Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

I was naturally good at music (I could play by ear from a very young age) but did not come from a musical family so I was a bit of an oddity. I started the clarinet aged around 10, having lessons at my local comprehensive school. We didn’t go to many concerts or arts events when I was young, but my parents were very supportive and I loved the local North East Derbyshire Music Service and my County Wind Band. They were very ‘happy places’, run by passionate, dedicated and inspirational musicians. I didn’t really know much about a career in music and I sort of vaguely drifted into music college (Royal Northern College of Music) – which was a bit of a shock. What had been ‘fun’ suddenly felt super-competitive and I think this was the point when I really started working very hard indeed.

But something wasn’t quite right. I soon realised I didn’t get the same buzz from playing in an orchestra as many of my fellow students did. But I did love the theatres, the museums, the art galleries, the urban architecture of Manchester. I used to wander around the abandoned Hulme Crescents (the largest public housing development in Europe, described as ‘Europe’s worst housing stock’ – demolished 1994) feeling sad for it, and I think my fascination with the way that people (audiences) ‘consume’ art and design stems from these days. I started composing (lessons with the wonderful Tony Gilbert) and doubled up my course – two simultaneous programmes of study as a clarinetist and composer. I also loved chamber music and really enjoyed playing contemporary music – it felt more ‘theatrical’. The more unconventional and challenging it was, the better – I was a bit of a thrill seeker. The year I played Max’s Eight Songs For A Mad King was a real turning point. Alan Hacker used to come and give us clarinet masterclasses. He would bring his reed knife and whittle all our reeds down until they were paper-thin. It was like playing a kazoo after he’d finished and we soon learned not to bring our best reeds along! But I really enjoyed his classes and, through him, having what felt like a close connection with the incredible composers he worked with.

I pursued music as a clarinetist for decades, playing lots of new repertoire and chamber music, mixing it up with composition and academia – but still not feeling it was 100% ‘right’. It was only when I was in my late 30s that the penny finally dropped. A colleague pointed out how ‘theatrically’ I described things – and I suddenly realised what was missing from my purely musical life – theatre. It was a peculiar light-bulb moment as I’m certainly no actor and the desire was to MAKE theatrical events rather than be in them. I started to create shows and, a few years later, I resigned from my senior academic post at Guildhall to set up my own company. Goldfield Productions make ‘adventures in sound’. We work with composers, puppeteers, writers, artists, animators, inventors etc to create extraordinary touring cross-arts shows but we always have the highest quality chamber music at the heart of what we do. Everything I do now seems to be connected in some way to both music and theatre and I love it! Goldfield’s work with young people is really important to me too – I’m very passionate about that.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your creative life and career?

I’m inspired by artists in other fields – which I think I like to apply or ‘translate’ into musical ideas. The ones I couldn’t imagine life without – John Berger, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes…the breath-taking imagination of Italo Calvino, Angela Carter….I have many books of fairy-story collections, on design & architecture (especially ‘ways of living’) and amateur music making (past and present). I am often inspired by museum and gallery curators and how they tell narrative through objects and in a space. I love what Paola Antonelli (senior curator of architecture and design) did with MOMA (making design relevant to everyone) and what Paul Holdengraber did with the New York Public Library (turning it into a huge conversation for the City and beyond) – he calls himself a ‘curator of Public Curiosity’. Art and music doesn’t exists in a vacuum for me – its always in a dynamic relationship with those who ‘consume’ it. The things that inspire me the most are those that have engaged people with art in extraordinary ways.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I juggle a LOT now. In addition to running Goldfield as Artistic Director (and being the sole fund-raiser), I also work as a freelance producer for many other companies and venues. Writing (words) has also become a rather big thing. I’ve written 5 children’s productions and, since 2017, I’ve written and presented stories for BBC Radio 3 – a most unexpected outlet for exploration and discovery which I absolutely love. I’ve written around 140 stories so far – each on a topic that I research from scratch. My shelves are rammed with fascinating books that I may never have otherwise bought! I try to play the clarinet every day – even if I don’t have a run of concerts coming up. Playing the clarinet is still very much part of my identity and although I do so many other things that compete for time, I’d hate to give up performing and making music with my chamber music friends. I probably ought to have more sleep and exercise regularly – fitting those in would be a genuine challenge!

