English Touring Opera’s epic arrives in Norwich with Christopher Ainslie
- Credit: Richard Hubert Smith
One of the world's most well-travelled opera singers Christopher Ainslie is at Norwich Theatre Royal in an epic production, taking on the lead-role in English Touring Opera's production of Handel's Giulio Cesare.
Passion, revenge and an epic story of bitter power struggles over the succession to Egypt's throne, Handel's Giulio Cesare is one of the greatest heroic operas ever written.
It's an epic story and is being staged in English Touring Opera's new production being staged at Norwich Theatre Royal in two parts, over two nights next week.
Part 1 entitled The Death of Pompey and is set in 49 BC. Caesar has defeated his rival Pompey and is now having to deal with the machinations of the King of Egypt, Ptolemy, and his sister Cleopatra.
Part 2 Cleopatra's Needle sees the Battle for the Kingdom of the Nile reach a crisis. Pompey's family is enslaved, Caesar is presumed dead and Cleopatra is made a prisoner of her brother.
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The ambitious production sees the ETO partner baroque orchestra The Old Street Band, made up of leading period instrument players from around the country, and includes a first-rate cast including South African countertenor Christopher Ainslie in the title role, and Soraya Mafi as Cleopatra.
Christopher is relishing the chance to play Caesar. He said: 'It is always a great privilege to portray an opera character on stage and all the more so when it is one of the great characters in the opera, and in this case baroque repertoire.
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'Most of the role is either full of bravado or potentially superficial lightness. While the opera needs this lightness to keep afloat alongside the devastating emotions of other characters, it also poses a challenge in portraying Cesare as a complex human with the full spectrum of emotions. There are just two brief moments when the audience can see into his soul and these must be used to their fullest potential. I am enjoying exploring his eternal optimism, and perhaps lack of life experience, until he is confronted with the head of Pompey, and then meets Cleopatra so he experiences love and infatuation probably for the first time.'
It is not just the story though. Handel's music also brings its own joy. While his operas have been performed countless times, Christopher believes the composer has a particular skill with his characterisation.
'He is a master of portraying real, complex human emotion and it is our challenge to uncover this with all the clarity we can. If we manage that and hold these emotions then, even for a modern audience, the 4 hour total of music across both parts passes quickly. We have to maintain an energetic high that keeps the audience captivated with a story portrayed in an art form that inherently requires a suspension of disbelief.'
The production boasts a strong creative team with designs by Cordelia Chisholm, who has previously worked on sets for a number of companies including Scottish Opera and Opera North, and direction from ETO's creative director James Conway.
Christopher's very first opera at the Royal College of Music was directed by James and he admires his dedication to stagecraft.
'He loves to explore what we as individual performers have to offer,' he said. 'James has been wonderful in creating a shape to let the drama and each character's emotions unfold. From the beginning we agreed on the strength that Handel's opera has if it is allowed space to do its thing. He has directed more opera than any director I know and clearly loves the music and dramatic potential this world of opera has to offer.'
This is latest chapter in the career of South African-born Christopher who says he was born into a musical family. He recalls: 'As a family, we would take part in singing weeks exploring German church music, we sang in choirs together, and my brothers and I had a string trio with me playing the viola.
'Between sailing regattas because we also loved sailing, we spent many a late night bashing through Shostakovich string quartets. Once we even gathered a bunch of youngsters to play the Mendelssohn Octet in our home in Cape Town.'
Although a keen musician, he ended up studying finance straight from school qualifying as a chartered accountant. 'At that stage, I thought I would take a break and study music for a while to experience a bit of that world. Very soon I realised I had found my home and never looked back.
'I enjoyed finance but it didn't mean anything to me personally. Music and singing on the other hand is central to who I am. It makes sense that should be what I do.'
One of his other passions is understanding the relationship between movement and the human body to help him grow as a performer.
He explained: 'I think it is because I grew up in Cape Town surrounded by the sea, lakes and mountains. Sport played as big a role in my life as music. I practice yoga and various movement and energy forms like Qi Gong, Feldenkrais, Reiki, and Alexander Technique, and over the years they have become part of the way I use my body and mind which naturally influences my portrayal of characters on stage. I am fascinated with discovering how a character moves and how this relates to my vocal production.'
ETO's mission to bring top quality opera productions to cities outside London is something that is something that Christopher is particularly passionate about and it has brought him to Norwich previously.
He said: 'There is something very special about performing opera in cities that don't have the kind of supply of opera that London has. The audiences relish the chance to see live opera and we, as performers, can feed off that energy to give more back to them.
'I've appeared as three characters in Norwich: Ottone in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, Eustazio in Handel's Rinaldo and David in Handel's Saul, all with Glyndebourne On Tour.
'I also have a few very good friends living in Norwich and my touring lifestyle allows me the chance to visit them when shows come to the city. I can't wait to be back.'
• ETO: Giulio Cesare is at Norwich Theatre Royal with Part 1: The Death of Pompey on October 16 and Part 2: Cleopatra's Needle on October 17, both 7.30pm, £37-£8 for one part , £49.50-£8 for both parts, 01603 630000, theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk