Cheyney as Colline in Opera 24/Darker Purpose Theatre’s La Boheme for the Grimeborn Opera Festival at the Arcola Theatre, Dalston. Photo: Robert Workman
I’m really looking forward to singing in the first performance of an updated La Boheme this week. Opera 24 and Darker Purpose Arts are bringing Puccini’s opera to the Grimeborn opera festival (at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, Hackney) from Tuesday.
La Boheme sitzprobe. Photo: Opera 24
Lewis Reynolds’ production uses a translation from John Farndon which places the drama – and its vernacular – in contemporary Dalston. I am singing the role of Colline, the bearded ‘philosopher’, a character for whom the markets of Hackney provide plenty of opportunity to find a coat and satisfy his love of books (and a kebab!).
The rehearsal process has been organic and collaborative. Together we’ve pursued the fun of the story of young people living and loving in the city; we’ve also tried to find the authenticity of the relationships and dramas in this contemporary situation, dusting off the quicksilver observation of Puccini’s score and punching new life into the music.
Nick Fletcher conducts a specially reduced arrangement of the score that is at once expedient for the Arcola but nonetheless sustains the richesse, tenderness and power of this much-loved opera. This is by no means, except by irony of its setting, a hackneyed production of La Boheme.
UPDATE (25/08/15): The production and performance was generally well-received and we were pleased to get a brief, four-star write-up in the Observer.
Photo: Donald Cooper
Edward Gardner’s final production as conductor of English National Opera, Tchaikovsky’s Queen Of Spades, has now opened at the Coliseum in London. Reviews have been positive, not least for the music, with most critics pointing towards the contribution of the chorus (prepared by Stephen Harris). I am singing as an extra chorister in this production by David Alden, my second with the company this season. My role in this expressionist production involves all manner of characters and costumes – including a big furry mouse’s head. Above all, it has been a tremendous privilege to watch and hear the highly-respected mezzo-soprano Dame Felicity Palmer at work. The production runs throughout June.
Cheyney Kent sings Sciarrone in MSO’s Tosca. Photo: Michael John White
Tomorrow at 4.30pm is the first in run of three performances of Puccini’s great operatic masterpiece Tosca given by Midsummer Opera. I have worked with this company on a few occasions in the past both as a cover and in small roles. This time I am singing another small part as Scarpia’s manservant Sciarrone who makes intermittent appearances in Act 2. John Upperton’s semi-staged production also has Sciarrone appearing throughout as a messenger/enforcer.
In addition, I am popping up around the building to play various extra items of percussion including canon, cymbals and goats’ bells. This is the ethic for this company where the enterprise works and thrives when everyone gets fully involved. Tickets are still available and are offered at a reduced rate if bought ahead online at wegottickets.com/location/1982
Without a doubt one of the most extravagant opera productions I have been involved in and it’s still ‘only’ a concert performance: Unsuk Chin’s 2007 opera Alice In Wonderland has just been performed in America and has been brought here to the Barbican for a one-off outing with the BBC. I am appearing with the BBC Singers as the chorus, dressed variously as businessmen, huntsmen and jurors.
The last few days of music rehearsals have given us a taste of Unsuk Chin’s texturally opulent score. Yesterday’s technical rehearsal revealed the ambition of Netia Jones’ staging. In the middle of this maelstrom of imagination, design and technical adventure there is a first-rate cast performing (by any standards) difficult music with elan and tremendous wit. The performance will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 11 July.
Philharmonia Voices in Irinia Brown’s staging of L’Enfant et les Sortileges, Photo via Philharmonia
Tonight I’m taking part in a special event as part of the Philharmonia’s City of Light: Paris 1900-1950 series at the Royal Festival Hall. I will be singing as, variously, a shepherd, a tree, a frog and a mathematically-challenged child in a semi-staged performance of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortileges. We have spent an intense rehearsal period working with choreographer Quinny Sacks (as well as Aidan Oliver, the chorus master of Philharmonia Voices) to offer appropriate movement in this short one-act music drama. The technology is available to make even a simple staging seem rather sophisticated – although we also have a sequence involving simple paper hats held on with elastic.
The music is glorious and, with Chloé Briot perfectly cast as the petulant but ultimately repentant child, a special evening is promised. The Philharmonia are conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen.
This evening I am taking part in a performance of Debussy’s only complete opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, at the Royal Festival Hall (as part of the City of Light: Paris 1900-1950 series). The Philharmonia and Philharmonia Voices are being conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen in this unique work which is being semi-staged in the concert hall. I am singing in Aidan Oliver’s chorus, tucked just behind the Royal Box as part of a chorale of distant sailors. Later I also have a walk-on role as a beggar, where I am required to walk onto the side of the stage wearing a mask (pictured), stand and then walk off again. Wish me luck…
In fact, the mask is a useful metaphor for my experience of this performance: the sailors’ chorus in Act 1 lasts for a single page of vocal score after which the chorus can only go home – as we’re not in the hall we can’t ‘stay’ to listen to the rest of the concert. The experience of the performance may seem rather arm’s length, veiled and mysterious, like the nature of the opera itself.
Yesterday I performed in my second Prom of this month. The all-BBC affair tackled Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, an oratorio-style drama that is one of the high watermarks of Stravinsky’s neoclassical work. There was a terrific line-up of soloists but I most enjoyed performing this piece – which I have done a few times now – because of its wonderful, relentless chorus part (I am appearing as an extra in the BBC Singers). It was also interesting to revisit the piece having seen Julian Anderson’s Thebans, a new opera on the same subject, at ENO earlier in the year. The Prom is broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 on 7 August.
Photo: Claire Shovelton
For the first time I am taking part in the summer opera festival organised under the banner of Tete a Tete. Formerly held at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, the festival has a packed programme of short operas (typically an hour or shorter). The idea is to showcase all the different ideas for sung theatre that might come under the umbrella of opera and, in this informal, close-knit and festive atmosphere give audiences and participants alike the chance to try out new lyric art and, naturally, discuss it in the bar.
I have come to see quite a few of productions over the past four years and finally I have the opportunity to participate, albeit in one of the fringe events. Sarah Dacey’s Stupid Cupid sets the awkward, absurd and unaccountably random messages that she and her friends have received whilst using internet dating sites. It’s free, funny and you can have two bites of the cherry – Saturday 26th at 1830 and Sunday 27th at 1550 at Central St Martin’s Public Spaces.
Photo: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian
Last night I performed in the second of the run of shows with which ENO is making a triumphant end to its 2012-13 season. Terry Gilliam’s production of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini has gone down very well with the early audiences and critics alike, with the latter even finding space (in increasingly constricted columns) to mention the work of the chorus, of which I am an extra member.
The director has himself readily identified complexities and problems in bringing his unique vision of this idiosyncratic opera to the stage. In addition, my colleagues in the chorus were working on no fewer than three other productions simultaneously. The aggregated professionalism of all the performers, crew and assorted backstage staff has been of the essence in midwifing this project to its performance run. It has been a tremendous experience, opera in its literal, multifaceted sense. I’m looking forward to the cinema relay of the show on 17th June – not least as re-runs of this will give me the opportunity to see all the bits I simply haven’t had the opportunity to see for myself.
I have started work on a contract with English National Opera, my first with the company. I am joining the chorus as an extra to perform Benvenuto Cellini, a rarely performed work by Hector Berlioz. The production will be directed by celebrated film director Terry Gilliam who last worked with the company on another Berlioz opera, The Damnation of Faust. The performances start in June.