Very nice to have a change of pace from the long desk hours of what fruite of immortality (more information on that here). This next month will be devoted to repetiteuring (playing piano for) the new opera Amy’s Last Dive, written by librettist Adam Strickson and composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad. It’s very nice to be working with Adam and Cheryl again. I’ve worked as performer with my trio caterwaul on Adam’s previous opera Green Angel (music by composer Lauren Redhead) and on my own song cycle Spitfire Irene, which Adam wrote the lyrics for. That song cycle was written for the project “As In Waking Dream” which was ran by Cheryl, and where I met her. In fact the character Irene in Spitfire Irene was based around the famous spitfire pilot Amy Johnson, and was performed in the Wingbeats festival in Bridlington, which has commissioned this opera.
Amy’s Last Dive is set in ‘modern times’ Kent (including requisite chav speak) and follows the story of Paula, a frustrated 24-year-old who comes across the ghost of Amy Johnson on the beach. I won’t spoil the ending but there is very much an echo of the ‘Commendatore’ of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in the nature of Amy’s appearance and how it affects Paula. The music follows a plethora of pastiche popular references from both modern culture (esp. drum and bass/dance music) and principally the music of the 1940s (Jazz, Swing, Latin, Waltz). I was also tasked with proof-reading half of the full score and found that well-hidden in the orchestral textures there are also quotes by people such as Lady Gaga and Tinie Tempah. It’s great fun to play and really interesting to see how Cheryl has absorbed all these influences and used them to some really impressive dramatic effects. The general effect reminds me of Thomas Adez’s Powder Her Face, at least in terms of contextual musical language (although Cheryl’s style and depth of language is far removed from that work).
Yesterday we started rehearsals in Leeds (3 weeks now until the first performance, with rehearsals every working day). The first couple of days have been extremely successful, to the point where we have burned through a large part of the score and left an hour early both days. This is largely down to the excellent singers, whom are both almost off-copy already (very early in the process in my experience).
Natalie Raybould plays Amy Johnson. Natalie is exceptionally professional and has an excellent sense of pitch. It’s clear that she has a great investment in the part which was bourne out on the first day in a lovely moment when we had to stop as the emotional content of a poignant section had made it difficult to sing without crying. A great compliment to Cheryl and Adam’s writing!
Rebecca Lea plays Paula and is a very characterful singer with a very powerful voice for someone with such a small frame. It’s the first time we’ve met and it’s very nice to get to know her.
To me the thing that is crucially making rehearsals really easy at the moment is that both singers have a) an impeccable sense of rhythm (a rare treat! Especially as there are a number of really difficult rhythmic passages) and b) learned their parts to the point where our main concerns have been just putting the parts together. It feels odd to be able to work on finer points at this stage and Adam has started to work on adding layers of drama to the scenes already.
The musical director is Jonathan Lo, a manchester RNCM graduate. He’s a charming man and excessively well prepared. We discovered today his most treasured possession, an automated pencil sharpener that he carries around with him everywhere he goes, as well as a number of coloured pencils. His score is peppered with very neat multi-coloured marks. His conducting is very orchestral in style and he has a confident, measured technique which is nice and easy to work with.
Adam Strickson I know now from our previous projects is a very interesting writer and director. He has a perceptive layered approach to both activities and is relatively hands-off in his directorial approach. I get the impression that as Adam has been involved in more of these projects (this is his third just for this festival, fourth including Green Angel) that his understanding of the music and of score reading has improved and his musical comments are perceptive, as are his dramatic notes in respect to he music, which are detailed and sensitive to the composer’s vision. It’s a pleasure to work with Adam again. He is truly an unselfish director and is very focussed on his task.
Well, early morning tomorrow again for the 3rd day of rehearsals, this time with “Jim”, Amy’s husband, played by tenor David Pissarro.
The opera will be performed in Leeds on the 28th June 7.30pm, 29th June 2pm and 7.30pm in The Workshop Theatre, University of Leeds. It will also be performed in Bridlington Spa on July 6th 1.30pm and 7.30pm. Wingbeats is a Cultural Olympiad funded project.