Meet the cast and creative teams behind Opera Holland Park’s 2022 Season. Over the coming weeks, we’ll introduce our singers, directors, conductors and crews at the heart of the productions this summer.
This week rehearsals begin for the next half of the season, including the UK premiere of Mark Adamo’s Little Women. Ella Marchment is the director, and today she tells us how she has been inspired, challenged and influenced both by working with a contemporary composer and the iconic novel by Louisa May Alcott.
Can you tell us about your ideas and vision for your production?
Little Women is a story close to my heart. It is something that I remember being with me throughout my childhood and feeling like the four sisters were almost companions and friends. I am constantly taken aback by how universally popular this piece seems to be, especially amongst females, and how everyone seems to compare themselves to one of the sisters.
I’ve been working with the brilliant Madeline Boyd on designs for this, and we too discovered that in our initial conversation we ended up discussing which March sister we identified with most. This was really our way in. Something really special about the opera is that Mark has four additional female voices who previously were unnamed but are being retitled for this 25th Anniversary edition as younger versions of the four girls. But at the end of the day the universality of the way we all seem to identify with a sister means that the characters that Alcott has created end up representing feminine archetypes that traverse time. Jo – the headstrong independent free thinker. Meg with her maternal instinct and desire to put love beyond materialism. Amy, who has an unrelenting drive to chase after what she wants, and Beth who is kind and compassionate and a true modern day understated heroine. Between the sisters they bridge so much of what it means to be female in society both then and now, and although defined in different ways many of the tensions and ambitions on display are relevant to any time period that a woman has lived through.
Adding to this, the way that Mark has adapted Alcott’s work into an opera that focuses on the familial relationships of the girls is genius. It streamlines the plot and is, at its core, a touching study into the human condition and how we either embrace or resist change. The way that it plays with time also creates a dream-like quality to the piece, as it is apparent that the journey into the past is viewed entirely through Jo’s perspective.
Our vision for the production is to emphasise this journey back in time as a memory of Jo’s, and also to make clear some of the archetypes of women that are embodied within the four girls that traverse space and time.
What is something surprising about your job that audience members may not know?
I recently calculated how many hours are spent on preparing and rehearsing a show, with only evening rehearsals, and it came to 300 hours. Considering the show was only 2 hours long that means that there was a total of roughly 150 preparation and rehearsal hours per 1 hour you saw on stage.
Don’t worry, I was tasked with this, but it fascinated me because I have never actually counted just how many hours are invested into each and every show a director works on.
You’re in an often rare position as an opera director where the composer is alive and working – how does that affect the way in which you work, and what is the difference between directing a premiere by a living composer and directing a work that has already become a classic?
I have been involved in new commissioning right from the start of my professional career when I founded Helios Collective and started commissioning composers, primarily because it maximised the amount of professional development opportunities that I could create for my peers. I rapidly learnt to love this type of collaboration and relished the discourse that arose from having an actual living source that I could bounce ideas off and converse with. It really fascinates me to get as deeply into the mind of the composer as possible, and it creates a totally different dynamic to the rehearsal process.
I must say that I do feel more pressure when working with a living composer; I am more self-aware, and perhaps more cautious about liberties that I take with material. Regietheater really exists to me for pieces that have been done several times – for which it then becomes interesting to see a new perspective. However, when dealing with a living composer the piece is relatively new and I see my job as being more of a communicator than an auteur. I’m much more sensitive as to what a composer and librettist think about what they see in front of them, because, after all, making an opera is building something special and unique and precious. It’s endless hours of creative energy and investment and I very much want for the composer to see what I bring to the production and feel it adds value and takes the piece beyond anything that they might have imagined was possible to achieve through it. Jonathan Moore created a statement piece of art on opera of the future for me in 2019 and wrote that “making an opera is as close as people can come to making a baby, without making a baby”. I have the paper stuck up in my office. I’ve got to say there is certainly an element of truth within this.
Moving away from Little Women, in 2018 you co-founded SWAP’ra, a charity that supports women and parents working in opera and one that OHP has worked with. How did that come about and what work are you doing with SWAP’ra at the moment?
We’ve always said since its foundation that SWAP’ra is a charity where our primary goal is to no longer need to exist. It sounds like an existential crisis but its true meaning is that we established ourselves to promote an equitable and kind industry with more compassion and understanding that as well as being artists we are human beings too, often with duties of care for other human beings too.
The idea originally came from the soprano Anna Patalong who got a group of us together, Sophie Gilpin, Madeleine Pierard, Kitty Whately and myself, for coffee and to chat about the industry and a few hours later this gem was born. At the time we were all living in the UK and would often meet together in venues across London whilst we discussed parent-friendly practices and brainstormed ideas that would see us celebrating and highlighting female role models. Opera Holland Park was truly the venue that enabled our organisation to start to fly. James believed in us and took a risk, and that Gala event in 2018 still stands out to me as one of the most magical nights of my life.
Now, four years on, our world of SWAP’ra is very different. Not only has Covid happened, Maddy has given birth to another beautiful daughter and lives with her family in New Zealand. Anna has become CEO of British Youth Opera, which is brilliant, and I am freelance directing, running two opera companies in the USA, working as a Professor and Director of Opera at Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia, and somehow trying to traverse a life split between Winchester Virginia and Zürich. With 16 hours between us it offers certain scheduling challenges. The last time all the founders managed to get into the same internet space was in January, although we have a messaging feed that is never quiet for long.
At the moment Kitty and Sophie are really leading the home front of the organisation. It has changed and grown and expanded. There are several exciting research and practical plans currently being developed, and we hope to be able to tell you more detail about them soon.
And one final bit of SWAP’ra related trivia – Kitty Whately, who is singing Meg, is the only member of the SWAP’ra founders who I have never worked with in a creative capacity!
You must know all the characters incredibly well by now, which March sister do you think you’d be and why?
Jo, but if I’m brutally honest with myself there are aspects of the worst of Amy in me too. I say Jo primarily though as I grew up as a consummate tomboy. I loved reading and making up stories, and was always inspired by those that centred around girls who went on adventures. Swallows and Amazons, Little Women, What Katy Did, The Phoenix and the Carpet. I don’t have siblings but playdates as a child would always involve me dressing friends up and acting out plays. A magnetic puppet theatre was my favourite toy, and I was always lost in stories and books. I was especially, perhaps slightly unhealthily, fascinated by female Amazon warriors, was always at home in nature, and my style icon was Mary-Kate in her tomboy days… Now that reveals exactly when I was a teenager!
Jo is the orchestrator as well as the non-conformer, but also is unable to let things go when she fixates on them. This is something that I also identify with. It’s hard to admit to our flaws but I can very much identify with the wild and fun side of her as well as the pigheadedness, and desire to control everything around her. I mean, I am a director after all and our job is ultimately to build entire worlds from the matter of our minds.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?
There is one quote that my partner shared with me which has made a huge impression on me. It’s from Dr. Seuss. “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple”. I interpret that as a call to action. Our human mind wants to overthink and make everything far more complex than it truly is. But inside, very often we have a gut instinct that knows what the answers are. We just have to trust it. And when we stick to our inner truth we create our very best work.