Why creating the perfect Alice is no tea party

Michael Volpe continues his monthly dispatch on staging a world premiere

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The Independent Culture

"I almost wish I hadn't gone down that rabbit hole – and yet – and yet – it's rather curious, you know, this sort of life!" Oh, it is. It really is. Throughout this series of articles I have made frequent mention of the daily curiosities we encounter in our efforts to create other worlds and we chose one of the most jarringly unique of them when we alighted upon Alice. Now we see it coming to life as designer Leslie Travers, fresh from his mega-set for Peter Grimes on the beach at Aldeburgh, showed us his clever, evocative ideas. His presentation was given over Skype, with producer James Clutton huddled over an iPad with a Butterfly dress rehearsal in the background.

Meanwhile, we ready ourselves for the main stage season, our days full of the bloody angst of Sicilian peasants, the serenity of pearl fishermen, the betrayal of a young geisha or the lunacies of a charlatan's love potion. Our raw material is ageless proclivity and weakness; we deal with the failures of human nature but little Alice sees it all through the eyes of animals and inanimate objects. That doesn't protect her or us.

I was recently speaking to a priest (a Monsignor no less), telling him of the season ahead. I had to stop myself halfway through a febrile description of I Gioielli Della Madonna (brother loves adopted sister, steals jewels from the Madonna statue etc) saying apologetically that perhaps the Father would prefer to give that one a swerve? But he might like our opera of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland since there would be no gangsters in that.

Our director Martin Duncan is preparing rehearsals which begin soon and with Leslie is figuring out how to make the family disappear, the quick changes, how to stage things and bring vivacity and pace to this peripatetic performance. No doubt some changes to the score may be necessary to help the dramaturgy. His declaration that he is, "faintly optimistic" should be seen in the context of his being an inveterately guarded individual who isn't given to bombast. We take his relative confidence to be a positive. Stuart Stratford, maestro on the production, is presently conducting our Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci which makes for some interesting inter-rehearsal conversations when he needs to discuss matters Alice too.

"I Flew High in My Dreams" received its first live, public outing at a Friends function recently and this time Fflur Wyn, our unequivocally perfect Alice, was accompanied by strings and the composer, Will Todd, on piano. The audience of around 200 guests were generous in their appreciation, but they were all adults so we won't read too much into that just yet. I am trying to raise £20,000 to have the music recorded and thoughts turn frequently to how the opera will be received by the wider public and the critics who will judge not just our attempts to produce an established piece, but also the piece itself.

As we move into the "eclipse" (the office name for the period when all of our productions are either on stage or in rehearsal) we must have our wits about us; a plethora of outside influences are encroaching, things beyond our control, White Rabbits and Mad Hatters come in many guises.

Alice is becoming flesh and blood, dressed by wood and paper, fabric and paint. She is being born into a place that is far more strange and more unpredictable than the one she herself knows. Compared to the worlds created by Mascagni, Wolf-Ferrari and Puccini, a rabbit hole may seem the safest place to be.

Michael Volpe is general manager of Opera Holland Park