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The Merry Widow Pre-performance Talk

Opera Holland Park : 08 July 2006

Michael Volpe, James Clutton & Jenny Weston (Choreographer)

JC   I'd like to begin with a few general thoughts on operetta at Holland Park . For a good few years we didn't do it because we had done it badly in the past and thought we should leave it to those companies that do it well. But we tried it 2 years ago with Die Fledermaus and it went well. Operettas are rarely done well because they are very difficult to do. The cast must be able to sing, dance, act and deliver dialogue. West End musicals use microphones and offstage singers to augment the dancing sequences – we can't do that here.

JW   It's always hard to find opera singers with dancing skills, it hasn't been part of their training. Many are very keen to learn but a few have real problems – you could say they have dyslexic movement.

JC   We had real difficulty recruiting a chorus for this show – we almost held more auditions for this than the whole of the rest of the season. Rehearsal time included ten 3 hour sessions for the choreographer, but that is not much for the set piece party scenes.

MV   If you look at the web site you will find a podcast with Simon Callow who talks about the difficulties of staging ball scenes – they are always a nightmare demanding big costumes and a lot of rehearsal to create the right effect.

People think operetta is easy, it's in your face fun, light relief. In 1905 when Lehar composed this it was considered a most unusual piece – up to then operetta had consisted of cardboard characters of fun. This one encroaches on the Italian style of producing realistic stories – there is a real love story going on between Hanna and Danilo. They have two solo scenes where the music is very light and subtle, almost erotic.

When Lehar played extracts to potential theatre managers they didn't like it – but it was a great success with audiences and became a craze in the USA in the 1920s – that's one of the reasons we wanted to set it around the 20's.

JW   It's a lovely period. Women were beginning to be emancipated, and see more possibilities for themselves in the 1920's. The shorter length of frocks gave more freedom of movement, dances were more fun. Then there was the health & beauty movement – Tom Hawkes, the director wanted to replace the Pontevedrian folkdances with something more modern – an afternoon tennis party which extends into a Busby Berkeley bathing beauties routine – shades of The Boyfriend .

I also enjoyed working on the septet ( Girls, girls, girls ) . The music is a march, and I've choreographed it for seven real men – and they've really done a lot with it. The text helps, and it's set in Paris so I've had in mind a lot of visual references for Paris at that time: Rodin's Thinker for example – there are others as well, you probably won't notice them but the influences are there. What's been important is to treat the men as individuals.

JC    Guys and Dolls has been on in the West End recently and there's a large guy who always steals the scene because he brings character to what he's doing. In our septet each has to do something different and it really is the guys themselves who make it.

JW   Peter Rice suggested the tennis sequence and this matches the music very well – lyrical and graceful.

MV   Does everyone know the story? It starts in the Pontevedrian Embassy in Paris – (Pontevedria is usually assumed to be Montenegro ). Hanna Glawari is the widow and has millions. The Ambassador knows that her money represents the gross national product of Potevedria, and tells Danilo that he must prevent her from marrying a Frenchman. But Danilo and Hanna have met before …

JC   When they first fell in love Danilo's family prevented them from marrying as Hanna was only the daughter of a farmer and thus not fit to be the wife of a count.

Another reason why Tom Hawkes wanted to set the piece in 1920s is that by then that sort of social structure had gone out the window, and now it is Hanna's fortune that is the barrier between them. Talking in shorthand with the director Peter Rice, he described the setting as “think Great Gatsby”.

MV   Peter Rice is a film buff and loves all those 1950's grand Hollywood Movies – Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes etc.


JW   All those films sets seem to have staircases – we have a double one – like that in Swing Time, and Hanna and Danilo have a dance sequence that has elements of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers number.


JC   There was also talk of a revolving stage – but that was ruled out at an early stage for budgetary reasons.


MV   If you put lots of movement on the stage it has to be good – this is a really adventurous show.


JC   You can see that the cast are having a great time. Around a quarter of them are regular operetta performers and they don't find as much work as they used to do.


Audience questions broke in at this point: Why aren't you doing The Merry Widow in it's original language? (Questioner was obviously a German speaker).


JC   OHP normally use the original language for its productions. I think that it is our duty not only to give a good show, but also to provide training for young singers. If they learn a role in it's original language they will then be ready to sing it anywhere in the world a bit later in their career. If they learn it in English they will be limited to ENO / Opera North. We were criticised for doing Onegin in Russian last year, but this was a good case in point, Sarah Pring went on to sing Madame Larina at Covent Garden, chosen because she had sung it here.


  But we use English for operettas because the spoken comedy has to get through to the audience. Surtitles either anticipate or lag behind the joke – it's more enjoyable to hear it direct. It's very hard to deliver well timed comedy in a language not your own – it sounds odd – a bit like a Frank Sinatra song with a Yugoslavian accent.


  We've tried a mixture of singing in the original language and speech in English but it doesn't really work. We have plans to do The Magic Flute in 2008 and that will probably be in English.


How much of the choreography do you prepare before rehearsals start?


JW   Because time is so short I have to have a pretty firm idea in my mind, especially for the chorus, but there is some room to manoeuvre. I'm leading and they are looking to me, so I need to be clear in what I want.


Does spoken dialogue give any special sound problems?


MV   We have a very good natural acoustic in this theatre but they do have to work at it.


JC   We have special rehearsals – because the shows are running continuously in the season we normally have very limited stage rehearsal time, but dialogue can be done on any set.


JW   We have to be careful with angles to make sure spoken words are heard.


At this point Ron Freeman joined the platform.


JC   Ron is in charge of all our wigs and makeup. He has just two girls to help him – just remember that when you see the show. We had three dresses specially made for Rebecca Caine, and they are really stunning !


Transcribed by Serena Fenwick