Opera della Luna
Opera della Luna, founded in 1994, is a British touring theatre troupe of actor-singers focusing on comic works. Led by artistic director Jeff Clarke, it takes its name from Haydn's operatic setting of Goldoni's farce Il mondo della luna. The company presents innovative, usually zany and irreverent, small-scale productions and adaptations of Gilbert and Sullivan, other comic opera and operetta, in English. Opera della Luna is a registered British charity.
The company undertakes two major tours each year, visiting over a hundred mid-scale venues throughout the UK. Occasionally the company has toured overseas. Clarke directs all of the productions, which are small-scale adaptations performed without chorus, accompanied by a small orchestral ensemble.
History and description
In 1986, Clarke founded The English Players, a touring opera ensemble. Clarke's productions for that company included English-language adaptations of Love in a Village (which toured as far as Denver, Colorado), Boieldieu’s The Caliph of Bagdad and Abu Hassan (two one-act operas presented together), Il mondo della luna and Robinson Crusoé. After four years, Clark disbanded The English Players while he planned for a new, better-funded company.
With the help of marketer and versatile theatre professional Graham Watson, Clarke established Opera della Luna as a registered charity with a board of directors and a base of regular supporters. The company's name was intended to convey its zany style of adaptation. The company's first production, in 1994, was Robinson Crusoé. Plagued by transit strikes, the show lost money. Clarke and friends made up part of the deficit by playing evenings of music hall concerts.
Gilbert and Sullivan adaptations
The company achieved its first theatrical financial success in 1995 with Clarke's adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance called The Parson's Pirates, about the vicar of St Michael's Under Ware, who is tasked with raising church funds through an amateur production of Pirates. The original idea had been merely to produce an evening of Gilbert and Sullivan hits with five singers. Clarke wrote, in his 2010 memoir,
|“||"As I started to try and put a programme together, I thought about making the second half ... a large excerpt from one of the operas. ... Slowly an idea began to develop. ... with one more performer we could possibly do Pirates – it would need ridiculous quick changes and some surprising doublings. ... Richard Gauntlett did a comedy act as a vicar, in which he split the audience into two halves and got them to join in with 'Tit-Willow', I decided to ... build the first half around him. It would be staged as an audition with some of the cast being planted in the audience. Richard himself would play the Major-General" [in the second half potted Pirates].||”|
Actress Louise Crane played Ruth and is still a member of the company. Choreographer Jenny Arnold had worked on Robinson Crusoe with the old company and has continued as choreographer ever since. The piece (and all of OdL's subsequent G&S pieces) is played without chorus - principals are assigned to cover choral lines in the music, in sometimes startling and amusing ways. The original three-night stand was a surprise hit, and touring followed. Since then Richard Suart and Ian Belsey have performed in the production numerous times. Critic George Hall wrote that the production "is an evening of brilliance, both a tribute to and an affectionate send-up of [Pirates], done with verve, style, some excellent voices and a hefty quotient of camp. With Richard Suart ... we know we’re in for a treat.... Ian Belsey [and the rest of the cast] are all great fun and Jeff Clarke directs the whole at a cracking pace.... This is a show both for Gilbert and Sullivan devotees and for novices.... In short, a total treat – irresistible and unmissable."
Ruddigore and Mikado
Three other G&S adaptations soon followed, with direction by Clarke and choreography by Arnold, all adapted for a cast of 6 to 8 and no chorus. The first was The Ghosts of Ruddigore (1997), where a couple of nerds, Amanda Goodheart and Kevin Murgatroyd, have car trouble like Brad and Janet in the Rocky Horror Show. They find themselves in the spooky Brigadoon-like village of Rederring, where they discover their ancestors and become embroiled in the tale. One reviewer said that the production supplied "Belly laughs, baronets and more than a touch of Blackadder".
