Staging an Opera in London’s Lockdown: How One Company Adapted

What does it take to keep London's theatre scene moving in the face of adversity? Here's how OperaGlass Works adapted when their production at Wilton's Music Hall was postponed 

OperaGlass Works is one of the many arts companies keeping London at the forefront of culture and entertainment on the world stage. It is part of a centuries-old tradition of stage performance in the city, bringing new and well-loved operas to local and visiting audiences every year. But what happens when a production is cancelled with three days' notice? Eliza Thompson, Producer at OperaGlass Works, shares the story of how they adapted in the face of a nationwide lockdown.

How near were you to opening night when lockdown happened?
We were about to open Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, conducted by John Wilson at Wilton’s Music Hall in London just when Lockdown began. We were three days away from opening, just about to go into the last stages of building the set and doing the technical rehearsal on stage.  

Can you share some of the things that would have made this particular production special?
Selina Cadell and I set up OperaGlass Works to present excellent small scale opera to new and old audiences at lower prices. After the success of our first production, The Rake’s Progress in 2017, we were delighted to be back at Wilton’s for our second production. The extraordinary atmosphere and charm of this mid nineteenth century music hall suits the haunting ambiguities of The Turn of the Screw perfectly, so for us it was an obvious choice. 

The Turn of the Screw has all the elements of the best of stories: An old house in the country, a governess, orphans, one condition....and ghosts.  Myfanwy Piper’s libretto of Henry James’s famous novella leaves much to our imagination and Britten’s score is haunting, terrifying and brilliant.

Our passion is the integration of storytelling with music. We love the heightened theatrical form of opera, and want to celebrate the reason for performing it: The audience. We offer well-established singers the creative input that actors normally have, with an emphasis on integrating the music with clarity of storyline and text and on direct communication with the audience.  Singers and musicians become part of the creative process. We had been rehearsing for six weeks and we had a wonderful cast: Robert Murray, Rhian Lois, Gweneth Ann Rand, Francesca Chiejina, Alys Mererid Roberts and Leo Jemison.  The orchestra in our productions forms an integral part of the action, often performing onstage and becoming part of the ensemble. Our conductor John Wilson had put together an incredible ensemble of musicians to play the score.

What were your options for adapting the production, and why did you decide on a film in the end, over a live stream for example?
We had been rehearsing for over five weeks but were not actually at the stage when we had performed it.  The costumes by Rosalind Ebbutt were made, the set was designed, but not built, and for the first few weeks of lockdown nothing could happen in the theatre.  At first, we put everyone on hold for some dates seven months hence, believing that we would all be back in the theatre. When it gradually became clear that this was not to be, we decided to keep everyone on hold and make it work in some other way.   

We are a small production company, set up as a charity. We had raised £160,000 from trusts and philanthropists to put on the production in the first place and we then had to raise almost the same again to finish what we had started. The production was at such an exciting point. We just couldn’t let it go, so we realised that we would have to make a film. We recruited award winning film director Dominic Best to direct it with us and we pulled together a camera crew to capture it.

How have you made sure the film captures the same magic as seeing it live?
This is not just live capture. We decided to try to find a new hybrid form that would honour the spirit of our original theatre production and embrace the current constraints. Wilton’s is such an extraordinary building and we have been able to use the whole space, every corner, not just the stage, to tell our story. Our new language combines the elements of theatre and film: we declare the presence of the camera, and the intimacy of performing to a live audience is replaced by the singers singing directly into the lens.  There is a new magic about the filming of the theatre, as Tom Piper’s set has crept off the stage and taken over the empty theatre: the auditorium where our audience would have sat has become a Suffok reed bed...

It has been a joy to be back and working with so many people in these terrible times and we have produced something which we think will be really interesting. 

Is there anything in your opinion that was added by using film?
It was very exciting for the two worlds of theatre and film to meet.  No one on set had ever done anything quite like this before and we were all learning on our feet.  It was tough for the singers having to do take after take: even when the vocal performance was perfect, we often had to do it again for the camera.  But because, unusually for a film, all the performers were very well rehearsed in the whole piece, they have really brought an unusual directness and confidence in their relationship with the camera.  It was a wonderful creative challenge to take the production off the stage and let it unfurl throughout the building instead.  And of course, for the purely orchestral variations in the opera - when, in the theatre, the audience would just be listening to the instruments - we have had to create a visual narrative for the film.


What were the biggest challenges in switching from a live skillset to a pre-recorded one?
The biggest challenge was to figure out the very best way of recording the singers’ performances and the orchestral performances in this new world where, due to the restraints brought about by Covid-19, they could not all be in the same room together as we filmed.  We decided the most important thing was to record the voices live, as they were filmed, which would allow the most organic, natural, acting and singing performances. The singers had a live keyboard playing in their ear as they sang and John Wilson conducted them as he created what we call a click track .  This meant that we were able to record the orchestra later and they, in the eminently safe hands of our conductor, could concentrate on beautiful playing while working with the recorded vocals.

Aside from the obvious challenges, has anything surprised you about London’s opera scene in what must have been its most difficult year?
The incredible resilience of the singers and everyone else in the industry who have lost so many months' work. Everyone has been trying to keep their head above water and the venues continue to find ways to maintain the interest of their audience.

Do you think live performance and particularly opera will bounce back to normal in a post-covid world, or will there be any lasting changes?
There is nothing to match the joy of being in a theatre with a live audience so I very much look forward to bouncing back to that ’normal’ as soon as possible.  We don’t know when that will be so, in the meantime, we have to come up with something else. This has been a time when people have had to start thinking about new ways of doing things and of course that can be exciting. OperaGlass Works is already thinking about our next project: by necessity it will have to be another film so the question is, what would it be like if we started from scratch as a film next time, instead of adapting an almost-finished live production?  


Are there any other particularly innovative things you’ve seen from other venues, or that you may have participated in as a customer?
To begin with, during the first lockdown it was amazing how all the theatres and concert halls - big and small - were allowing audiences to watch streamed performances of archive material for free.  It gave us the chance to watch things we hadn’t seen when they were actually on. I particularly enjoyed Crystal Pite’s Revisor.  She is an incredibly inventive choreographer and this was a really terrific production at Sadler's Wells, based on Gogol’s play The Inspector General.

The Turn of the Screw will be transmitted on Marquee TV on 30 January 2020

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