Interview with Francesca Gilpin

Tell us about opera by definition and your current production.
Opera by definition was set up in Tunbridge Wells in Kent in 2002. This will be our ninth production, but the first one to be staged in the Tunbridge Wells Opera House. This is a completely new venture for us and weíre very excited to be here. It is an amazing building and weíre very lucky that Weatherspoons, who owns the building, is in partnership with us for the current project. We are presenting Cosi fan tutte in three evening performances and a matinee. The matinee is mostly for schools, though weíll have the ordinary public in the stalls as well.

The Opera House is now a pub.
Yes, weíll be turning it back into a theatre. The tables and chairs will go, weíll put in seats, mask it off and then the set will be put in.

The previous projects were staged at the Trinity Theatre and the Assembly Hall in Tunbridge Wells. We also did a small tour in 2003 of Kent and Sussex with Dido and Aeneas a few years ago. We do concerts and semi-staged works at Finchcocks, which holds a collection of early music instruments.

Do you present your operas in English?
Yes, on the whole. Itís more accessible. We donít have the facilities to do surtitles. If youíre not going to do surtitles, I think you have to have it in English.

What was your first production?
It was The Magic Flute at the Trinity Theatre. It was absolutely fantastic, we had some wonderful singers. We were sold out. Then we did Dido and Aeneas, Don Giovanni, several semi-staged concerts of Baroque opera at Finchcocks, Eugene Onegin at Trinity Theatre and a big popular concert at the Assembly Hall.

Have you planned your next production yet?
We have already commissioned a new translation of Handelís Tamerlano and depending on different factors, it may well be Tamerlano that we do next. Christopher Cowell has done the translation for us. Itís absolutely fantastic. Itís modern. I wanted to set it in the present day.

Don Giovanni, The Flute, Cosi Ė is Mozart your favourite composer?
I donít think I have a favourite composer. I have favourite operas. I very much like most of Handelís operas. I like a lot of Brittenís operas.

When weíre programming, we also consider what is going to sell in the Tunbridge Wells area. Itís no good doing an obscure Baroque opera, if itís not going to sell. And we are not doing the very, very popular operas that get toured by Ellen Kent for example, the Carmens, the Butterflies, the Bohemes - I donít ever see us doing those because there are so many opportunities to see them elsewhere.

Cosi fan tutte is a fairly populist choice, but we decided to go for something safer that we normally would have done because we are using the Opera House for the first time; itís a new venue and we donít know how itís going to work.

It might feel a safer choice, but Cosi is a tricky operaÖ How are you going to do the ending?
That I canít possibly tell you (laughing). I think it is one of the trickiest operas and weíve been putting it off for years. Now that Iím doing it, itís been a fascinating journey of discovery, with a hugely talented and questioning cast.

Cosi fan tutte is very tricky. There are so many changes of emotion and changes of feeling from both couples that to make it a story that works is very hard. Itís very hard to make it believable for Fiordiligi and Dorabella on stage, but itís equally hard to make it believable for the audience without turning it into a farce. There are some very tender moments and some darker issues. Don Alfonso is a much darker character than he is often played. Heís got some real issues that he wants to explore by setting up the whole wager.

And then the ending: how do you end it? Everybody does it differently. I think, in many ways, itís come out of the rehearsal process. I had an idea but I think we didnít decide until weíd actually blocked it. The characters develop within rehearsals, particularly if youíve got a cast that are working really well together as an ensemble. They play off each other and you canít necessarily decide exactly how itís going to be at the end until youíve gone through the whole rehearsal process, the whole opera. In fact, we are doing what I originally hoped we would do, but it was a very collaborative process, opened to discussion.

What makes this opera so popular? At the moment, there are three productions of Cosi around London running one after another.
Itís a small cast. You can cut the chorus out. Itís got great tunes. Itís Mozart. Itís a well-known opera. Thereís no such thing as a guaranteed box office, but if there were, I think Cosi fan tutte and The Marriage of Figaro are pretty much guaranteed to get an audience. If youíre a small company and you need the income from the box office returns, itís a fair bet to do a well-known Mozart. Don Giovanni is perhaps equally popular, but I wouldnít put it in the same category as those two.

You have sold out.
Yes, we sold out before Christmas, I think. Which is absolutely fantastic. We now have irate people on the phone asking why they canít get tickets (it runs Feb. 5th- 7th). Well, they did go on sale in November. We are absolutely delighted.

What is your personal background?
I have no formal training in directing, or in singing, or in music. Like many directors, I sort of fell into it. Television, theatre, then opera. Itís something that just comes to you and then you work through the system.

Did you grow up with opera?
No, not particularly. My parents used to go to Glyndebourne when I was very small and they liked opera, but I wasnít in a house surrounded by music or by musicians. We spent a lot of time going to the theatre and ballet.

It was one of those lightbulb moments. I was involved in an opera production. It suddenly seemed to me opera was the most expressive of all art forms: story-telling, drama and music. Absolutely fantastic. Opera combines everything: theatre, dance, visual arts, all in on compact package.

I used to go to see opera in my twenties. As a beginner, I liked the classic ones, the easy ones, like Boheme and Pagliacci.

What was the first opera you saw?
The first nearest-to-opera I ever saw was Die Fledermaus. I guess the first opera I ever saw was La boheme. It blew me away. Puccini is incredibly clever. The way the music resonates with your heart... It would have been in London, but I cannot remember where it was and who was in it. Except that it was fantastic.

What appeals to you most?
There needs to be a good story, a dramatic story. I love Handel. Handelís Rodelinda is one of my favourite operas. The music is so exquisite. I love Britten. Iíve just been working on The Turn of the Screw for Glyndebourne and the music is absolutely fantastic. Itís the other extreme.