So there is the on-going personal challenge of keeping all the balls in the air, and combining this with the kids and family life. But there are also the wider challenges of sustainability for Goldfield and the arts in general, short and long-term funding, trying to ensure that funders are not entirely shaping the art we make, how we can tackle the reduction of music education in schools, how we can possibly do justice to the huge volume of new music being created …I guess these are everybody’s challenges, but they are constantly on my mind.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m very proud of Goldfield’s recent Erika Fox CD for NMC Records. We (Goldfield Productions) often work with composers over a long period of time in a bespoke way (‘what do they need that we can provide?’) and we aim to have a transformative impact on their development / careers. But the relationship with Erika and her music exceeded all expectations! She was a true ‘neglected’ voice. Two years ago, the only way to listen to her music was to go round to her house and put on one of the cassette recordings she had salvaged from the 70s and 80s when her music was often played and won numerous awards. With huge support from funders, trustees and NMC records, Goldfield set out to record six of Fox’s chamber works on what would be the very first album of her music, released in June 2019 in her 82nd year. Press and public response has been overwhelmingly positive and Erika’s composition career has literally taken off again with new commissions coming in and high profile recognition and performances in the UK and abroad. Its amazing that this sort of change is possible. Its a privilege to be part of it but the credit is due to Erika – she is a genuine, remarkable and unique voice. We just had to get the music out there.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I still love playing new music and I’m definitely happiest in a chamber music setting. I’ve got a super-flexible embouchure so anything that involves lots of colours, multi-phonics, endurance and generally finding non-clarinetty type sounds is good. I like to discover and learn new musical languages – learning Erika Fox’s language last year was fascinating. That said, I also think I play Brahms well and I do a cracking good Copland concerto. For sheer pleasure, I play unaccompanied Bach on the clarinet….but only in private.

How do you make your production choices from year to year?

I seem to have an inexhaustible number of ideas (kept in scrap books, note-pads, on my phone, in my head….) but they don’t all come to fruition. I’ll think about stuff for ages – playing with it, developing it in my mind, testing it out in different imaginary contexts…is it a piece of theatre… radio..a site-specific work? I don’t think ‘I’m going to make an opera’. I think ‘I’ve got an idea– what will it become?’ I’m really careful about what I invest time in. It has to be right. ‘Right’ means – a great artistic idea expressed in the most succinct way, with the best people to deliver it, something that is wanted or needed right now (even if people don’t know it yet!), a wholly balanced proposition (budget, aims, outcomes, reach, partners, people, venues etc). There is something beautifully satisfying about a production blueprint that is ‘right’. I do a lot of brutal self-culling and whittling down of ideas to make sure that they are truly the best they can be and I’m constantly looking at how we are communicating art and ideas to audiences.

Here’s what happens when you make a show: initial idea and brainstorming (‘OMG this is going to be amazing’); long period of fund-raising and work going into development (‘OMG this is really hard’): period of intense challenges (‘OMG this is going to be awful’): finally, the home straight as it all comes together (‘OMG this is going to be amazing!’) Four stages. Every. Single. Time.

Do you have a favourite venue to perform in and why?

I’ve put shows into all sorts of venues – museums, tiny churches, vast warehouses, concert halls, theatres, schools, outdoor spaces, galleries… but the Parabola Theatre at Cheltenham Music Festival stands out as special because it was the first venue that gave me a shot at being a producer. I am forever indebted to Leksi Patterson and Meurig Bowen who – for reasons best known to themselves! – believed me when I strode over to their table in the Barbican café in 2012, waving a small book of poems, proclaiming ‘I’m going to make an opera!’ I had literally NO idea how to do it. And – even worse – I didn’t know that I didn’t know! (Hey – how hard can it be? It’s just like chamber music with some singers, right?) What a learning curve. I raised a budget of c. £170,000 (how? Fear of failure and gritty determination), put together an opera company and an 8-date tour for what was going to become Nicola LeFanu’s Tokaido Road. After that, I DID know how to make an opera. It nearly killed me, but I loved it and it set me off in a new direction. Cheltenham Festival gave me was the venue for the world premiere and we’ve been back many times since with other shows. I always feel very happy in the Parabola. I’ve played on the stage a lot too – sometimes in my own shows, sometimes in other peoples’ productions.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I really do have an enormous amount of empathy for a lot of music. Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of lesser-known, lesser-loved music from the 1960s. Thanks to some brilliant listening-lists from friends, I have discovered and re-discovered works by Lumsdaine, Dale Roberts, Bacewicz, Ustvolskaya, Bedford, Jolas, Subotnick, Gilbert to name but a few. Its an often neglected and overlooked decade, yet the music is beautiful, well-crafted, shocking, surprising, fun, funny and wonderful. I am pondering what to do with a lot of this repertoire …. I’m very driven to play and programme the brilliant music we already have.

