Young Artists Blog

Out of the mouths of babes and children...
Blog 1
According to the oft-quipped maxim, the place to go for endearingly (or embarrassingly) honest truths is to those naive enough actually to tell them. I suspect, though far be it for me to make assumptions, that it may have been with this sentiment in mind that Sarah Crabtree asked me to keep this blog about the new Opera Holland Park Young Artists’ Scheme; amongst a cast of operatic children (all in our twenties and early thirties) I am, at 23, very definitely the baby of the group. I will, therefore, solemnly swear to attempt to uphold her faith in my unfailing honesty, and to try to give a sufficiently truthful (whilst, obviously, tactful...) account of the proceedings in the Young Artists’ rehearsal room.

I think the time has come to introduce myself to you legions of adoring fans (ahem...) - my name’s Maud Millar and I’m going to be playing Nella. As I have said, I am very much a baby, not only in operatic terms, but also in terms of blogging. In the spirit of youthful honesty, then, I’ll confess that this is my first attempt at this particular kind of literary venture, so you may have to bear with me as I find my bloggers’ feet...

The scheme is really a clever one. The basic premise is that the OHP crew have, for the first time, double-cast their production of Gianni Schicchi; one cast of seasoned professionals and one of fledgling singers beginning their operatic careers. The young artists are fully rehearsed, with our own associate MD (Matthew Waldron) and Director (Oliver Platt) and, as well as serving as a cover cast for the main show, we will also take to the stage for one night, and one night only; the “Young Artists’” matinee on the 14th July. One of the real treats for us babies is that Alan Opie has been booked to sing the eponymous Schicchi in both casts, so we youngsters will also get the chance to tread the boards with him.

I suppose it falls to me to do a kind of virtual cast meet-and-greet... As I’ve said, Alan Opie is our Schicchi, although we have been having the wonderful Charles Johnston, his cover, join us in our rehearsals- he’s playing Marco in the real thing, so it’s doubly kind of him to give up more of his spare time to chivvy us along. To introduce the Young Artists, however; Schicchi’s daughter, Lauretta, is played by Christina Petrou, her lover (and Buoso Donati’s nephew) Rinuccio by Adam Tunnicliffe. As Zita, the aged matriarch of the family, we have Laura Woods, the even older Simone is played by Timothy Dickinson, his henpecked son Marco by Laurence Meikle, Marco’s grasping wife La Ciesca by Chloe Hinton, and old drunk Betto (a man so drink-sodden and dishevelled as to be “of indiscriminate age”) by Aidan Smith. That leaves Buoso’s other nephew, the useless Gherardo, played by Leonel Pinheiro, and his young and rather spoilt (trophy?) wife Nella - which, as I’ve said, is where I come in. There are also hilarious cameos from Nathan Morrison as a very short-sighted Doctor Spinellocio, Timothy Connor as the Notary, and Ian Beadle and Alistair Sutherland respectively as Guccio and Pinellino, his two ‘testes’ (hee hee). It must also be mentioned that we all owe a deep debt of gratitude to Christine Collins, the woman who has made all of this possible through her sponsorship of the project and, once more, I can only hope that we do credit to her generosity by producing a really spectacular show.

In thinking about the first entry for this blog, I kept coming back to the idea of us as “young” artists, and musing to myself on the tensions that our relative youth creates. Gianni Schicchi is a masterfully chosen show for a Young Artists’ Scheme, being not only both short and funny (two major pulls in any opera), but also being a true ensemble show, allowing all of the Young Artists almost exactly equal chances to shine, and forcing us to really pull together to create a cast. It is not, however, a show about the young. You may have noted in my pitiful character descriptions the alarmingly regular appearance of the words “aged” and “old”- the show’s focus is, with the exception of Lauretta and Rinuccio, on a family whose youths have long passed them by. For most operatic casts, this is (with all due respect), somewhat of a godsend. It is a sad truth that in opera, one is almost always older than the part they play; both Susanna and the Countess, for example, are listed as being nineteen years of age- but what nineteen-year-old soprano would ever be let loose on a stage with a role like that? No, Schicchi is one of the rare operatic works where the ages of the singers can actually converge with those of the characters.