Next was The Mikado (1998). The company's updated adaptation is set in a hip tailor/design shoppe and inspired by the sexy, flashy world of fashion. As Clarke described the genesis of the production, he was in New York City over Christmas 1997 and visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was showing a special exhibition of the work of Gianni Versace. "I was confronted with a dress; a cheeky mini-crinoline, sexy and sassy, classical and witty. The startling originality, colour and fun of it hit me like a blow – imagine three of these – the three little maids! Remembering that Ko-Ko, before his elevation to Lord High Executioner, had been a cheap tailor.... the germ of an idea started. Why not make Ko-Ko a designer? ... a Jean-Paul Gaultier – camp, outrageous, and bursting with creativity and invention. This gave the green light to filling the stage with all sorts of over-the-top theatrical fashion creations". Clarke engaged fashion designer Gabriella Csanyi-Wills to create the costume designs; she originated the idea to make the second act set, Ko-Ko's garden, out of fabric. Clarke decided that Katisha would be based on the older women in Dallas or Dynasty. "Women long past the first flush of youth, but determined not to grow old gracefully. ... [If] she becomes a sympathetic character, the whole plot collapses. But the ridiculous picture of a woman in love with a man half her age is one we are all familiar with ... the key to what makes Katisha pitiful." This production, featuring Simon Butteriss as Ko-Ko and the Opera Babes as Yum-Yum and Pitti-Sing, also became a success, and theatres were eager to book it. One new opportunity for the company was the chance to showcase the production at the 1999 Covent Garden Festival – the company's first London performances – and at subsequent Covent Garden Festivals. The production continued to be very popular on repeated tours.
Pinafore and later
H.M.S. Pinafore was first presented in 2001 on the QE2 cruise ship and sailed as far as Australia. Clarke's adaptation was designed to meet the ship's one-hour time limit for entertainments. This was repeated in subsequent seasons on the H.M.S. President, a ship moored on the Thames River that doubled as the Festival Club for the Covent Garden Festival (Julia Goss played Little Buttercup), and in 2002 on a different cruise ship with both Pinafore and Mikado. In the energetic opening scene of Pinafore, the company erects the H.M.S. Pinafore right before the audience. Clarke noted, "Many an old sailor, when his sea-faring days were over, worked on the fly floor of a theatre ... used to signal cues to fly the scenery by whistling. That is the origin of the theatrical superstition that it is bad luck to whistle in the dressing room. ... I wanted to find some visual way of showing this connection, so to have the sailors “flying” the scenery by pulling the ropes and tying them off would be a great trick. The company's typically zany version of Pinafore is played in Victorian dress with few textual and musical changes from the original.
The company has performed all of its Gilbert and Sullivan productions at the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival nearly every year since 2003 as well as touring them extensively. Another G&S-related piece is The Burglar's Opera, with a script by Stephen Wyatt, based on W. S. Gilbert's 1890 short story, Burglar's Story, mixed with elements of The Threepenny Opera. The music was adapted by Jeff Clarke from Arthur Sullivan's orchestral music. This toured in 2005 and 2006.
In 2007, Clarke introduced a new piece called Nightmare Songs in which Simon Butteriss plays an understudy to the principal comedian of a fictionalised D'Oyly Carte Opera Company during World War II and must be ready to go on at very short notice to play in any of ten G&S patter roles. Clarke plays another resident of his lodging house, an itinerant "variety" performer who assists and hinders the patter man's nightmarish rehearsal. The two men have performed the piece many times.
The company's adaptation of The Sorcerer was produced at the 2009 International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival. The opera is updated to the groovy 1970s, and the love potion causes Dr. Daly to fall passionately in love with Alexis. The Buxton presentation was recorded, and clips of it are included in a 2010 Sky Arts TV series about G&S, narrated by Butteriss, called A Motley Pair. The Sorcerer earned a mostly positive reaction from the somewhat shocked Buxton audience, and the company toured the opera extensively since then. A review called the show "one of the most delicious musical feasts on the circuit". Another review enthused, "Sharp and witty, it oozed fun and inventiveness while satirising the class structure of English village life and marriage. [It] breathed new life and fun into the work. The uniformly good cast have fine voices, allied to stagecraft and excellent comic acting skills. They delivered the piece with pace and panache. Clever use of tableaux and excellent sung and spoken diction (a sine qua non for G&S) ensured total enjoyment."
Early on, the year after its first success with The Parson's Pirates, the company produced a Donizetti adaptation, Lucia, The Bride of Lammermoor. As it turned out, the opera would be the company's only non-comic piece, and Clarke decided that the company was better off making a name for itself through its zany comic productions than competing in the standard repertoire against the other small touring British opera companies.
