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Commentary

17 May 2019

Un ballo in maschera at Investec Opera Holland Park: in conversation with Alison Langer

“Sop. Page, attendant on the King.” So, reads a typical character description of the loyal page Oscar, whose actions, in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, unintentionally lead to his monarch’s death. He reveals the costume that King Gustavo is wearing at the masked ball, thus enabling the monarch’s secretary, Anckarstroem, to shoot him. The dying King falls into the faithful Oscar’s arms.

Un ballo in maschera at Investec Opera Holland Park

An interview with Alison Langer, by Claire Seymour

Above: Alison Langer

Photo credit: Victoria Cadisch

 

It’s a smallish trouser role, with two arias (pretty fiendish despite their brevity), and Oscar does not normally make that much of an impact of an audience. Indeed, one reviewer recently ventured that “Oscar, Gustavo’s page, is the opera’s most thankless role. The character can seem chirpy and annoying, but the role requires quick coloratura and quite a bit of glamour-less ensemble singing.”

But, soprano Alison Langer, who is to perform the role of Oscar at Investec Opera Holland Park next month, tells me, without giving away any details or secrets, that director Rodula Gaitanou’s conception of the page will surprise me: that the role has been integrated much more fully into the wider action and that there is “something new” about this interpretation. We’re only a few minutes into our conversation and already I’m intrigued!

Alison is returning to Opera Holland Park for this new production of Un ballo in maschera following her participation in the OHP Young Artists Scheme last year, which saw her win accolades for her performance in the title role of La traviata. One critic remarked that she “made a poised and moving Violetta, bringing out the character’s youth, moving successfully from the brilliance of Act One, through the tragedy of Act Two to a powerful final scene … and in Act One she really made the coloratura part of the performance, rather than a florid add-one”; another that “Alison Langer presented a heroine who was all of a piece, naturally sympathetic and retaining a certain reserve … her vocal interpretation, anchored in the caressing warmth of her middle register, was admirably integrated”. One reviewer concluded, “I have to confess that Violetta's death scene was one of the most moving I have witnessed in a long time.”

Traviata Langer Workman.jpgAlison Langer (La traviata, Investec Opera Holland Park). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

I ask Alison what she learned and gained during rehearsals for and performances of that OHPYA La traviata? She replies that while she was nervous about taking on the role, her repertoire had been moving in that direction, so she decided to jump in the deep end and go for it. She immediately knew that she’d made the right decision: “There was no ‘pressure’. The Young Artists Scheme offers a sort of ‘safety blanket’, though the participants are absolutely treated as professional soloists.”

Alison explains that she was always made to feel on a par with Lauren Fagan , and as the latter’s understudy she was immensely grateful that Lauren was happy for her to watch rehearsals. So, she had two weeks observing the way the opera was being staged. The Young Artists would work in a downstairs room at St Gabriel’s Pimlico, while the main cast rehearsed above, so she felt really involved in the production. The Young Artists had a full sitzprobe and were able to get used to the Opera Holland Park stage. The YA performances are very much an integral part of the season, and Alison remarks that OHP “make quite a thing” of the YA performance, and that the young singers are encouraged to engage with the audience after the performance.

La traviata did not just offer Alison the chance to perform a new role; it was also the first time that she had covered a role. After her studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, she became a member of the Glyndebourne Chorus in 2015 and in 2016 made her debut in the role of Bridesmaid in Le nozze di Figaro. So, she hadn’t had any experience as an understudy, and La traviata “killed two birds”, so to speak.

The wide stage at Opera Holland Park is quite formidable, and Alison comments that during the dress rehearsal she found herself “over-singing”: “I came off-stage and if felt as if I had sung Violetta twice!” Her teacher had observed the dress rehearsal and advised her that she didn’t need to ‘sing out’ so much; the acoustic at OHP is quite tricky, but the sound does ‘come back’. “It may be ‘outdoors’ but you don’t have to push so much,” she explains.

So, Alison has begun rehearsals for Un ballo from a ‘running start’, though the role itself finds her in unfamiliar waters. “I’m used to playing characters who die at the end of the opera, so it’s strange to find myself as the ‘comic relief’!” she says. She does consider previous productions and interpretations when tackling a new role, but she likes to find new ways of inhabiting the character: “it’s more fun”. She looks back to La traviata and explains that, while she had to ‘fit into’ the production, she couldn’t “just copy what Lauren was doing. I had to do it my own way.” And, arias such as ‘Sempre libera’ offered such an opportunity; Alison was pleased that Rodula Gaitanou gave her ‘permission’ to explore the role for herself.

In this production, she explains, Oscar and Gustavo are very good friends. Alison has enjoyed getting into Oscar’s shoes and developing her understanding of his character during rehearsals. She explains that one might arrive with conceptions about a role, but then find that because the people that you are acting with have different ideas, and you thus need to change and adapt. And, of course, this affects the way that you use the voice to communicate character and feeling.

Young-Heidi-Follies-National-Theatre-Johann-Persson.jpgAlison Langer (Young Heidi, Follies, National Theatre). Photo credit: Johann Persson.

Alongside her operatic roles, Alison has been performing the role of Young Heidi in Follies, which opened at the National Theatre in July 2017 and ran until January 2018; following January rehearsals this year, it’s returned to the NT and she has performed for eight shows each week since February. When I ask if it feels a bit relentless at times, Alison responds, “Yes, it’s tough, but an experience I would recommend to any young opera singer to build one’s stamina and appreciate the different work ethic required - summoning the energy required day after day, and travelling into London to perform show after show”. The musical theatre world is a totally different terrain to the world of opera, she observes. Not only are the cast performing night after night, but they are also simultaneously auditioning for new roles - often for the same roles, which can be difficult if eight performers are sharing a dressing-room - and, they need to be ‘fresh’ every night! This is where the Assistant Director plays a huge role: if things have gone a little ‘stale’, he/she will need to encourage the cast to find new ways of approaching their roles - “different thought processes”.

There are technical challenges too, such as adapting one’s voice to the microphone. But, Alison had the good fortune to be performing with two ‘Dames’. Alison clearly relished working with Felicity Lott - “she’s so poised and can do some many things with her voice” - and Josephine Barstow: “she’s so dramatic and sings out with real relish and style”. Alison also has nothing but praise for the sound engineers who have only one opportunity to hear a singer, after which they must make adjustments to balance levels. In a way it’s nice to have someone to make necessary adjustments, she says! But, after a morning of rehearsals at OHP, she’s very much aware of the need to listen to her own voice.

Musical theatre also requires performers to sing, dance and act with equal panache. While Alison does have some ballet training - and her dance skills, she tells me, will be put to good use in Un ballo! - she’s had to learn new skills and adapt to the genre. When I ask if she would be keen to do more musical theatre, it’s immediately clear that if Rodgers and Hammerstein, or such like, were to be offered, she would snap up the opportunity. She really enjoyed learning the role of Rose in Opera North’s Street Scene and will participate in a concert performance at West Green of Guys and Dolls this summer.

In fact, in her younger days, Alison might have envisaged a career in musical theatre or as a straight actor. Her family’s music interests were largely classical and she feels that initially she might have been inclined to ‘rebel’ against that. But, she’s clearly delighted to be performing at Opera Holland Park this summer, remarking the quality of the casting at OHP. She is very much looking forward to working with Matteo Lippi, who sings Gustavo, and the whole Un ballo cast. And I, too, am looking forward to finding out about this ‘new’ Oscar!

Un ballo in maschero runs at Investec Opera Holland Park from 8th - 29 th June.

Claire Seymour

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