Not so in our production; in fact, Adam and Christina, our Rinuccio and Lauretta, are the only two characters in this opera who are playing parts younger than their actual ages - the rest of us are donning hunched backs and grey moustaches (mine’s particularly fetching) in the hope of aging up a bit. I mean, fortunately for me, I look absolutely ancient, so it’s really no stretch, but not everyone’s as lucky. In this, our first week of production rehearsals, we’ve mainly been getting to grips with some fairly complex blocking, but I think the effect of this is going to begin to show really interestingly in the inter-character relationships over the next few weeks. More on this after our projected stagger-through tomorrow...

Until then, yours in great anticipation,

Out of the mouths of babes and children...
Blog 2
Evening all! This second installation of my Young Artists’ blog comes to you fresh from two momentous events; the first being our first full run and the second, far more important, being our first cast post-rehearsal drinks/bonding session. The run was, in itself, an occasion of great excitement, mainly because we managed to get all the way through without stopping- which, after four and half days of rehearsal, is pretty damned impressive (even though I do say so myself). As with every first run of a production, there were inevitably things that needed tightening up, but the feeling of being secure enough in the music and blocking to do the whole thing without hesitation was hugely heartening for us as a cast and means that we can look forward to a couple of really intense weeks of character work and detailing - which are, with an opera like Schicchi, the things that really make the show.

The two Schicchi casts are rehearsing almost concurrently within the same building (St. Gabriel’s in Pimlico), the ‘main’ cast two weeks ahead but otherwise inhabiting the same space in the same time periods. Their show is rehearsing in the larger, and significantly more lovely, hall upstairs, while we are in one of the, shall we say, cosier rooms in the basement. Being based in the foundations of the building, we have the added advantage of an extra cast member in a large cast-iron pole running smack down the middle of our ‘set’ - we call him George. The rehearsal set-up is rather convenient, as it means we can go upstairs when we’re not called to brush up on the blocking of the main show so that in the unlikely event that we’re called upon in our roles as covers (ohgodohgod the terror), we will have some vague idea of their positions. It also leads to a wry upstairs/downstairs feel, with we babies as the “help” in the bowels of the building, toiling in service to the gentry above. As I said yesterday, Charlie, our cover Schicci, is also playing Marco ‘upstairs’, so he feeds us tidbits from the main rehearsal room, and word on the street is that the big boys didn’t manage a full, score-free run after their first week; a piece of gossip which led to just a tiny bit of (admittedly rather unattractively sweaty and breathless) post-show preening in our swelteringly hot basement this afternoon...

To more important issues, however, the cast drinks were a roaring success. Charlie, as the grownup, thoughtfully bought the first round for us impoverished students and, sufficiently lubricated, talk turned to such enlightening issues as hilarious cast marriage proposal stories (corner me after the show and I’ll regale you with them all at great length), tattoos and the Gilmore Girls. From the ridiculous to the sublime, however, I talked briefly yesterday about the age issue in our casting, and some interesting thoughts on this particular topic were also thrown up over a pint or two. From my perspective, I think that my Nella can only be a young one, especially if I have to go on as a cover; there’s no way that the age difference won’t be glaringly obvious, not only in my youthful grace (ahem) but also in my vocal capabilities, so I’ve decided to embrace that rather than to fight it. I do have some backup from Puccini- in the manuscript she is, at 34, the youngest of the cast, so my Nella is shaping up to be a grown-up spoilt baby who hates not getting her own way (a real stretch for a soprano...) and REALLY hates the younger Lauretta encroaching on her turf as the little girl of the family. We decided at the talk-through that she had probably come from money, and married Gherardo in a bid to continue to live in the style to which she was accustomed under daddy’s roof. She bosses Gherardo around, pouting and preening and being terribly bored by anything that doesn’t concern her directly, and the looks she shoots at Lauretta are of pure venom. This was partly a decision made in tandem with Chloe Hinton’s La Ciesca, as the two women can so often be almost interchangeable; singing roughly the same lines, grasping for the same booty, bossing around their Donati counterparts, but we wanted to differentiate them as women. Chloe’s Ciesca is, we think, the second wife of Marco, a woman who has been upgraded (through shady means) from mistress to wife, and is thoroughly disappointed with her lot in the feckless Marco, a truly rubbish black-market trader to whom the Second World War (the show is set in the forties) has not been kind. As a result of this, she is perennially dismissive of her subservient husband, treating him with a queenly disdain from the moment the pair make their entrance. Nella could easily be a woman in the same mould, and certainly she controls her husband, but she does it with the pouting, saccharine manipulation of a woman who knows that her husband worships her, merely smiling kittenishly and flicking her fingers to send him scurrying to do her bidding.