Probably my favourites are Handel, Mozart, Puccini (because he always stirs you even if you donít want to be stirred) and Britten.

Iím less fond of great operas with huge choruses and the whole spectacle. I like it more intimate. You can do it with Handel and you can do it with Britten. And with Mozart. All these operas can be intimate. They donít have to be huge, arena-size pieces. I like the immediacy and the small scale.

When we have people who donít come regularly to opera, or who have never been, they are just completely blown away by being able to see and hear singers up-close. I remember doing a concert at Finchcocks one summer. Some friends of mine came. They had never been to opera. They just couldnít believe it, the sound, the experience... 80 members of the audience in a small, panelled room, six singers and a harpsichord. Thatís what appeals to me.

I need to be moved by what Iím seeing. I donít need to be in tears, Iím quite happy to be made angry. But I need to feel the emotion. When Iím bored, I tend to leave at the interval. Lifeís too short. It there were two intervals, Iíd probably give it to the second interval, but if it hasnít improved by then, I would go.

What do you consider very important for opera singers?
Stagecraft is hugely important. It all depends on the size of the venue. If you are performing at the Met, youíve got to have a completely different approach. Your expressions, your voice and your movements have to carry a very long way. Whereas here, the audience are very close. I think adapting your technique to the space youíre going to be in is very important. Most of the young singers I work with are very good at the dramatic side as well as the technique of singing. The cast of Cosi have been fantastic.

Do you employ young singers only?
Yes. Well, I donít know what you call young, but they are all around their thirties. Theyíre all established. Theyíve all sung roles with major houses. Theyíre all well out of the conservatoire. We also have understudies, who are less experienced. They get a chance to perform at least one full production in our educational programme.

We run education and outreach programmes in local schools during the weeks leading up to the production. We then do a matinee performance for schools and public which these students attend. The schools see the full production, not an edited version, performed by our understudy cast.

Are you tempted to commission a whole opera?
I would love to, but we have no funding for that. We have no Arts Council funding. We rely on private donations and corporate sponsorship only.

No Arts Council grant can be very good news in the present climate of drastic cutsÖ
Yes, we are not going to get cut. But the Olympics affect private sponsorship, too. Smaller businesses tend to head their sponsorship towards sports because of the Olympics. A lot of the budgets for the next year and the following year are being invested in health and sports.

I think itís going to be a tough time all round for all of the small-to-medium opera companies. Itís a very serious position weíre all in, because not only are there Arts Council cuts, but also local businesses are heading their sponsorship and support away from the Arts. Itís quite a scary place to be right now, I think, unless youíve got guaranteed annual funding. We donít have that.

Some support sports because they think opera is not for them. Is it because opera is still viewed as elitist?
The whole idea of going to an opera house can become something of a barrier because opera buildings may appear elitist. In my opinion, the majority of the public no longer think that opera is elitist, but perhaps they think itís not for them. This is either because they havenít been introduced to it in the right way, or perhaps theyíd been taken to see something difficult. I would not take somebody to see Wagner as their first opera. If itís somebodyís first time, you have to ease them in gently and take them to see something thatís going to be either fun or tragic, something thatís going to strike a chord.

I donít think opera is elitist, but people often think itís not for them. Weíre beginning to bring those barriers down, I think. With an English cast, in English, in a small venue, when people do come for the first time, they just love it.

Opera is a very expensive art form. Orchestra, singers, sets, costumes, lighting, choreographer, director, conductor Ė a huge amount of money goes into it before you even start. If you are a small-scale company, itís incredibly expensive. If you are the Royal Opera House, you magnify those costs tenfold.

We try not to charge too much because we donít want the price to put people off. The price here is £35. This is high for Tunbridge Wells, but itís not much for an evening of top quality opera, fully staged, with orchestra and singers. If we were subsidised, we would be able to charge less. In all the big houses you have the £5 and £10 seats, so itís not like you have to pay £150.

What would you change in the world in opera?
I donít have a lot of experience of how the big houses are run. I work at Glyndebourne a lot as an assistant director, so I know how that runs, but thatís different because it is all privately funded.

If I would change anything, it would be to stop flying in a big star three quarters of the way through of the rehearsal process, who comes on and does their version of whatever it is. I find that totally ridiculous. I mean, itís lovely to see the big stars, but I can't think why they shouldnít have to go through the whole rehearsal process with everybody else to create the piece.

Perhaps some of the fees that are paid to those singers are wrong. But, on the other hand, the amount weíre paying our footballers far exceeds what weíre paying our opera singers. I donít necessarily think we overpay our footballers; theyíre getting a huge amount of money but what they give back in return to this country in terms of kudos and interest in the sport is absolutely fantastic. They get a lot of money but perhaps theyíre worth it. Top opera singers have trained for years and years, theyíve got fantastic reputation, theyíre getting paid a lot of money, perhaps theyíre worth it. I donít know.

I wouldnít want to do an opera with one single superstar in it, because I think that unbalances the ensemble. I would want everyone working together. As a smaller company, I would never want to put in a star.

Are you running opera by definition the way Glyndebourne is run?
We have the same ideals: we want the best. I suppose we model ourselves on Glyndebourne in that we have always sought to provide the best we possibly can, without cutting corners. We pay people a fair rate, unlike the small opera companies who only pay traveling expenses.

What do you do outside opera?
Gardening is my new passion. I love gardening. Weíve just acquired a puppy. He is a cocker spaniel cross, a rescue pup. Weíve had him for about two months, so thatís just full-time. And I have three children who are my main focus outside the opera world.

VIEW Francesca Gilpinís page HERE.

VIEW opera by definition page HERE.

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