English Touring Opera: 'Handel would have done the same thing' | Guy Dammann

They are masters of multi-tasking. But can English Touring Opera pull off a five-night Handel marathon?

'It seemed like a good idea at the time," says James Conway. "Now I realise I must have been bloody crazy." Conway is the director of English Touring Opera, which is celebrating the 250th anniversary of Handel's death by doing what no opera company has ever done before: staging five different Handel operas over five consecutive nights.

"We have had some of our biggest successes with Handel," says Conway by way of explanation, but the company's very existence is perhaps its most stunning achievement. ETO was set up by the Arts Council in 1979, as a quick way to bolster it commitment to regional opera. "I don't think anybody expected it to last," says Randall Shannon, who, in the wake of Margaret Thatcher's infamous arts budget cuts, was charged with putting together and managing the orchestra.

But the company – called Opera 80 until a name change in 1992 – has indeed lasted. It now stages up to 90 opera performances a year, in as many as 25 regional and small-town venues around the country, at an annual cost to Arts Council England of just under £1.5m. That would be good value in any theatrical or musical context. But by operatic standards, it's extraordinary.

No less extraordinary is Handelfest, the extravagant project Conway cooked up to celebrate ETO's 30th birthday. The company is taking two well-known Handel operas (Alcina, Ariodante) and three less-well known ones (Flavio, Teseo, Tolomeo) to venues across southern England, together with a series of seminars and masterclasses. Most of the cast have at least two roles, with the counter-tenor Jonathan Peter Kenny, who sings Polinesso in Ariodante, even being recruited to conduct for the production of Flavio.

"People have asked whether we haven't had enough of Handel by now," says Conway. "But the man who presided over the greatest period in English operatic history deserves more than the smattering of attention he has received from the other opera companies. You might argue we're stretching the point, but I like to think that, given my position, Handel would have done the same thing."

The composer might also have been impressed by – and envious of – the unique rapport ETO has between cast and orchestra (the composer had a notoriously tempestuous relationship with his soloists). Shannon believes this rapport was the key to the company's early success. "The upstairs-downstairs division tends to be rather extreme in opera," he says, "but the informal atmosphere of touring lent our productions an extraordinary level of musical intimacy."

David Parry, artistic director from 1983 to 1987, agrees: "Because everybody knew each other so well, we could turn to our advantage the fact that we had neither the budget nor the space to mount imitation Zeffirelli productions. Our early productions of Mozart and Rossini were sleek, pared-down affairs, with an emphasis on acting and dramatic immediacy that put us in stark contrast with much of what was going on in Covent Garden and Sadler's Wells."

An early success was Steven Pimlott's controversial 1982 production of Don Giovanni, much raunchier and darker than audiences were used to at the time. Sexual tensions between all of the characters were made explicit, including the chemistry between Giovanni and his servant Leporello, who was forced to wear a dress in Act II. "It went down a storm with all but the most opinonated members of the audience," says Parry, who remembers one reviewer bemoaning the lack of "propriety and sunny Spanish scenes" – an odd complaint to make about a work set almost entirely in the hours of darkness. "The production certainly put us on the map, giving us a sense of identity and confidence that allowed us to experiment."

Since 2002, ETO has been run by Canadian-born Conway, who has revived its ailing finances by returning to experimentation. "People often assume that regional audiences are somehow deficient," says Conway. "That when it comes to opera, you almost need to apologise for waking them from their provincial slumbers. These ideas are complete bollocks."

Conway cut his directorial teeth working with the West Bengal jatra, music-theatre companies that toured India's tea plantations and coal mines with "shows about everything from Krishna to Che Guevara. I travelled with jatra parties by coach and boat, sleeping on classroom floors in the humid afternoons before the long evening shows in big-top tents, with several thousand paid-up enthusiasts crammed inside, and hundreds more peeking through holes in the tarpaulin."

The experience gave Conway a taste not only for the sometimes uncomfortable lifestyle of touring, but also for the unpretentious performance aesthetic that continues to define ETO's work. "It certainly instilled in me a conviction that opera, on a good night, speaks persuasively to the heart and mind."


Guy Dammann

The GuardianTramp

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