Interestingly, Aidan Smith agrees with me on the issue of playing to our youth - Betto, his character, is listed as “of indiscriminate age”, and most people play him as an elderly sop, blind to most of the activity through his constant inebriation. Aidan, however, has seen room for a new interpretation in his lack of specific age, and thinks at this point in the rehearsal process that his Betto may be only in his early thirties, but prematurely aged through his lack of self-care. He sees his Betto as a man ravaged by the cares of life, a man who lost a beloved wife in the war and has let himself go completely as a result, drinking away the Donati dowry he married and drowning his sorrows at the bottom of a pint glass. The immediately clever result of this is that he doesn’t clash with Tim’s hilarious elderly Simone, a man who is clearly denoted as being seventy (so no wiggle room there), who genuinely can’t see, hear or smell as well as the rest of the family and so lives in a world of sensory numbness, always responding a beat or two behind the others. He is, fortunately, a master of physical comedy, so pulls it off completely- watch out for his hysterical candle-blowing out moment (you’ll know it when you see it). I genuinely still can’t keep a straight face when I look over, which is a bit of a hindrance during what is probably the only moment of true Donati grief in the entire piece. To return to Betto, however, his youth also allows him real moments of lucidity when he rouses himself from his drunken stupor, as well as creating a far more tangible connection with the younger relations; he does enjoy a cheeky glance at the ladies’ posteriors, for example, and he is also the only family member who manages to appreciate Rinuccio’s youthfully impassioned (and somewhat revolutionary) aria on the potential benefits to Florence of the nouveau riche.  As a non-Donati, he also has a softness to him that the other men cannot muster, as well as being possessed of rather spectacular eyesight and an impressive working knowledge of Latin...

I know I’ve really only scratched the tip of iceberg with these musings on a few characters, but more soon; right now, I’m off to enjoy the beginning of our long Jubilee weekend before we’re back to dodging George on Tuesday morning.


Out of the mouths of babes and children...
Blog 3


Noun- A dead body, especially of a human being
Verb [theatrical slang]- spoil a piece of acting by laughing uncontrollably

I think it would be safe to say that both definitions of the word “corpse” were at play in the Young Artists’ rehearsal room the day that Buoso Donati came to play. Maybe it was nervous laughter at the sheer array of the deeply tasteless dead-body gags, or maybe it’s just hilarious to spend a day kicking and dropping a fully grown man dressed in a onesie, but this is a show which really does test standards of professionalism to the limits. Honestly, it’s getting to the point now where it’s virtually impossible to look at another cast member on stage without choking on your own laughter at the faces and voices that are appearing at this detailing stage of the rehearsal process. As everyone’s characters have grown into the most spectacular of charicatures, the comedic stakes have upped themselves to the point where everyone is constantly looking for little way to out-funny everyone else (while loving and appreciating their talent, of course... healthy competition, healthy), which makes for some disastrous attempts to turn bouts of illicit giggling into passable sobs. For me, the absolute worst culprits are Tim “Simone” Dickinson and Adam “Rinuccio” Tunnicliffe, whose rubber faces are constantly contorting into some new and hilarious interpretation, and who are both lethal to the art of the straight face. If either of you are reading this blog; stop making me laugh. It’s getting embarrassing.

Joking aside (literally), it’s really wonderful to have got to a point as a cast where we are relaxed enough as a company to find one other genuinely funny. I think now is the moment for a heartfelt apology to our long-suffering Director, Ollie, who probably doesn’t always find it as easy to see the warm’n’fuzziness of a cast who are incapable of working for minutes on end as they literally weep with laughter (*cough*laurawoods*cough*) at one another’s antics, but I really hope that the fact that we find the show so funny is something that will transmit in our performance, and that you all find it as funny as we do. We promise not to corpse. Can’t say as much for Buoso Donati... (boom boom!).