What is your definition of success?

For me, I think that ‘success’ is often to do with facilitating things and usually connected to making what I consider to be positive change. For example, someone telling you that they enjoyed contemporary music / opera / classical music for the first time because of something you did… when a young person says that the project they have taken part in has been a total game-changer for them… when you can bring the music of a composer to a new generation of listeners… when an artist you have commissioned has been able to push themselves in a new creative direction…

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to young aspiring musicians?

Be nice and be kind. Be polite and courteous to everyone (even…especially…more ‘challenging’ people…we’ve all got our own problems and these can surface in all sorts of ways). Never forget that making performance art / music takes a whole team and the person that books the venue / fetches the coffee etc is as much an essential part of that team as the director or leading singer. Be yourself and have fun, but always do your job and follow your passion with total professionalism. Be the sort of person you would want to work with…smart, hard-working, reliable, calm, generous, open-minded, honest, cheerful, considerate, efficient etc No one is perfect (I very much include myself in that), but try your best.

Listen to your instincts. If I had paid more attention to my love of art, galleries, theatre and architecture in my 20s (rather than trying to suppress it and be a ‘proper’ musician) I might have set up my company years earlier!

Be open to change. Sometimes, the path you think is ahead of you veers off in a new direction. Another door opens, you meet someone or see something which becomes a catalyst to dramatically change the way you think about things. The arts are volatile – be good at adapting to change within organisations and also within yourself.

Love what you do. That’s really important because working in the arts in the UK is tough. There is a lot of competitiveness and not enough money. But on the plus side you will get to work with some of the most extraordinary, talented and marvelous people that ever existed, your life will be rich with culture and you will – hopefully – enhance the lives of others too. That’s not a bad way to live 🙂

Build up strategies for resilience. At some point, things will get tough but its part of what makes you successful. You learn far more when things don’t quite work out than when everything is smooth sailing. You learn about yourself, your attitude to risk, your own definition of ‘success’. You don’t really know just how resilient, strong and determined you are until you have to be. Patience is important too – it can sometimes take a long time to get things off the ground.

Stay curious and keep questioning things. Don’t be afraid to keep challenging yourself and the world around you and asking how you can you best express the things you want to say.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I’d like Goldfield to still be flourishing, growing and evolving. I’d like to push myself more as a writer. I would only return to composition if I felt I had something to say, but I wouldn’t rule it out. I would like to have made great strides in my thinking about how audiences ‘consume’ music and how this understanding feeds into the art and events we make. I would like to be as curious, as energised, buzzy and optimistic as I feel now.

What are your most treasured possessions?

1. My books.

2. A necklace with a plaster cast of an ammonite that my parents made in the late 1970s. I wear it a lot.

3. The things the kids made for me when they were little – there is so much unconditional love embodied in these tiny, wonky, honest objects and each one tells a story.

What is your present state of mind?

Curious, energised, buzzy, optimistic.


Kate Romano is the founder and Artistic Director of Goldfield Productions.  She is also an independent producer of opera and music theatre and is passionate about story-telling and cross-arts productions.

Kate is a writer for the BBC Orchestras and the Proms. A regular BBC Radio 3 presenter, she has written and narrated around 150 short stories for Essential Classics and the 2019 Our Classical Century season leading up to the Proms. She has written and directed Goldfield’s five acclaimed children’s productions which have been seen by over 9000 children in 60 primary schools. In June 2019, Kate took up the post of Director of Aspire! at the Lichfield Music & Literature Festivals, developing a new outreach and participation programme for the festival.

