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09 May 2019

In interview with Polly Graham, Artistic Director of Longborough Festival Opera

What links Wagner’s Das Rheingold, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Cavalli’s La Calisto? It sounds like the sort of question Paul Gambaccini might pose to contestants on BBC Radio 4’s music quiz, Counterpoint.

An interview with Polly Graham, by Claire Seymour

Above: Polly Graham

Photo credit: Matthew Williams-Ellis


But, the answer, so Longborough Festival Opera’s Artistic Director Polly Graham tells me, is that the drama in each of these stylistically diverse operas is focused around a central strong female figure. Moreover, in the course of our discussion another connecting thread emerges: excepting Anna Bolena, the operas all straddle the boundary between the tragic and the comic.

Longborough Festival Opera’s 2019 season marks Polly’s second season in her role as Artistic Director of the festival that was co-founded by her parents, Martin and Lizzie, in 1991. However, while her role was announced in March 2018, Polly did not personally plan last year’s season and was responsible only for the programming of La Calisto this year, so any ‘thematic’ links that have emerged are coincidental and serendipitous.

The 2019 season also marks the first instalment of Festival’s second, four-year Ring cycle, following 2013’s presentation of three complete cycles of Wagner’s epic music dramas. I begin by asking Polly about the preparations for this new Ring, which will once again be conducted by Festival Music Director Anthony Negus, and how it will build upon experiences gained during the 2013 cycle. There’s a real sense of adventure, she explains. The Ring works well in the Longborough theatre for, although undoubted technical challenges remain, the intimate quality of the theatre serves the discursive and often soloistic style of The Ring well; and, it facilitates a good balance between singers and orchestra, foregrounding the drama and the way that the singers use the text. Indeed, technical limitations may in fact be an advantage for, Polly suggests, Wagner demands that we use our imaginations. The composer does not present literal images but encourages us to be forward-thinking: while Wagner does set the action in literal locations, his scenographic demands require the creative team and the audience to travel imaginatively, from Niebelheim to Valhalla, for example.

One element of ‘newness’ in this Ring cycle is that it will be brought to life by a female director, the Royal Opera House’s Head Staff Director Amy Lane. Polly feels that, while Amy insists that her design and concept will not directly promote a ‘feminist angle’, the content of the Ring does draw attention to the strength of the female characters. After all, it is the daughter of a patriarchal god who challenges the system by which the male gods are granted domination through the power of the magic ring, forced by the Nibelung dwarf Alberich from gold stolen from the Rhine maidens.

Similarly, the strength of Donizetti’s eponymous queen is compelling. Ambitious, volatile of temper, prone to jealousy, contradictory and at times capricious, Anne Boleyn has inspired both admiration and contempt. But, whatever her flaws, she was intelligent and courageous, daring to stand up to the powerful monarch who, most now believe, condemned her to death on trumped up charges which were designed to enable him to swiftly dissolve his marriage to the barren queen in order to re-marry and produce the male heir needed to secure the Tudor succession. At her trial Anne showed both humility and integrity: accused of adultery and treason she responded calmly that, while she admitted her weaknesses, and had been an out-spoken and jealous wife, she was innocent of all other charges. She is a fascinating figure who, in her intrigues to oust Henry’s wife of 23 years, Catherine of Aragon, was a catalyst for the religious schisms of the Tudor and Elizabethan reigns and thus, unintentionally, changed the course of English history.

Donizetti’s opera, Polly notes, engages the chorus in a manner completely opposite to the solo-centric Ring; while bel canto opera does present us with starry virtuosi in the central roles, it is the commentary of the chorus on the protagonists’ actions that pulls the drama alive. Longborough has not previously presented bel canto of a serious nature, though Polly gained experience of exploring iconic figures from English history when working on Robert Devereux at Welsh National Opera where she was Genesis Assistant Director for two years; and, the strong creative team her mother Lizzie assembled, including conductor Jeremy Silver and director Jenny Miller who worked together on Longborough’s 2018 production of L’incoronazione di Poppea, have considerable experience of working in the space at the theatre.

Alongside Das Rheingold and Anna Bolena is a new production by director Martin Constantine of Mozart’s Don Giovanni , sung in Amanda Holden’s English translation. Polly speaks of Martin’s awareness of the ‘responsibility’ involved in presenting Don Giovanni in the present time and knows that he will be attentive the issues relating to the behaviour of domineering men and the abuse of power. Donna Elvira is sometimes presented as a ‘hysteric’, while Don Giovanni’s inherent cynicism is brought to the fore; Polly believes that Martin will think about the characters and their relationships in fresh ways.

I confess to Polly that, despite the exciting appeal of this year’s main productions, the production that I am most intrigued by is the 2019 Longborough’s Young Artist Programme production: Cavalli’s La Calisto, directed by Mathilde López and conducted by Lesley Anne Sammons. More women at the helm! And, Polly is sure that Lopez will create something that is thought-provoking and which will skilfully gage the tone of the opera which sits between comedy and tragedy, with the cross-dressing and buffoonery placed alongside the terrible humiliations and appalling treatment endured by Ovid’s heroine. It’s a discomforting tale, says Polly, and she’s sure that Lopez will explore the scornful and pejorative attitudes that men display towards women and the former’s presumptions about their ability to dominate in challenging ways.