After introducing its first three Gilbert and Sullivan productions, the company turned to other works, as Clarke feared that it would become identified exclusively as a G&S company. In 1997, when the Royal Opera House had to close for renovations, they presented a season at the Shaftesbury Theatre, including some lighter works, such as a new production of The Merry Widow with a translation by Jeremy Sams. It was not a success, and the Royal Opera agreed to license the translation to Opera della Luna after having seen the company's Mikado at the Covent Garden Festival. The company first played the piece at the Covent Garden Festival in 2000 and later toured it extensively, often to larger theatres. The company's updated chamber adaptation included naughty puppets three years before Avenue Q opened. Clarke recalled, "Shadow puppets for Valencienne and [Camille] in the pavilion required some restraint from Miss Knight and Mr [Carl] Sanderson, who were only too ready to make their assignation more graphic than Lehár intended. But the “grisettes” [were] life-size puppets – dazzlingly costumed in frills and feathers and prepared to reveal far more than any chorus girls had previously done."
In 2003, the Iford Arts Festival commissioned the company to create a chamber version of Offenbach's La Belle Helene, which the company later toured. Belsey returned, and Simon Butteriss made his debut with the company; they have both played many seasons for Opera della Luna, particularly in the Gilbert and Sullivan productions. Clarke did not tell the festival organizers what he had planned: "The show was rude. It contained not a few four letter words; the cast handed out Viagra to the audience in the last act; and most alarmingly, in the celebrated Act 2 Helen and Paris duet 'Am I but dreaming?'", the mezzo-soprano was topless. The audiences were enthusiastic, and the piece toured. Iford later commissioned productions of Robinson Crusoé (2004), a scaled-down version of The Tales of Hoffmann (2005) and Clarke's Lucia. Clark wrote of these years, "The early part of the year would be work on QE2 ... followed by the company’s spring tour. Summer would be taken up with preparations and performances for Iford and [the International G&S Festival at] Buxton. There would be an extensive autumn tour from September to early November, and then the company would perform its annual Christmas pantomime at the Corn Exchange Newbury." The company's pantomimes has begun in 1995 which performed, in Christmas seasons, Dick Whittington and his Cat, Aladdin, Sleeping Beauty, Puss In Boots, Cinderella, Robinson Crusoe (some of them twice). The last was Robin Hood in 2003–2004. Clarke felt that these productions enhanced the reputation of the company, and "the chance to create exciting music theatre for children was one we relished."
In 2006, at Iford, the company revived Il mondo della luna. Clarke's English translation hews closely to the original libretto, but some material is cut. The next year, the company produced a new English version of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore set at a health spa. In 2008, the company toured Verdi's Un giorno di regno ("King for a Day"). In Clarke's broad English adaptation, the story is moved to post-war Italy around the reign of Umberto II, infused with elements of organized crime, and political humour is added. One reviewer commented that the production "makes up for what it lacks in bel canto elegance by being a riotously funny, enormously enjoyable evening's entertainment". In 2009, the company toured its version of Die Fledermaus in Clarke's English translation. The show was another success for the company, was toured to larger venues, and was featured in Opera Now magazine in May 2009.
In 2010, Clarke published a memoir of the company organized around photographs of its various productions. Borrowed Light: A retrospective of 15 years on the road with Opera della Luna. This describes all of the company's productions and offers cast lists.
The press generally praises the company for its innovative, irreverent small-scale productions. Musical Opinion wrote, "Who needs grand opera when you can have Opera della Luna? The scale of their performances ... is so small as to be minuscule, but they are so skilfully conceived and realised as to be totally engaging. In their way, they are every bit as rewarding as far more ambitious, not to say pretentious stagings. Director Jeff Clarke can be relied upon to provide a whole new perspective on a piece through his brilliant translations". A review of the company's 2009 adaptation of The Sorcerer in Bucks Free Press stated, "Opera Della Luna is innovative, imaginative and inventive. Its grasp on musical theatre is astounding and director Jeff Clarke should be applauded for bringing a new spirit of the age to G&S." Opera Now magazine wrote, in its review of the company's 2009 production of Die Fledermaus:
Jeff Clarke’s Rocky Horror version of The Bat ... turned out to be rather brilliant, not to mention hilarious.... As is his wont, Clarke, panjandrum of Opera della Luna and its nifty pianist too, had not only translated but rewritten the show so as to be actually funny.... Clarke's hallmark is a cheery vulgarity underpinned with a subtle but distinct moral eye.... But this was all very good-natured.... This non-preachy evening was a success, in the end, mostly because of an inspired cast.... Clarke's little band moved things along at a terrific lick. The most enjoyable evening for ages.
