Salisbury International Arts Festival Guest Director awarded CBE in Queen's Birthday Honours List 2019

Composer Jonathan Dove and Thoroughly Good Podcast contributor awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List

Well.

Would you look at the influence the Thoroughly Good Podcast has now.

Latest contributor – adorably excited composer Jonathan Dove – features in the Queen’s birthday honours list. He’s being made a CBE. Coo.

It was a pleasure to meet the man. All very last minute and a complete surprise, but an invitation I snapped up too.

Opera ‘Dead Equal’ launches crowdfunder for Edinburgh Fringe 2019 run

Rose Miranda-Hall was one of the composers who participated in the Wildplum Songbook two-day workshop hosted by PRS for Music. I made a film about it.

Now, she’s working with librettist and singer Lila Palmer and director Miranda Cromwell, on a production of a new opera entitled ‘Dead Equal’, featuring the stories that aren’t heard about women in combat during World War One.

Like the workshop participants who featured in Thoroughly Good Podcast 39, there is an unshakeable energy to be fed off when you’re in the company of enthused individuals. I felt it at PRS for Music, and looking back over some of the footage I captured at last night’s launch event for a film I want to make about their work, I felt it again last night.

More and more I find I’m drawing inspiration from the people I speak to as I make the stuff that seeks to spotlight their endeavours. Powerful.

There are a mammoth 19 shows programmed for ‘Dead Equal’s run at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. I don’t envy them. The Fringe offers great opportunities, but demands a great deal from its performers. I’m in no doubt they’ll triumph, just like the subjects of the story they’re telling.

Pledge your support for ‘Dead Equal’ on the production’s Crowdfunder page.

Jennifer Witton wins By Voice Alone Final 2019

A new competition challenging unconscious bias in the operatic audition process concluded last night at Kings Place in London

424 singers applied for the crowdfunded competition, 256 of which were sopranos. Seven finalists featured, including one baritone, a mezzo-soprano, and five other sopranos from the UK and Europe.

The competition was founded by Melanie Lodge who is the driving force behind online platform Audition Oracle that connects singers with classical music and opera companies, and the Singers’ Preparation Award, a funding mechanism giving singers access to ongoing development services.

All of the first round auditions were conducted with a screen separating judges and artists, meaning decisions were made solely on the character portrayed by the voice. A short film played during the interval illustrated the obvious benefits to the performer: that in a moment when they needed to give of their best to prove their worth they were able to focus on performance without the additional stresses and strains of preparing themselves for an artificially ‘formal’ set up.

Unpretentious and satisfyingly upbeat

Come the final – an unpretentious and satisfyingly upbeat affair – there is then a stronger sense of self-assurance for the performer knowing as they do that their selection has been based on their instrument and the way they use it.

And in the intimate studio-like of Kings Place’s Hall Two, the proximity between audience and performer intensified the immediacy, making it easier to create connections. Jeannette Louise van Schaik did this well with a sophisticated performance during which she maintained a captivating stillness; her articulation and enunciation was delightful unfussy yet precise. Emerging Artist prizewinner Chloe Morgan capitalised on the intimacy of the space with a captivating sweet charm in Charpentier’s Depuis du jour.

First prize winner Jennifer Witton concluded the evening with the complete package – a compelling characters from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt and Massenet’s Cendrillon. There was warmth and strength in performances which conveyed a sense of solidity and power throughout.

Confronting my own unconscious bias

I was particularly surprised by the impact of baritone Themba Mvula.

When you know that the singer on stage has secured his place as a result of a blind audition round, then there’s a temptation to adopt the same approach during a live performance yourself. When I did that I became aware of the assumptions I had about what a baritone should look like – my own unconscious bias and a reflection of the warm, rich and enveloping sound of a baritone voice.

That Themba – slim, unassuming, and decidedly unfussy – didn’t match my assumption demonstrated why the competition is important and helped explain why the event appealed to me.

By Voice Alone isn’t just about consolidating a commitment to industry-wide diversity of opportunity in the operatic and classical music world, it’s also drawing the audience closer to the fundamentals of the artform: the music and its production. And the By Voice Alone final demonstrated that with a pleasingly entertaining and authentic event.

Opera: By Voice Alone seeks financial support for its ongoing development. To pledge support, visit the competition crowdfunding page.

John Bridcut’s Dame Janet Baker documentary

Full disclosure: I’m a John Bridcut fanboy. I admire the documentary maker’s interviewing technique (the way he asks short questions and then holds the space for the respondent to think before speaking) and his resolute unapologetic approach to telling the story of classical music master practitioners.

