PerformerUpClose interview, 19 August 2015

Violinist, Nicole O'Crespo Donoghue
Currently performing in OperaUpClose's production of Carmen at Soho Theatre. 

Previous to Carmen, you've worked with larger orchestras in bigger venues in relation to our quartet at Soho Theatre. How have you found the UpClose nature of Carmen, can you explain the positives and difficulties of downsizing opera? 
I am absolutely loving performing Carmen in a more intimate setting. I think its a fantastic idea because you can really connect with the audience and the viewers can truly see the singers and the musicians, they can notice small details that usually you might not see. It's true I perform regularly with larger orchestras but I also regularly perform as a soloist and chamber musician so this setting of just 4 players is very enjoyable for me and we each get to play some incredible melodies, its fantastic music. The only struggle I can think of is that sometimes there are very dramatic moments, as in the nature of any opera and you wish you could sound like a full orchestra to give that overwhelming effect but the composer Harry Blake has done an incredible job arranging Bizet's music and adding to that the fantastic musicians I'm getting to work with, it regains that powerful feeling right away.

What are the highlights of your career so far? 
I have had some great opportunities over the years. I have had the privilege of performing for HRH Princess Anne and King Felipe and Queen Leticia of Spain. I performed for Wikipedia's 10th anniversary event and I'm now involved with Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance. I recently played at the West End Live in Trafalgar Square with Lord of the Dance and there was apparently half a million spectators so that was really fun.

When/how did you decide to become a professional violinist? 
I always knew I wanted to be a performer. I always felt at home on stage but when I was a teenager I had to make a hard decision because I always loved school (yes, I do admit it!) and I had the opportunity of going to medical school, neurology and cardiology always fascinated me. I had to decide whether to become a surgeon or go to London to continue my music studies at the Royal Academy of Music. I had sacrificed so much over the years, practicing many hours a day and concentrating always on my studies and so with the support of my parents (to whom I owe so much) I just went for it, I moved to London, I didn't know anyone but I had the determination to make my dreams come true. Best decision I ever made. 

Carmen (OperaUpClose).  Alyson Frazier (Flute), Nicole O'Crespo Donoghue (Violin), Theodore Balkwill (Cello).  Photo Andreas Grieger

Carmen (OperaUpClose). 
Alyson Frazier (Flute), Nicole O'Crespo Donoghue (Violin), Theodore Balkwill (Cello). 
Photo Andreas Grieger

Any fun stories to bring up about working with Carmen's musical director, Berrak Dyer, and the rest of the orchestra so far? 
So many! But I might get into trouble if I go into details... :D  It's absolutely fantastic working with Berrak and the other musicians. They are all incredible performers and so much fun to work with. This has definitely been the most fun I have had so far and I usually cant wait to get to Soho Theatre. 

How have you found Harry Blake's arrangement for Carmen? Any important/unique points for the audience to look out for?
Harry Blake has done an outstanding job with the arrangement of Carmen. It is a very complicated piece and to be able to reduce it to 4 players keeping the freshness and drama of the music is really something else. He has truly done a wonderful job. 
In terms of unique points, I think you can't beat the famous Carmen melodies and they are instantly recognizable. I'm sure many people will be singing "Toreador" on their way out. My best advice, sit back, relax and let the music and drama take over. It'll be a trip to remember. 

I hear quite often of how the story of the opera is reflected into the composers music, can you use examples from Bizet's Carmen? 
There are many examples of the story being reflected, after all that is what music is all about. I believe the best moments where this is portrayed is during any of the love scenes, or Carmen's need to express her spirit of freedom. Usually its in the love scenes where I get to really give everything I have in terms of expression and energy. The violin portrays moments where you can hear José's passion and desperation yet still sweetness and care for Carmen. Its quite complicated I suppose, as love usually is. 

What's next for you after Carmen
Straight after Carmen finishes I'm off to Aldeburgh to perform the Lark Ascending at a World War I remembrance concert and I will also continue my freelancing. I'm on trial with the Philharmonia at the moment and have other scheduled concerts as Guest Leader and soloist so its a very exciting time. 

What's the most challenging aspect of your job? I guess there's a lot of rehearsal and continuous practice? 
It's true there is a lot of rehearsal and personal daily practice but I enjoy every minute of it. In the end, the hard work pays off. I would say to be a performer you need to truly love it because it's not just a job, its a way of life and personally, I wouldn't change anything at all. There is nothing better than the applause at the end of a concert and the knowledge that through your performance you can make a film come alive or entertain people and move something inside them. I completely agree with Plato (Greek Philosopher):

"Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything"

Carmen is on at Soho Theatre until 19 September
Book Tickets Here

How to be a Flourish Competition Winner: Guy Harries

With the Flourish Submission Deadline fast approaching, we got in touch with our inaugural winners to find out what advice they had for this year's competitors. Here's what composer, Guy Harries, had to say...