This week has been really wonderful in terms of opportunities- we’ve had the lovely Paola come in for some fab Italian coaching (I can now order a cappuccino like nobody’s business; the trick’s in the double consonants), and we’ve had our first session with Alan Opie as our Schicchi. While totally different experiences, they shared the common ground of being both educational and really interesting- and thankfully we managed to hold it together long enough to reap the benefits of these wonderful things that the OHP folk are throwing our way. The thing that’s really lovely about this scheme is that, while we are- on one level- a cover cast, there is never any feeling from the powers that be that we are anything other than a set of young artists with every right to create and form our own show. This is wonderful for everyone except, perhaps, for the very generous Alan Opie, who has gallantly taken up the gauntlet of learning two sets of blocking, and interacting with two completely different and very sharply-drawn sets of colleagues, and is navigating the whole process with great grace and panache. It’s a real compliment to us that OHP are taking the scheme so seriously and, whilst the occasional bout of corpsing might give the impression that we are taking it less seriously, I can assure you that it’s not the case. James, Sarah, if you’re reading this, I give you my word that, when push comes to shove, there will be no laughter! Oh no, we will be so sombre and deadpan, in fact, that you might even be forgiven for thinking that someone had died...

Until next time, may the funeral gags continue!

Out of the mouths of babes and children...
Blog 4

Sunday in the Park with Schicchi
This post comes to you direct from the back row of the auditorium at OHP, where I'm taking the opportunity to do some singbathing (n. to lie back and soak up the glorious sounds of singers far better than yourself. Try it; it's great for the complexion) at the first stage/orchestra rehearsal for Schicchi. The experience really is rewarding- the difference between this and the stage/piano rehearsals I've been watching is palpable. We had our first Young Artists' S/P rehearsal on Friday, and it was a little scary- the electric Clavinova piano is so bright that it suffers none of the diffusion of acoustics so fatal to voices in outdoor spaces, and it felt like a real challenge just to be heard over it, especially at the lower end of the soprano register. Maybe I'm kidding myself, and it's just the expertise of the main cast that makes it sound so much easier, but the pellucid sound of the orchestra seems to provide a far softer cushion for the voices, which are carrying fantastically clearly over it. While we're still miles behind, it does go some way towards reassuring me that when we get up there in just under a month, we may just about be able to handle the acoustics!

I think that watching these performances, something which we are strongly encouraged to do, is also having a huge effect on our understanding of the challenges. Most of the Young Artists have worked on this stage in some way or other over the past few years, and so are far more aware of the acoustic pitfalls than me as the newbie. You see, I came to the project in an unconventional way; I was working with a student company called Shadwell when I was an undergraduate in Cambridge last year, and the Shadwell team managed to persuade the OHP team to allow us to have a matinee slot on the Yukka Lawn in the grounds of Holland Park (where Fantastic Mr Fox has its home) to perform our Albert Herring. James Clutton and Sarah Crabtree came to see it (truly terrifying for us as a cast) and I think they must have seen the startling similarities between the Miss Wordsworth I was playing in that show and the Nella they were looking to cast in Schicchi, because they asked me to come and sing for it.

For me, it was a huge honour and an incredible instance of luck, and is an example of one of the great things about this Young Artists' scheme in particular. Holland Park haven't just taken "young" artists who they've "found" by watching them already perform at a high level for other companies, but have really made an effort to seek out genuine youngsters from amongst their ex-chorus members and small, off-the-wall companies (like Shadwell). This means that we are truly being given a unique opportunity in starting our careers with a company which is taking a risk on us. This will, hopefully, be a wonderfully mutually beneficial experience as it creates Young Artists who flourish on the OHP stage and will, again hopefully, become loyal regulars to the company's cast list (if we're good...!) Holland Park have already been wonderful in making us part of their team; I was taken to the sumptuous Shoreditch House and the Royal Hospital at Christmas as part of the Carol Singing Crew (for which we were remunerated handsomely in the bar afterwards...) and represented Team Young Artist at Sarah Crabtree's fundraiser for her marathon run for breast cancer singing some Opera Pops (you know, the usual Fledermaus, etc. High point of my career so far: one woman overheard at the end saying "Ooh, I loved the acoustic guitar player- and, actually, the operatic soprano wasn't bad either!" Maud Millar, bringing opera to the masses, ladies and gentlemen. Step aside, Katherine Jenkins). This was also the historic occasion on which James Clutton dusted off his guitar to join me and jazz pianist/this season’s Don Alfonso Nicholas Garrett in a rendition of the Aretha’s classic “Natural Woman”, so all in all it was an evening for the history books. We haven’t quite decided what the name of our new jazz band will be (Starving in a Garrett? As The Millar Told Her Tale? The James Clutton Experience? Oh, who am I kidding- it’s got to be the third), but it’s always nice to know that if opera falls through, the three of us have a whole different musical route to explore… Expect our first album spring 2013.

Right, I'm going back to my singbathing- until next time...

Out of the mouths of babes and children...
Blog 5

Wigging out
Yesterday we had our second full stage/piano run of the show, and it did not rain. This in itself is cause for jubilation (audience participation moment: insert some kind of rain-and-jubilee-related pun here. Blogging is fun!), but for me the high point of my afternoon was my wig. I have been, for some years now, a bottle blonde (if you tell anyone it’s not natural, I’ll kill you), a sartorial decision that has thrilled my Aryan father’s family and devastated my Irish mother’s. For Gianni Schicchi, however, I am not allowed to be blonde. My conversation with Ron, our amazing wig dude (official title), went something like this:

Me: So... am I going to have a wig then?
Ron: You’ll have to.
Me: Why?
Ron: Well, you can’t be blonde like... that.
Me: Why?
Ron: (bewildered at my utter stupidity) Italians ain’t blonde like that.
Me: Janice [Watson] is. (touché, Millar...)
Ron: That’s a different show (ah.) Anyway, she’s meant to be an actress, so she’s allowed to be blonde.

[NB: I always knew I wasn’t going to win that argument. Ron is a legend in the business, regularly beginning anecdotes with “As my dear friend Jessye Norman used to say...” or “When I did Larry Olivier...” Who can argue with that?]

Now, I’m not getting hung up on the fact that in the original libretto, Janice’s character is a courtesan, nor am I going to dwell on the fact made famous by Notting Hill, that the word for “actress” is the same as the word for “prostitute” in myriad languages, because the inevitable actress-prostitute-blonde connection is only going to make me feel insecure about my hair choices. What I will say is that my wig is an utterly glorious red-brown mane, piled up on my head in artful forties glamour. The effect of this in combination with my blue eyes, pale skin and emerald green suit is sadly not, ladies and gentlemen, an Italianate one. I think it’s safe to say that I am the most Irish-looking Italian woman you will ever meet in a mansion in Florence (my mother is going to die of joy. I can already hear the rapturous comparisons with Great Auntie Eithne in her forties heyday). But, then again, I was the most Irish-looking Italian student in my language school in Florence last year, and the Italians didn’t seem to mind. Maybe it was the actressprostituteblondeness...

In a rather nifty segue back into my blonde actressness, never fear, ladies and gentlemen, you will be seeing my hair in all its natural (ahem) glory in the course of this double bill, as I have also been cast in the vital, if silent, role of Young Sylvia in Zanetto. Now, because Janice, who plays Real Sylvia (not Old Sylvia), is conceded her blondeness on the grounds of her actressness, I too am allowed to wear my normal hair for this first-half appearance. There’s literally nothing I can say about my part that’s not going to give away the brilliant coup de theatre dreamt up by Martin Lloyd Evans for the show, but be content in the knowledge that I have a gloriously befeathered costume, and that I am relying very heavily on Janice Watson to be mature enough not to make faces at me during my appearance, or I fear there could be another, less favourable, account of my corpsing appearing in print after the opening night. Which is on FRIDAY. Be there or be quadrilateral.


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