: What is Italian grand opera doing in a church in Clapham, unstaged, and in front of relatively budget audiences (less than £20 a ticket – not much more than a London chain cinema)? What’s the backstage situation here?
This requires some examination of opera as a subset of classical music. Opera singers have to be understood as a class somewhat apart, and opera as functioning alongside but distinct from concert classical music (even if not quite as much so as it stands alongside but at one remove from ‘conventional’ theatre, the West End musical, etc.).
Within that context then, the gap between conservatoire and Glyndebourne (or wherever) spotlight is rather huge. Relatively large numbers of singers graduate with talent, training and qualifications, only to find that there are hardly any openings within the choruses of large-budget professional companies, and the people taking them have already performed several leading roles publicly.
Necessity is the mother of invention, says the proverb (I really hope someone has at some point formed a Frank Zappa tribute act called The Necessities … ). Opera singers, finding they need experience and can’t get it working for someone else because they don’t have said experience, have taken to simply organising their own performances. It is more important to have publicly sung important roles than to have made money from doing so; but all the necessary people have to be got on board, a venue and a set of parts must be hired; the normal processes of a public performance are obligatory, regardless of likely pecuniary outcome. Given the hope that all such organisations will be transient (as the principal movers gain their coveted pro jobs), the fairest approach seems to be to split all the cash equally. Thus arrives the improbable sounding, but actually quite busy, London music underground subscene of the profit-share opera company.
I say ‘simply’. Of course organising even a concert performance of a full opera is anything but straightforward, especially using an orchestra (even a reduced one); and making enough of a profit that the sharers will come back and do the project a second time if the CV points aren’t essential to their career is several factors more difficult again. Hashtag are remarkable for still being here at their fourth (at least) performance, and showing signs of managing to be increasingly ambitious, rather than fading away in an unsurprising muddle of loss-making.
Hence why I’m trusting to the profitability of the current production. But of course, that means trusting to an audience turning up. So, please get it in your diaries now – for once, your ticket price really does go straight to the performers; and you won’t find many other ways of hearing full-length performed Donizetti in 21st-century London, I have to say!