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‘It’s the art of telling a story’: English Touring Opera on the key to their award-winning success

PUBLISHED: 14:50 24 April 2018 | UPDATED: 14:56 24 April 2018

ETO production of Gianni Schicchi. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

ETO production of Gianni Schicchi. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

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Opera is for everyone. That is the ethos behind English Touring Opera whose latest three contrasting productions and a diverse cast come to Norwich Theatre Royal. The creative team tells us its about bringing the human stories to life.

ETO production of Gianni Schicchi. Photo: Richard Hubert SmithETO production of Gianni Schicchi. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Think opera and it is very easy to think it is an art form that is not for you. But the creative team behind the latest tour by English Touring Opera want to smash that perception.

Blanche McIntyre and Liam Steel are helping to bring two of the three productions in the company’s spring repertoire to life.

While they both have a strong track record in the genre as well as working within drama and film, their key aim is to make sure people enjoy the story.

Liam Steel is directing Gianni Schicchi, one-half of a double-bill of Puccini operas being staged on May 5, which is a sparkling comedy about a family inheritance in Florence.

ETO production of IlTabarro. Photo: Richard Hubert SmithETO production of IlTabarro. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

“You do want to hear incredible voices all the time but, for me, we are also in the art of telling a story,” he explains what he looks for when casting, beyond a high vocal standard. “We are not doing a recital so the voice on its own is not enough so we need the marriage of having very, very good actors with very, very good singers.

“Then, as with musical theatre, it takes you on to another realm that you don’t get with just words. Of course, you also have the fantastic music of the operas supporting you all the way through too.”

On top of his operatic pedigree, Liam has directed the critically-acclaimed production of Barnum at Chichester and did the musical staging for the movie version of Les Misérables.

A storytelling ethos is at the core of what he is trying to do and he says the surtitles (the operas will be sung in Italian) that allow the audience to follow the words being sung are not enough.

ETO Gianni Schicchi. Photo: Richard Hubert SmithETO Gianni Schicchi. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

“For me, I am always one of those people who, when I watch opera, I want to be able to know what the story is and be entertained by it even if I don’t know what is going on. I really believe that we tell stories with our bodies all the time through pictures and on stage.

“That is what my job as a director is. I want the audience to be engrossed and understand what is going on. The surtitles are there to help us with that but if we can succeed without them, then we have done our job.”

Liam’s production will be counter-balanced with another of Puccini’s operas, Il Tabarro, which has a much darker core. It focuses on love, lust and temptation as a married woman begins a torrid love affair with an employee of her husband leading to desire, drama and death.

This opera will be directed by James Conway, the general director of English Touring Opera. He has directed 24 new productions and four revivals for the company as well as penning libretti for two operas, translation for five others, and several works of fiction.

English Touring Opera The Marriage of Figaro. Photo: Jane HobsonEnglish Touring Opera The Marriage of Figaro. Photo: Jane Hobson

In 2014 the ETO won the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera, a category normally dominated by the big London opera houses. It was a remarkable breakthrough for a company that has been visiting Norwich Theatre Royal since 2010 and are also regulars at Snape Maltings.

The award was recognition of the company’s strong reputation for opening up opera to audiences away from the major opera houses and for innovative productions.

The third production of their most recent visit is a new production Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, being staged on May 3 and 4, which has been overseen by Blanche McIntyre, one of the most-talked about directors of the moment. She has won acclaim for directing a host of highly-regarded productions including Titus Andronicus for the Royal Shakespeare Company and plays for Shakespeare’s Globe.

For this production she has injected new energy into the story of Figaro and Susanna who have to overcome every obstacle put in their way by Count Almaviva who wants to stop their nuptials.

English Touring Opera The Marriage of Figaro with a cast including Ross Ramgobin (Figaro) and Abigail Kelly (Susanna). Photo: Jane HobsonEnglish Touring Opera The Marriage of Figaro with a cast including Ross Ramgobin (Figaro) and Abigail Kelly (Susanna). Photo: Jane Hobson

Like Liam, Blanche shares a strong passion for characterisation and for an audience to be able to breathe in the emotions and plot of an opera.

She explained: “It works in the same way as being able to look at somebody on the bus and understand something of what they are feeling even without speaking to them. These operas are all stories about people whose emotions are understandable, passionate and strongly felt.

“You should be able to get into what is going on even if you don’t speak the language.

“The Marriage of Figaro is sung in English so you should be able to understand it so the surtitles are there in case you miss a gag. It has enormous complexity and wit and is delightfully and lightly played with some lightly-held moments.”

The Marriage of Figaro features a BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) cast, which gives it a new dimension.

“What it also does in terms of the opera is that it highlights the fact that the society in Figaro is enormously unequal, the Count has all the power and, in this version, he is a wealthy white man,” explains Blanche. “It suggests if you are not white, a man and wealthy, life is made incredibly difficult for you. This means you have to be smarter, faster and more resilient simply to stay on the playing field because it is so uneven.

“By doing this, we open Figaro up and make it more important to the people watching it today rather than simply saying ‘here are some lovely people running about in frocks but nothing is really at stake.’ In fact, something much more important is at stake than the story we are telling. It has an impact that I hope will be much greater than that.”

The lead role in The Marriage Of Figaro is being played by Ross Ramgobin, who has been nominated for the What’s On Stage Breakthrough In Opera Awards, and studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music. He has sung for the Royal Opera and played Archibald Grosvenor for English Touring Opera’s production of Patience.

ETO production of Gianni Schicchi. Photo: Richard Hubert SmithETO production of Gianni Schicchi. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Starring opposite him as Susanna is Scottish soprano Rachel Redmond who discovered her love of singing with the Junior Chorus of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra aged just seven.

Meanwhile the Puccini double-bill cast includes Craig Smith who won the Ricordi Prize for Opera and has performed in the UK, Europe and Far East, Galina Averina who studied vocal performance at the Russian University of Theatre Arts in Moscow and has sung across Europe, and Bradley Travis who has performed for the likes of Opera North, Garsington Opera, and British Youth Opera.

He will be playing the Young Lover in Il Tabarro and Betto in Gianni Schicchi, and is excited about the differences between both pieces.

He said: “There is this amazing contrast with the drama and depth of emotion in Tabarro and then this completely different depth of feeling in Schicchi with these very grotesque characters that we are highlighting in this production. I actually think it is an almost perfect opera in the way it manages the text and the music, and it is so much fun to be involved with.”

ETO production of IlTabarro. Photo: Richard Hubert SmithETO production of IlTabarro. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

And this is echoed by Blanche, who laughs: “I think it is the perfect opera and I am not even working on it.”

• English Touring Opera is at Norwich Theatre Royal from May 3-5, 7.30pm, £37.50-£10, 01603 630000, theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

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