As a clarinetist (chamber musician and soloist), she has performed at most major UK venues and festivals. Kate has given over 70 premieres and has recorded for NMC, Metier and Minabel. Her debut solo CD was awarded 5* reviews from Gramophone and ‘Pick of the Month’ in the chamber music section for the BBC Music Magazine. Kate studied at the Royal Northern College of Music where she graduated with first class honours, she holds an MPhil from Cambridge University and a doctorate in composition from Kings College London. From 2003  – 2016 she held a senior academic post at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and co-founded the schools’ flagship doctoral programme. In 2014, Kate was awarded a Fellowship from the School. 

kateromano.co.uk

 

(photo: Chris Frazer Smith)

[Opera is] more than entertainment. Opera offers an insight into the complexities of the human psyche – it is a metaphor for, or an exposition, even, of our own personal dreams and nightmares…

– Kevin Volans, composer

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Lise Lindstrom as Turandot at the Royal Opera House

Last week my best friend went to the opera for the very first time. And not just any old opera, she went to see the final dress rehearsal of Puccini’s ‘Turandot’ at the Royal Opera House (“the one with that aria they sing at the World Cup” as she put it). She texted during the interval to tell me about it – “It’s so beautiful!” and “OMG it’s incredible!“, and the next day, over lunch, she described the experience in detail to me – the venue, the music, the narrative. For someone who claims to “know nothing about classical music“, her descriptions of the music and the story-line were articulate, intelligent and heartfelt. She spoke of how the music swelled in passion, only to pull back from the brink, holding her in suspense; how the singers interacted on stage, the impressive tone of their voices, the incredible sound of the chorus; the magnificent setting, and many other details large and small which, for her (and many like her, myself included) make opera one of the most exciting and engaging art forms. She even expressed frustration at the intervals, which, for her, disrupted the flow of the performance. She admitted she had gone to the ROH with many preconceptions – that she would feel out of place in the audience (she didn’t), that the audience would be very highbrow (they weren’t), that she wouldn’t be able to understand the narrative (she did) and that she might find the experience boring (she didn’t). Instead, she found the experience immersive, emotional and exciting, echoing the quote at the beginning of this article, that “all human life is right there, in the opera!“.

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It is that magical combination of music, words, song, acting, setting, emotions that make opera so absorbing and exciting. Having returned to opera fairly recently myself, I fully identify with my friend’s comments: even the most far-fetched story-lines take on a sense of heightened realism and credibility in the special atmosphere of the opera house. In fact, far from being inaccessible, opera is full of memorable, hummable tunes. I bet most people could hum Bizet’s Toreador’s Song (from Carmen), or the magical duet from The Pearl Fishers, and of course my friend recognised ‘Nessun Dorma’ (from Turandot), because it has been elevated to the rank of a sporting anthem. We hear excerpts from opera in film and tv soundtracks, and in adverts, so embedded is this art form in our Western cultural landscape. And as my friend discovered, to her surprise, opera is rather more relaxed than the “sitting in the dark in hushed reverence” atmosphere of, say, the Wigmore Hall, and  the etiquette of opera-going is looser. For example, you can applaud after a particularly fine aria or chorus set-piece and no one glares at you as if you have committed some major musical faux pas, and there is a very tangible sense of shared experience.

Please can we go to an opera together?” my friend asked and I assured her that as soon as the ENO new season opens, we will go. It will be fun to go with opera’s newest fan!

English National Opera

Royal Opera House

The operettas of W S Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan are much-loved national treasures, as English as strawberries and cream and tennis at Wimbledon. These light comic operas poked fun at Victorian mores, politics and society, and their sharp observations, dressed up in Gilbert’s “topsy-turvy world” where each absurdity is taken to its logical conclusion, would have been easily comprehensible to their audiences – and remain so today. The operettas have stood the test of time, as evidenced by their enduring popularity, many revivals, and performances around the English-speaking world, and their messages remain witty and topical. The operas have encouraged political debate, social discourse and much pastiche, and the innovations which Gilbert and Sullivan introduced to content and form directly influenced musical theatre in the 20th century.

