Like a Chemist from Canada

This week I spent several inspiring evenings in the company of director and Théȃtre de Complicité founder member, Annabel Arden. Although Annabel regularly directs opera (a new Andrea Chenier for Opera North in 2015), I was involved in workshops for a new play. Music is never far away though. Like a Chemist from Canada tells the extraordinary true story of Shostakovich’s visit to Oxford in 1958 to collect an honorary degree. The text is by first-time playwright Lewis Owens and takes its factual detail from a substantial letter written after the event by Sir Isaiah Berlin, the Oxford academic who hosted Shostakovich.

(from right) Harold Macmillan, Hugh Gaitskell, Alan Herbert, 
and Dmitry Shostakovich, Oxford, England, June 1958.

Our text this week was a jumping-off point for discussion and improvisation rather than a finished script – unusual for me, as I generally get to comment on the music rather than the words in development work like this, and all the more interesting because of it. The play is not about music per se but music has an essential role in it. A key aim of this week was to define and refine the relationship between the musical text and the verbal text. Luckily we have pianist Colin Stone on the project, who specialises in Shostakovich’s music, to help us build a musical character line through the play.

The play is also a piece about real people – we know, for instance, that one of the Russian characters went on to be a high-level spy – which raises questions of authenticity vs art. It’s tempting to include interesting details that are historically accurate, but which slow down the momentum, or snag the audience’s attention in an unintended MacGuffin. This project aspires to more than simply re-creating a historical event, layering fact and imagination, past and present, words and melody, in a way that demands the audience’s complicity and compassion.

Many of the same challenges pertain whether we are working on music or words for a piece still in development. Seasoned writers know that they can’t afford to have ‘favourite’ moments without also being prepared to sacrifice them if they don’t work in context. Lewis is fantastically open to Annabel’s treatment of the play and has had to agree to kill a few of his darlings in this week’s process. Ideas are offered, interrogated and claimed or discarded.

It’s a steep learning curve for all of us.


Performances of Like a Chemist from Canada will be at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, July 3, 2015 and the Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, June 14, 2015.

Picture credit: Oxford Mail and Thames/Newsquest Oxfordshire


Stoke Newington Opera Cabaret

P1040595For the past few years, I have been involved in the wonderful and eccentric event that is the Stoke Newington Opera Cabaret. It’s a simple enough idea – the audience crowds onto long tables and listens appreciatively while we (a select band of pro singers) perform serious and less serious numbers from the operatic repertoire, linked by a running commentary from compère Adey Grummet. The interval allows everyone to eat their Glyndebourne-style picnic and buy more wine from the bar (proceeds to charity), after which the audience is much more disposed to join in the audience-participation section of the evening, which traditionally includes Va pensiero from Nabucco (in Italian, of course). After a few years of regular attendance, many people now have it off by heart.

This year the Cabaret took place on November 9 at the Round Chapel in Hackney. The event used to happen in Stoke Newington Town Hall, but had to find other premises when the Town Hall was refurbished, and the quirky charm of the Round Chapel now suits it very well. Indeed the event is so popular that it sells out well in advance, raising significant sums of money for charity and providing a fantastic local get-together. The idea works so well that there are now plans for a sister event in Primrose Hill.

It’s not just a lovely event for the guests, who undeniably have a great time, but also for the performers. A big friendly space to sing into and a big friendly audience which is conspicuously on the performers’ side, together offer a wonderful opportunity to try out new repertoire in a same environment.

The Primrose Hill Cabaret will be on April 19, 2015 – more information here.

Get your tickets now. I suspect they may sell out rather fast!