2012 Flourish Competition Winner
Two Caravans
Composed by Guy Harries
Libretto by Ace McCarron

What were your reasons for wanting to submit an opera to OUC’s 2012 Flourish Competition?
We had the dream of turning the novel Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka into opera – it had all the ingredients: larger than life characters, comedy, action and drama. Initially we worked on the first stages of this opera at Kameroperahuis in the Netherlands together with Ilonka van den Bercken (initiator and director) and saw the huge potential of developing it further into a full production. OperaUpClose, with its fresh approach to opera, seemed like the perfect production company to do this with, so we decided to apply and see if we might win. We believed in the concept and the power of our material, so put in a lot of work into the application.

What was your professional background before entering the competition – had you written an opera before?
I’ve worked as a composer for many years with a focus on vocal music and drama-based multi-media works. I had composed the music for the opera Jasser (based on a play by Abdelkader Benali, with libretto adaptation and stage direction by David Prins), and produced it together with Ilonka van den Bercken, via the independent production house that I co-founded in the Netherlands – Bodylab Arts Foundation. Jasser was also a socio-politically engaged piece combining some musical traditions from around the world, and Two Caravans drew on these ideas and aesthetics as well.

How did the two of you meet? If you’d worked together before the competition, in what capacity?
Ace was the brilliant lighting designer on the previous opera production I mentioned, Jasser. We got to know each other during work on that production, and I was impressed by Ace’s deep understanding of contemporary opera. Ace mentioned that he’d written a libretto before, and sent it to me to read. When Ilonka and I were looking for someone to adapt Marina Lewycka’s novel Two Caravans into a libretto, Ace was clearly the right creative partner.

For librettists/composers wanting to submit a new opera to this year’s competition, what advice would you give them?
It’s important to think about the production as a whole, and not focus only on separate elements (music, text, stage design etc). Opera is truly a multi-media form and all of these elements need to work well together. Also, I’d recommend selecting excerpts that really reflect the whole gamut of emotions and musical language that your opera explores. Another important thing is to ask yourself who the audience is. Who is going to come and see your opera? What interests them? How are you going to speak to them via your work? Also, as Flourish is a platform for small-scale chamber opera with a limited number of performers, you need to think about how you will be able to create a piece that will work within these limitations. We can all dream of a symphony orchestra, ten singers, a choir and a lavish set, but that’s not the reality in this case. You need to create something powerful taking this into account. There are of course advantages to small scale: an intimate proximity to the world of the characters and their emotional journey, and a strong team that knows each other well.

Describe the stages of collaboration for Two Caravans?
We were quite lucky, as the first stages had already happened in the Netherlands a couple of years previously and we had a chance to see what worked well in terms of pacing, comic effect and drama. The starting point was the story, and very much inspired by the original novel Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka. The novel is quite intricate and includes many characters. We needed to strip it down a bit (less characters and scenes) to fit within 1.5 hours. Marina was also very encouraging and generous with her time and occasionally came over to see the reheraslas and gave us useful feedback and encouragement. Then we got Vincent van den Elshout the director on board, and after casting the excellent singers, started a few days of workshops. Vincent worked with the set and costume designers on the visual aspects of the performance (the colours white and red were to be a central theme, along with tables and chairs that doubled as cars and an astroturf covered catwalk). More intensive rehearsals – both stage-focused and musical – and we were ready to go!

What was important for you as a composer in regards to the processes leading up to submitting Two Caravans
It was important for me to keep the dramatic thrust of the piece going via music. This was achieved via change of pace and atmosphere in the music, with fast switches as well as moving arias. I did a lot of research into the musical traditions of the countries that the characters of the piece come from (Poland, Malawi, the Ukraine and England) and then tried to create a combination that wasn’t a pastiche of these musical styles but a musical world in its own right.

What about after winning the competition, you had a year to develop the opera into a full-length production, care to expand on how that went?
This was a very busy year indeed! We needed to revise the first half of the opera that was already written and create the rest of it! Ace and I met several times to discuss the libretto and we were also in contact with the director Vincent van den Elshout to give him as much information in preparation for his staging plans. The last two months were the most intense, with the last scenes still being composed, and daily rehearsals. It was such a joy seeing it all come together, with Vincent and the wonderful singers coming up with comical and dramatic ideas and putting the whole thing together.

What are you up to now? Has Flourish helped your career in anyway? If so how and would you recommend others to submit an opera to this competition?
Currently I am working on my solo project based on the life of Alan Turing. The album is in the final mixing stages and should be released soon along with some live performances. I am also performing with an experimental sound project called Sonic Rituals (with musician Yumi Hara), and collaborating with visual artist Nicko Straniero on creating a musical alter-ego called Guy XY. There are also plans for two new chamber operas in development. Flourish gave me the opportunity to work with musicians and artists in a very intensive and holistic way and gain new insights into dramaturgical collaboration. I plan to continue working with the brilliant director Vincent van den Elshout on further production.