The Mikado was the most successful of the ‘Savoy Operas’, works which were written to be produced at the Savoy Theatre, built in 1881 by Richard d’Oyly Carte, the impresario who brought Gilbert and Sullivan together. Its story pokes fun at English bureaucracy and social standing, thinly disguised by a Japanese setting in the fantasy city of Titipu, a seaside resort. The narrative and the characters who populate it resonate today, in an era where career civil servants and political mandarins, sycophants and hangers-on appear to hold sway over those who govern us, and at a time where donations to political parties can lead to elevation to the House of Lords and other positions of privilege. All this commentary is delivered with catchy, memorable tunes (The Mikado contains some of Gilbert & Sullivan’s most well-loved songs, including ‘A Wand’ring Minstrel’, ‘Three Little Maids’ and ‘Tit Willow’), wit, warmth and humour. Add an attractive set, fine singing and a great chorus, and you have the recipe for a splendid night’s entertainment.

As a child growing up in Shrewsbury, we had members of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company lodging with us while the company were on tour, and in Birmingham in the 1970s I saw Welsh National Opera productions of The Mikado, Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore. I’ve always enjoyed the clever combination of words and music, the hummable tunes and colourful settings of these operettas, and so when Jonathan Miller’s production of The Mikado first burst onto the scene in 1986, I was keen to see his fresh take on this much-loved story. It’s taken me 30 years to achieve this, and the latest revival at English National Opera did not disappoint.

The curtain goes up on a light bright cream set, depicting a hotel in a 1930s English seaside resort. The setting may suggest faded gentility, but there is nothing cosy about satire, and the production shines an amusing but critical light on political bureaucracy and scheming and the English middle class and their obsession with status. It is Gilbert’s poking fun at our own status anxiety, and the satirist’s talent for highlighting the absurdities of bureaucracy, which makes Mikado so enjoyable for us today.

The costume colour palette is simple, black and cream with tiny flashes of red, and the chorus and dancers are dressed as bell-hops and maids. Richard Suart as Ko Ko (the tailor-turned-Lord High Executioner) steals the show. It’s a role he’s played many times, and it shows in his exquisite comic timing: obsequious bowing and scraping one minute, the next flirting and patting bottoms of maids. His “moment” comes in the great number ‘I’ve Got a Little List’, updated as is traditional to reflect the zeitgeist. Thus, Jeremy Clarkson, Sepp Blatter and FIFA, cheating Russian athletes, David Cameron (with a not-so-veiled reference to ‘Pigggate’) and Donald Trump get a mention.

Nanki-Poo, the young man and “second trombonist” (which provides much scope for comic asides) who is in love with Yum Yum (Ko Ko’s ward, and wife-to-be) was elegantly played by Anthony Gregory with a nice balance between pathos and comedy, while Yum Yum (Mary Bevan) was winsome and coquettish.

Youth and experience were celebrated too in this revival: young conductor Fergus Mcleod was making his house debut on this occasion, while and Robert Lloyd, who made his debut at ENO 46 years ago, reprised the role of the Mikado, tottering and portly in his over-sized cream linen suit.

The evening fizzed along, the singing and drama enhanced by some wonderfully quirky and surreal Busby Berkeley-style dance interludes, and it was lovely to see Jonathan Miller there, cheerfully greeting friends in the bar beforehand, and later taking a bow at the end of the show. The standing ovation was as much an appreciation of that evening’s performance as the enduring appeal of Miller’s sparkling production.

The Mikado continues in repertory at ENO until February 2016. Details here

 

It’s not unusual these days to find operas staged in unexpected locations; the plush velvet and gold of the traditional opera house exchanged for something more earthy and – to use a buzzword of the fringe opera movement – accessible. Here Alisdair Kitchen, director of Euphonia Opera, introduces his latest project – ‘Don Pasquale’ in a pub……

Mounting operas in such places has done much to popularise an often-misunderstood art form, and there is something thrillingly visceral about experiencing operatic voices up close. Certain trade-offs are inevitable; large casts must be slimmed-down, choruses cut, and very often the original language altered to a snappy vernacular translation. And of course, there is hardly room for a full orchestra in an intimate venue.

