An opera written more than a decade ago will finally gets its world premiere in Birmingham, writes Christopher Morley.
An opera which has lain unperformed since its composition in 1999 will at last receive its world premiere from Birmingham Conservatoire at the Crescent Theatre this evening.
David Blake’s Scoring the Century was originally scheduled to be premiered by Portland Opera in Oregon (US), then later by Dublin Opera Society, but neither production took place, due to the wide-ranging effects of the 9/11 Twin Towers atrocity across the globe.
But now, thanks to the facilitation of Lionel Friend, conductor-in-residence at the Conservatoire, David Blake will at last see his opera come to performance.
Friend has worked closely in the past with the production’s director Keith Warner (Malcolm Williamson’s English Eccentrics and Wagner’s Ring cycle, for example), and suggested to him that the Conservatoire students would excel at presenting the varied musical styles of Blake’s opera.
And as Warner is also the librettist of this fascinating work, he jumped at the opportunity.
The opera charts the progress of Mr and Mrs Jedermann (“Everyman”) through the decades of the 20th century, and mixes opera, cabaret, dialogue and musical theatre.
“The Jedermanns are a song and dance act,” explains David in his exposition.
“Beginning in Trouville in 1901, they perform their way through the 20th century with cabaret and music-hall numbers, encountering Nazis, commissars, hippies and yuppies.
‘‘They do not age, and only grudgingly get wiser... they end up in Hollywood, bewildered and overwhelmed by media technology, but remain true to each other, as global warming threatens.”
The Jedermann/Everyman figure crops up in all kinds of European literature, including English, German and Swiss, as I observe to David.
“Clearly Keith was tapping into this, implying that our hero, the little man, is everywhere,” he replies.
“The Jedermanns get around in this piece, most of Europe, the Soviet Union, GB and the US, and are permanently bewildered – ‘the whole jumble jumbles so fast!’
One big difference here is that they manage to avoid confronting God, although they have to cope with some devils – human ones.”
David goes on to explain the frustration of sitting on an unperformed but completed opera for over a decade.
“Our initial failures to get a production were disappointing – history has plenty of precedents – and I began to wonder whether I would ever see the piece.
“So it was very exciting when Lionel Friend told me, three years ago, about the chance of this production. Inevitably Keith began to think it anew, and it was clear we should bring the action through to the present day.
‘‘Lots of dialogue was altered and I was sent new texts that required new music.
“I wrote two new numbers in 2008 and made some changes to the orchestration to take into account the size of the pit at the Crescent – nothing major. I dispensed with a second flute and trumpet, a tuba and a xylophone. It isn’t always easy to pick up old pieces – Schoenberg didn’t manage it! – but I’m pleased with what I’ve done, especially the Beguine, which looks hilarious the way Keith and Michael Barry have staged it.”
Having rescored the orchestration, has David had to make any other alterations, in view of the fact that this is a student performance?
His reply is firm and appreciative.
“Nothing has had to be changed to accommodate student performers. The talent of the cast, both their singing and their acting and dancing is an absolute joy.
‘‘Rehearsals are huge fun. Everyone is in high good spirits and yet they work hard and get results.
‘‘We’ve managed to give everyone a solo moment, however small, and all 50 are working together with great cohesion and co-operation, helping each other all the time. The choruses are thrilling.
“We had thought that casting the two main roles, which are huge, would be difficult but Matt Cooper and Lucie Louvrier have proved to be stars.”
Lucie Louvrier is a French post-graduate student who studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, and Matthew Cooper is studying at the Conservatoire for a post-graduate certificate.
Michael Barry, director of theatre studies at the Conservatoire, and himself a major presence at the Crescent Theatre, is enthusiastic about Keith Warner’s work with the students.
“Keith has worked in all the world’s major opera houses. International singers, designers and conductors queue up to work with him, and so the fact that he’s spending two months out of his hectic schedule to work with students at the Conservatoire is a staggering opportunity.
“He’s paying Conservatoire singers the compliment of treating them as just another opera company, so they’re learning at the highest level what is expected in the profession they aspire to.
“The students are also picking up technical advice and audition techniques to take forward in their careers – opportunities don’t get much better, or bigger, than this!”
David has the last word.
“We’re all having a great time. Much of it is very funny and the tunes are not half bad.”
* David Blake’s Scoring the Century is stage by Birmingham Conservatoire at the Crescent Theatre from Thursday until Saturday (7.30pm). There is also a 2.30pm matinee on Saturday. Details on 0121 643 5858