Gilbert and Sullivan expert Ian Bradley comments, "Opera della Luna has achieved the rare feat of bringing in a new audience for G&S without alienating the old one." Typical of reactions to the company's many appearances at the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Buxton is this Manchester Evening News review of the company's H.M.S. Pinafore in 2006:
[The] festival proper opened with this inventive and entertaining production by M.E.N. Award-winning Opera della Luna. It's a cleverly pared-down version to suit the mere eight-strong company, plus [its five-person orchestra] (and how haunting to hear Dear Little Buttercup as a violin solo by Rachel Davies). Jeff Clarke directs from the keyboard.... The cast is led by the irrepressible Simon Butteriss as Sir Joseph Porter. He gestures, minces and trips around to great comic effect, splendidly aided and abetted by the others... Ian Belsey makes an imposing and funny Captain.... Between them, they entertain hugely."
- Opera della luna official website, accessed 12 November 2009
- Clarke, Jeff. Borrowed Light: A retrospective of 15 years on the road with Opera della Luna. December 2010, Jeff Clarke and Opera della Luna, Bicester. ISBN 0-9567694-0-4
- Bradley, p. 86
- Hall, George. "The Parson's Pirates", The Stage, 19 September 2002
- Bradley, p. 87
- Hanning, Elaine. "The Ghosts of Ruddigore: Belly laughs, baronets and more than a touch of Blackadder", Jersey Evening Post, 19 June 2002
- Darvell, Michael. "Theatre Reviews: The Ghosts of Ruddigore", What's On (London), September 4, 2002, p. 51
- Beale, Robert. Review: The Mikado, Manchester Evening News, p. 10, 18 January 2008
- Beale, Robert. "Luna-tic Pinafore is a shore-fire triumph", Manchester Evening News, 25 March 2009.
- "Fun on the high seas". The Press and Journal, 22 April 2010, accessed 27 April 2010
- Lewis, Peter. "Pirates are such a curtain raiser!", Hexham Courant, 19 October 2007
- Gillan, Don. "The Burglars Opera", stagebeauty.net, 2006, accessed 4 November 2009
- Lisle, Nicola. "A nightmare that's a dream come true", The Oxford Times, 5 April 2007
- "Review: The Sorcerer", Bucks Free Press, 14 October 2009
- Wilkinson, Lyn. "Sparkling performance will ensure popularity", Newbury Weekly News", 6 August 2009, p. 2
- Coffey, Catherine. The Sorcerer at The Oxford Playhouse. Oxford Theatre Review, 15 June 2011
- Theatre programme for Il mondo della luna, Iford Arts, June 2007
- Christiansen, Rupert. "Elixir just as potent in the Northern smoke", The Telegraph, 26 June 2006
- Evans, Rian. "L'Elisir d'amore at Iford Manor, Bradford-on-Avon", Musical Opinion, September/October 2007, accessed 16 November 2009
- Shirley, Hugo. "Verdi: Un giorno di regno", Musical Criticism, 26 July 2008, accessed 15 November 2009
- Thicknesse, Robert. "Die Fledermaus: Theatre Royal, Winchester", Opera Now, July/August 2009, p. 96
- Campling, Katie. "Opera Della Luna perform Die Fledermaus at LBT", Huddersfield Daily Examiner, 16 March 2009
- Bradley, p. 89
- Radcliffe, Philip. "G&S: HMS Pinafore @ Buxton Opera House", Manchester Evening News, 2 August 2006
- Bradley, Ian (2005). Oh Joy! Oh Rapture!: The Enduring Phenomenon of Gilbert and Sullivan. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-516700-7.