My company – Euphonia (www.euphoniaopera.com) – is venturing into this territory for the first time with Donizetti’s ‘Don Pasquale’ at the Drayton Arms Theatre in South Kensington. We have been honing our craft for the last five years with full-scale productions at the Rye Arts Festival, most recently presenting an ambitious staging of Mozart’s Don Giovanni set on a vintage train [http://www.ryenews.org.uk/culture/don-giovanni-goes-rails]. Donizetti’s sparkling domestic comedy is the first instalment in what will be a regular opera series at The Drayton, with future productions including ‘La Traviata’ and Gluck’s ‘Iphigénie en Tauride’. Legendary opera director John Copley, whom I am privileged to have as a mentor, is Patron of the season.
‘Don Pasquale’ is an absolute gem in the repertoire – a simple yet effective plot rendered in glorious bel canto. It’s intimacy lends itself well to the guiding principal of Euphonia’s work at this theatre, namely to produce chamber versions of operas which are distillations of the original. We hope to concentrate the essence of a work without distorting it. It’s a question of balance – if you take away the orchestra and grand stage resources that operas were conceived with, you have to ensure that the other side of the scale is well-stacked. For instance, there’s something special about the blend of music and words as the composer originally set them; for this reason, we perform in the opera’s original language.

But above all we aim to be entertaining! We have a splendid cast for ‘Don Pasquale’; the title role is something of a speciality for Graham Stone – it’s his tenth production! He is joined by the wonderful emerging vocal talents of Lauren Libaw, Joseph Doody and Christopher Jacklin, all accompanied by Euphonia’s excellent repetiteur Jonathan Musgrave.

‘Don Pasquale’ by Gaetano Donizetti

The Drayton Arms Theatre, 153 Old Brompton Road, London, SW5 0LJ

November 24th, 25th, 27th and 28th at 7.30pm

Autumn 2015 marks the start of a new venture for The Drayton Arms Theatre – an operatic season, presented by our Associate Director for Music and his vibrant young opera company Euphonia (President: Prof. Lord Robert Winston). These co-productions kick-off with Donizetti’s effervescent comedy, ‘Don Pasquale’, sung in Italian, with English surtitles.

After disinheriting his nephew Ernesto (Joseph Doody), wealthy old Don Pasquale (Graham Stone) seeks a wife to produce an heir for his estate. Dr. Malatesta (Christopher Jacklin) sympathizes with Ernesto and devises a crackpot plan to help him regain his inheritance and his true love, Norina (Lauren Libaw). Also featuring Edward Jowle (Notary) and accompanied on the piano by Jonathan Musgrave.

Music and Stage Direction: Alisdair Kitchen

Patron of Opera at The Drayton Arms Theatre: John Copley, CBE

Tickets (£15, £11 concessions) available at www.ticketsource.co.uk/euphonia

For further information about Euphonia and the opera season at the Drayton Arms Theatre, please visit www.euphoniaopera.com.

Delicious pre-theatre dining is available until 7pm Monday to Saturday, two courses for only £10! 
Call 020 7835 2301 to reserve your table.

Praise for Euphonia’s recent Don Giovanni at the Rye Arts Festival: “It was such a joy, and easily a match for anything seen on much grander stages. The superb professional young cast and orchestra assembled by Alisdair Kitchen, the director and conductor, and the driving force behind Euphonia, would grace any auditorium.” – Rye and Battle Observer

Part play, part opera ‘The Imperfect Pearl’ or ‘Perola Barroca’ (the derivation of the term baroque) explores the life and music of one of the Baroque periods most overlooked and forgotten about composers, Domenico Zipoli, whose his manuscripts lay undiscovered for 200 years in a box marked ‘toilet paper.’ The performance not only represents the return of Zipoli to the repertoire but also pianist Mark Latimer to the stage after pioneering treatment for Dupuytren’s contracture which was generously funded by Help Musicians UK and the Royal Society of Musicians.

For more than 200 years the enigma of Domenico Zipoli’s music and inspirational life lay forgotten in the dusty archives of the 18th century Roman Jesuits and the Missions they founded in the rainforests of South America, present day Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay.  His strange departure from Rome in 1716 where he was a revered composer, to an uncertain future in the lands across the ocean, is the sad and yet beautiful story told in ‘The Imperfect Pearl’.

