Michael Volpe: ‘I want us to put on an opera – and in we plunge’

The first of a monthly report from Michael Volpe on the trials of staging a show

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The Independent Culture

“Call off the dogs!” When that expression is used in our office it means someone has had a Eureka!  moment. When  the exclamation emanates from James Clutton, our producer, it can often be expensive. I swallowed harder when he insisted that he would only elaborate out of the office.

“I want us to commission an opera based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” he almost whispered across the table at Carluccio’s. We had enjoyed three good years of producing our family opera Fantastic Mr Fox and this would be a natural next step.

I made a big play for Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding of XTC to do the music, but Will Todd was the choice because he’d created choral music  before and is a very talented, emerging composer; “Making Plans for Alice” would never see the light of day. Provided I could raise the money for the commission, in a few months we’d be listening to the first notes ever created specially for our company.

As it turned out, donors leapt at the chance to make it happen, which probably says more for the allure of Alice than anything else, and Will was in business. His brief wasn’t easy: take a classic, almost hallowed story, full of characters emblazoned on the collective consciousness, write an hour of music that would appeal to children and families, and encapsulate one of literature’s most extraordinary imaginary worlds in memorable tunes. 

Leaping forward four months, and a company of singers delivered the first run-through of Will’s score in a room at Jerwood Space. Once there is a realisation that the composer does indeed know his onions, critical consideration of what he has created takes over.

“I have tried to find a comfortable line between something enjoyable and accessible for young audiences,” says Todd. “The show is fast-moving and fun – poignant at times and comes to a powerful musical and dramatic climax.” Job done then? Well not quite, because now comes the tweaking, cutting, chopping and polishing. Already, the characters have powerful personalities that leap from the score and who amount to more than mere facsimiles of Lewis Carroll’s original creations,  but they all have to fit “just so” into  the dramaturgy.

The libretto (by Maggie Gottlieb) was worked on and altered, sometimes for alliterative effect, at others to better fit the vocal line and demands of singing technique. In this, the performers contribute hugely to the work’s genesis.

The Jerwood week was directed by Martin Duncan and conducted by Stuart Statford, two immensely experienced and talented opera people,  and the excitement was palpable, everybody enervated by their participation in the nascent opera’s creation. At the end of the Friday run-through the next big decision became simpler; the work could go into production for a world premiere in summer 2013 at Opera Holland Park. Alice was born a bonny baby and could now flourish.

As with all big decisions, it was made over a pint in the pub but it wasn’t a celebration as such since there is still a great distance to cover. Neither, by the grace of Will’s musical imagination, was it a wake, the possibility of which haunted us until the first few bars of the run through. Relief and anticipation blew the froth from several pints of best ale in a bar that smelt of bad drains but which in the circumstances passed muster as the warm smell of that rabbit hole’s damp, fringing, mossy sod. And into it we were all about to plunge.

“Today was a good day,” I said to James. “How much money have you raised?” was his response.

Michael Volpe is general manager of Opera Holland Park