The recent Dame Janet Baker documentary is a prime example. In the 90 minute exploration of the mezzo’s life, work and early retirement, Baker reflects on formative childhood events and key points in her career via a series of honest and sometimes challenging pieces to camera that do much to present the classical music in a much-needed authentic light.

Within the first ten minutes she articulates the experience of live performance so succinctly that one wonders why, given that classical music is in the ascendancy, no one else is saying the same thing to sell the genre. Answer: Baker and Bridcut May get it and are clearly unapologetic about it, but the industry as a whole is still cautious about scaring newcomers away. In this way, the Baker documentary reveals the distance we have to go to before classical music is written about authentically in the mainstream (where it needs to be).

That resistance or nervousness was what I thought was behind not making a big deal about the doc in the run-up to broadcast. Compared to the largely disappointing ‘Our Classical Century’, Bridcut’s work documents Baker’s life and represents classical music and opera with integrity. Perhaps not flagging Bridcut’s documentary was a way of not drawing attention to how OCC could be seen as lacking editorially.

But having watched to the end of the documentary I’m wondering whether there might have been another reason. Avoiding spoilers is key here if you’ve not seen it, but given the programme’s deeply touching conclusion I now wonder to heavily publicise such an emotional story might have invited criticisms of crass insensitivity.

Whatever the reason, if you’ve not seen it then consider this the pre-publicity for your viewing. Watch it. It will make you cry.

Marketers not preachers

Should we really care about Glyndebourne’s influencer post about opera-going fashion?

This weekend one or two us have got a little worked up about a tweet Glyndebourne put out, driving followers to a fashion bloggers tips for attending the opera.

Cue the cries of ‘Charlatans!’ I was one of those who not only rolled my eyes but helped spread the indignation across the internet.

It seemed a questionable thing to be putting out there.

Whilst one section of the industry is reaching out to new audiences by trying to play down perceptions of elitism articulated through attire, one of the sector’s world-renowned brands is embracing the very thing so many others berate the sector for and doubling down on it.

In case you weren’t already aware, it annoys the actual fuck out of me.

It’s annoying because I want us to be talking about the artform (whether its classical music or opera), not conforming to stereotypes which effectively distance new audiences from it.

Nobody talks about what to wear when they go and see a movie. If we’re trying to normalise the artform, why talk about fashion tips for attending opera?

The business of ticket-selling

In fairness, Glyndebourne does this quite a lot. A Google Image Search reveals a number of fashion-related content sites tapping into Glyndebourne buzz in order to drive traffic and relevance.

But there is another perspective I had overlooked. Cue Philhamonia Marketing Chap Tim Woodall’s tweet last night.

An interesting dichotomy emerged when I read that: one from the arts organisation perspective, and the second from mine.

Organisations like Glyndebourne are in the business of selling tickets. Their tickets give people access to experiences, of which seeing an opera is one element of a trip to the Sussex site. The rest is, whether we like it or not, eating food and drinking alcohol in the grounds beforehand.

The fact that when I attended I had a couple of sandwiches from Waitrose and shared a bottle of something reasonably-priced with a pal says more about my budget constraints than it does about Glyndebourne’s aesthetic.

Tim’s tweet (above) and the response from Will Norris (formerly OAE now Southbank Sinfonia) reminds me yet again that for the majority of arts marketers, selling tickets is what is important.

And, just as the Southbank seeks to increase reach by drawing people in with various retail and food outlets, so the likes of Glyndebourne have to capitalise on every asset at their disposal and reach out to various different interest groups.

To put it very crudely, if someone has the money to buy a ticket for an experience they can say they’ve been to even though they’re not especially interested in the core content, then are the marketers really going to turn their noses up at who’s buying the ticket? If the image-conscious are the ones with a budget they don’t mind denting, then why not target them?

Who’s catering for the choir?

It leads me back to some thinking I’ve been chewing over recently. If organisations are targetting those who are different from people like me (ie fully signed-up fans), then where are people like me feeling as though our values in the artform are being acknowledged?

Some will say that people like me don’t need to be persuaded because we will always love the artform, that it doesn’t matter about the negative impact targeted marketing might have, because the priority is ticket sales. I’ll buy tickets because of the works and the performers; others might consider buying tickets because of some other entirely different reason.

But the more I recognise this alternative perspective, the more I wonder where people like me are catered for in marketing and journalism.

I don’t consider myself a scholar, but I’m knowledgeable. I resent being described as a classical music geek or nerd, but I know stuff. I advocate based on that knowledge and experience. But that’s neither needed nor wanted because its not useful to selling a ticket quickly.

Maybe what this really means is that I should set myself up as a fashion blogger. Maybe that’s where I’ve been going wrong all these years.