Described by The Independent as “sumptuous and romantic”, ‘The Imperfect Pearl’ features Baroque keyboard, chamber and vocal music from Italy and South America, and was ccreated in collaboration with writer William Towers, and opera director Emma Rivlin.

Full details of tour dates here

I caught up with Mark Latimer to ask him about the inspiration behind The Imperfect Pearl and to talk more generally about his musical life.

Tell us more about how you conceived ‘The Imperfect Pearl’, what was the inspiration behind this music-drama and what have been the main challenges and pleasures of creating this music-drama and working with the actors and musicians to bring the story to life? 

You know that old adage about a million monkeys strumming on a million typewriters would eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare? Well, they would never come up with the life story of Domenico Zipoli! As bizarre a story as anyone could ever imagine. On the cusp of a successful career in Italy, he turns his back on the entire enterprise and goes to South America to become a Jesuit. He died there aged just 37 and his music remained largely undiscovered until, staggeringly, 1972 when it was discovered in a priest’s lavatory! You couldn’t make this stuff up. This extraordinary biography was the impetus and the inspiration for creating and conceiving the project. The challenges were and still are immense. So little was and is known about Zipoli, such of his music that’s extant is either implausibly difficult to source and get hold of, lots of it exists in hard to read manuscript, and our current rural touring scheme involves venues that are not really suited to this kind of theatrical presentation, even a comparatively small-scale production – we’re not talking exactly RSC proportions here – is prohibitively expensive to put on, and logistically it’s a nightmare trying to gather all the disparate elements together. Indeed had it not been for two very substantial Arts Council grants it would have been impossible. My wife, who is producer and my co-creator of the show, and I have been monumentally fortunate in securing a team that is in every respect world-class and I’ll never be able to thank them all adequately. But between us all, in the face of sometimes apparently insurmountable obstacles, we actually HAVE brought it to life. With regard to the difficulties with my hands, in some respect I consider myself fortunate that these things did occur, for had they not I may still be hacking my way through Alkan, Busoni, Reger et al.. I know for a fact, I would never therefore have ever discovered Zipoli at all. And my life would’ve been infinitely the poorer for that!

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music? 

Having unsuccessfully tried aged seven, to negotiate and navigate my way around the clarinet as a result of my poor late father’s immense collection of jazz 78s and realizing I was blowing through the wrong end, I jacked it in pronto! Some years subsequently, the Headmaster of my Junior School needed someone to play for assemblies and as I was the only kid who had even a rudimentary capacity to read music – albeit at that juncture only the treble clef – he nominated me to have a bash, pardon the pun, at it. It seems in retrospect that I must have had some kind of aptitude for it as I seemed to progress quite quickly and without too much impediment. As far as pursuit of a career, thinking back I had no real aptitude for or affinity with anything else…

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

One of my first and unquestionably most formative teachers was the great, great man Albert Ferber, to begin with his unique heritage – he was a student of both Rachmaninov and Gieseking – probably meant little or nothing at the time to a callow kid like me, but we became best of friends, his entire persona – charming, suave, genteel – alone was a massive, massive influence. And of course, there was the supernaturally towering figure of John Ogdon. We likewise became immensely good friends and in terms of sheer colossal intellect and ability he is and will always remain unsurpassed. And I still miss him. Then there was my teacher at the Royal College of Music, Angus Morrison who knew Ravel, Walton, the Sitwells inter alia, a truly ineffably wonderful musician and gentleman. Finally Jorge Bolet whom I knew quite well as for about three weeks in the early eighties we shared the same management. Had it not been for the first time I met him – a road to Damascus moment for all the WRONG reasons – I would never have started smoking! As a brief corollary to all this, I was once interviewed for the post of Head of Keyboard at a major UK institution and I was asked why everyone I ever knew and worked with was dead!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Without question the ‘Take 2 – Unhinged’ album for Spotlite Jazz Records. We did a whole bunch of complicated stuff and half of the record is my own compositions. We did it in just six hours, the five of us had never all worked together previously and I had pleurisy at the time. I think that CD is my greatest achievement.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I can only recall two with any modicum of vividity, and both for entirely the wrong reasons; I visited China loads of times but at one stadium concert in Hangzhou, I was towards the end of La Campanella – halfway through the long high D sharp trill – and the entire 25,000 audience suddenly burst into applause. Didn’t know how to react to such spontaneous appreciation, which is very common there – along with other such unusual concert activities as having telephone conversations, babies crying, the habitual spitting!  