Mathilde herself has commented: “Comical and colourful, La Calisto is a complex story of desire; a desire that is recognised and valued when it is male, but shameful and repressed when it is female. The farcical effect often dwells on men dressing up or playing female roles. For our production, the female roles will be performed by female singers, thus replacing at the centre of the piece the passion between two women (Calisto and Diana). Set in a derelict shopping mall, with broken vending machines, trolleys and various female shoppers with different animal heads - ex or future victims of Giove’s sexual appetite - our production will colourfully evoke the absurdity and exhaustion of a very masculine approach to sex and relationships.”

A new orchestration has been commissioned by Lesley Anne which pulls the opera, in Polly’s words, “out of the Baroque sound-box” and creates a more contemporary soundscape, blending recorders and harpsichord with accordion, electric guitar and percussion. While she is excited about this new production, Polly - having now heard the re-arranged score - regrets that she did not commission a new translation too: you live and learn, she says!

She’s certainly keen to develop new ideas and schemes, particularly those that extend the diversity of the Festival’s reach and its connection with its local communities. One such plan was a projected story-telling project involving a clown and which would travel to all farm shows in the Cotswolds. Polly explains that when she first pitched this idea to the Longborough board of Trustees she did not realise quite how long it would take to make things happen, not least because her own work as a freelance opera director takes up “loads!” of her time. But the five-year The Recycled Ring project is underway and will aim to sustain and develop a connection with children over time as they progress through their secondary school careers.

In addition, the Longborough Youth Chorus will again be in vigorous voice this year, meeting every three weeks to work on elements from a variety of operas from across the canon. Next year the Youth Chorus will participate in a production of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, alongside talented artists at the start of their careers, as part of Longborough’s annual Emerging Artist programme. Finally, a summer school project running from April to July will engage with 50 children, bringing the total number of children LFO engages with per annum through workshops, dress rehearsals and youth choir up to near 1000. Along with their parents and teachers, LFO hosts many of the children for the day at Longborough, where they attend a dress rehearsal performance, following tours and workshops.

Diversity and equality are obviously central to Polly’s aims and values, and I ask her if she is pleased with the way things are developing at Longborough in this regard, and whether there are particular challenges? “We’re moving in the right direction,” she replies. “I’m both satisfied and dissatisfied.” And, she insists that it’s just as important to engage with parents, even grandparents, as it is with the children themselves. There are different but complementary priorities: the children are the future, but its similarly essential to engage the imagination of the adults who provide the wider life-context for those children.

Polly’s independent work in this regard has involved collaboration between Loud Crowd, the company that she established, and Bold Tendencies, a not-for-profit organisation based at the roof-top spaces at Peckham Multi-Storey Car Park, which commissions site-specific art and produces an ambitious programme of live events including music, opera, dance and literature. Last September, Polly presented Viktor Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis at the Peckham venue. Written in the concentration camp at Terezin in 1943, it is subversive satire of the Nazi regime. This production explored the creative energies of those incarcerated in Terezín, and examined how they used the fictional world of their drama to gain power, create joy and humour, and reclaim their humanity.

The performances were watched by large audiences who responded positively, despite the fact that the Car Park’s low ceilings make it quite a difficult space within which to work.

She’s currently working on a community project involving 80 people, with composer Orlando Gough and Barefoot Opera, and will direct The Gondoliers at the Welsh College of Music and Drama in July. When I ask Polly about her ‘approach’ to directing, and how she judges the relationship between words, music and staging she is adamant that ‘theatre’ is fundamental: “it has to be dynamic, or there’s no point in spending so much on staging”; the dramatic pulse is essential and it’s important that the conductor sees it from that point-of-view too. “With well known operas, one has a responsibility to tell a story through a story”. She often adds ‘a text’ around the operatic text, providing a context which creates a clear reality and brings the work closer to the audience, aiming to blur the boundaries between the audience and the stage. I remark that this seems to me a perfect description of Polly’s 2018 production of Dido and Aeneas with Blackheath Hall’s Community Opera.

As our conversation draws to a close, Polly remarks, somewhat wryly, that she doesn’t get asked to direct that many ‘classic’ operas: “I usually get the weirder projects.” But, next summer will see her make her directorial debut at Longborough, presenting Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses, with Tom Randle in the title role, conducted by Robert Howarth. She’s not willing to offer any clues as to her plans at this stage. But, I come away from our lively, warm and interesting discussion reflecting on one particular comment by Polly: “Sometimes it’s interesting for a director to oppose what the music is doing. It depends upon the piece and the concept.”

Longborough Festival Opera 2019 opens on 5th June. The full 2020 Festival programme has now been announced.

Claire Seymour

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