The other was centuries ago. I did a concert at Wigmore Hall but the day before substituted an advertised piece for one by a composer friend who died the previous week. The ‘critic’ reviewed the ‘unplayed’ advertised programme. The fact that the review was damning was less important to me than the heretic act itself. 

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Everything’s a challenge; getting up in the morning, getting old, non-smoking long-haul flights etc.. Maybe dealing with the diagnosis of Dupuytrens Disease, a subject I’ve written much about lately owing to the interest in our production, ‘The Imperfect Pearl’ being on tour was one of the greatest challenges. The loss of the use of one’s hands and all that that implies, not wishing to sound melodramatic, really is akin to a death or bereavement.

https://youtu.be/6D_OdtInwCQ

A Safe Pair of Hands? – Mark Latimer describes his diagnosis and treatment of Dupuytren’s contracture and talks about his return to music

Interviewed in the programme notes for Verdi’s La Traviata at ENO, director Peter Konwitschny explains that the subject matter of the plot remains daring and “socially explosive”, even in our more permissive times. For at the heart of Verdi’s narrative is Violetta, a tart, a prostitute, a whore (earlier productions from another time refer to her more delicately as “a courtesan”). It was Verdi’s apparent sympathy for this character which shocked his audiences. Violetta may not shock us now, coming at the opera with our 21st-century sensibilities, but the manner in which she is viewed and treated by those around her as the narrative unfolds still has the power to make us uneasy. Like Isherwood’s Sally Bowles, Violetta is the “tart with a heart” and the only true human being in the piece.

ENO’s La Traviata was first seen in this production in 2013 and many of the original cast remain, including tenor Ben Johnson, who plays Alfredo as a naive bookworm, complete with duffle coat and specs, suffering the teasing of the boozy chorus in the first scene as he proposes a toast to Violetta. His warmth and passion is convincing throughout the drama, and particularly poignant when he calls out to Violetta from the stalls (disturbing the front row to emphasise his desperation). Elizabeth Zharoff makes her debut in the role of Violetta, playing her a fiesty yet vulnerable mannequin in the opening scene, before she exchanges her stiff crimson party frock for comfy country clothes (a lumberjack shirt and Timberland boots) in Scene 2. Her coloratura singing at the end of Scene 1 is exquisitely precise, freighted with anguish. Anthony Michaels-Moore, who makes his appearance as Alfredo’s father in Scene 2, is a powerful presence, and like the other leading roles, that power is tinged with sensitivity.

Alongside these fine singers, the setting was, for me, crucial to the success of the production. The last time I saw La Traviata was in a film version, all crinolines, ringlets, chandeliers and breathless over-acting which disguised the true nature of the narrative. Here, the simple setting – bordello-red curtains cleverly painted with trompe l’oeil pleats and used to sensual and dramatic effect as the drama plays out (they are torn down in the final scene), and as single chair – allow us to focus on the psychology and raw emotion of La Traviata. And with few visual distractions, one can also appreciate Verdi’s music: the chilly opening bars are played as if heard in the next room, a musical signpost to what happens later, and there is also some wonderfully pared down playing by the wind section in particular, under the direction of Roland Böer.  This production has lost all the ballet music too and some aria repeats, and there is no interval, reducing the running time to a spare 110 minutes. The chorus are sloshed, voyeuristic party-goers, in DJ’s and LBD’s, revelling in schadenfreude at Violetta’s situation and Alfredo’s innocence. In the final scene, when the doctor is summoned to Violetta, he appears in his party hat, cocked at a drunken angle, with streamers instead of stethoscope. This is a production which really gets to the heart of what this opera is about: passionate love, premature death and the fundamental humanity of its tragic heroine.

My husband accompanied me, my regular opera companion being unwell, and I was pleased that he, who is, by his own confession, “opera allergic” (after I forced him to endure Britten’s ‘Death in Venice’ at Glyndebourne some 26 years ago) enjoyed the production and was able to appreciate both the spectacle and emotional impact.

La Traviata continues in repertory at ENO at London’s Coliseum