Today, my day went like this: in the morning - attaching reflective backing on to shards of mirror; sticky pads on the bottom of the orchestra chairs; camping lights on the pulpit staircase; pots of tea and plenty of washing up. In the afternoon, our final session of working notes with the singers, when we pared back some action and made the two ensemble scenes look a bit less crowded, to help the audience see more clearly. Then in the evening I got to do some simple bits of make-up (making London's feet dirty, for example!), which was great for calming my nerves, and then we did our final rehearsal - lights, costume, orchestra, singing, and a small audience of friends and family. My biggest fear was that the singers would be blinded by the lights, which were new to them, but actually the challenge was that the conductor and orchestra were under-lit - a massive challenge for them at the time but thankfully an easy one to solve for next time. After the rehearsal, we all breathed a big sigh of relief, then the lighting designer, lighting technician and I spent a couple of hours tweaking the lighting states and making the fiery glow a bit bolder.
Tomorrow - world premiere of *And London Burned*.
So, logging on is not the best way to wind down after a long day of rehearsal and a long evening of lighting, but that's how it goes at this stage - home to check emails, sleep, then back to the venue. Tech week for And London Burned at the Temple Church. It goes one step at a time - staging with piano; staging with piano and costume; singing (without staging) with orchestra; staging with orchestra; then finally staging with orchestra, costume and lighting. At each step, the overall goal might seem insurmountable, but we have to take them one at a time, and to remember that it always feels like this at this stage. The transformation of the beautiful Temple Church into a dramatic space has been amazing to watch. Soon we'll have photos to show you...
‘The Lord is making London ‘like a fiery furnace’! In his wrath, he devours and swallows up our habitations.’
- God’s Terrible Voice in the City, by Thomas Vincent (1667)
As the Great Fire raged, crowds gathered and cried aloud through the narrow streets that the French were invading, the Dutch throwing fireballs, the Catholics plotting. There was no way to verify anything, so rumour and suspicion ran riot. Enraged Londoners grabbed foreigners and beat them in the streets. Myriad reasons for the great disaster were set forth.
In Scene 8 - Marketplace - of And London Burned, a crowd gathers and one speaker after another offers their theories of cause and culpability. The people get worked up to a hysterical pitch of blame that moves from the Dutch to the French to the Quakers, and culminates in the cry ‘God’s Wrath!’ We're working on making the Marketplace a scene of whirl and change, with the singers switching characters to give the sense of a crowd.
Rehearsal photograph by Chris Christodoulou. Left to right: Raphaela Papadakis (London), Andy Rupp (diseased vagrant), Gwilym Bowen (numerologist), Aoife O'Sullivan (young wife).
We've got a cast of 5 in And London Burned, playing - so far - 16 characters (and counting). To make the show work, they've got to be able to work in tight ensemble - anticipate each other's actions, breathe together, move together. To help develop this capacity, we've been playing acting ensemble exercises at the start of each rehearsal. This picture shows two exercises in one - 'shoal of fish' and 'leading with different body parts'. In 'shoal of fish', the group tries to move together as one behind the leader, following changes of direction, pace, and so on. In 'leading with different body parts' - well, the clue is in the name. Here, Andy Rupp is leading with his nose, closely followed by (left to right) Raphaela Papadakis, Gwilym Bowen (hidden), Alessandro Fisher and Aoife O'Sullivan.
So far, these are our characters:
Alessandro Fisher: Law Student.
Raphaela Papadakis: London.
Andy Rupp: Duke of York, Dryden, a cloth merchant, a bookmaker, a tradesman, a diseased vagrant.
Gwilym Bowen: a jack-of-all-trades, a numerologist, a Civil War veteran.
Aoife O'Sullivan: a pregnant vagrant, a busy-body neighbour, a young wife, an astrologer, a prostitute.
Rehearsal photograph by Chris Christodoulou
Sally O'Reilly, librettist for And London Burned, says that the character of 'London' in the opera is 'made out of endless crisis' and 'formed of abstract nouns.' The character herself is not human, although her inhabitants are part of her, just as her streets, lights and rivers are.
'London' has her own musical language, too. Composer Matt Rogers says that her musical landscape will make it seem as though she could have come from deep space. That phrase made me think of Under the Skin, the 2013 film directed by Jonathan Glazer, with Scarlett Johansson (pictured) in the lead. The film is based on the 2000 novel by Michael Faber. Johansson plays an alien disguised as a woman. In this picture, she has peeled off her disguise and is looking down at it.
In rehearsals with soprano Raphaela Papadakis, we will seek ways to make 'London' into a strange and compelling creature. I've been looking at walking - these grid videos are very helpful to show the difference between male and female walks. I have also been following strangers in the street and copying their walk - a fruitful and interesting, if slightly risky endeavour.
In what way do you walk if you're made out of abstract nouns...?
It’s a fragment, part of an unseen whole; it unfurls an imaginative space for the opera to play in. It implies actions and voices beyond itself, and ignites curiosity. Perhaps it’s an echo of conversation rising towards the present from a long-buried era. Maybe it’s written on a flake of burnt paper that falls out of the sky. It could be part of a letter that was lost and then found, or a hidden speaker might whisper it in an unknown ear. It makes us ask questions.
In the title, as in the opera, London is protagonist.
And what did she do?
The Great Fire of London in 1666, by Walter George Bell (London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1920) is a great read and full of useful information for the staging of And London Burned. I always knew the city must have been dirty and foul-smelling, but W.G. Bell throws appalling light on the matter by listing some of the industries that took place within the city itself: soap-boiling, dying, brewing, lime-burning, sugar-refining. Then there are the animal carcasses in the streets, open sewers, pigs roaming freely... It's impossible to imagine the stench. Also, fortunately for our audience, impossible to recreate! But it's certainly something to think about.
Plague was in the air too. People didn't know how to protect themselves from the plague, but there was some idea that chewing or inhaling herbs or tobacco as you walked the streets would keep out the putrid air. Here's what Pepys did:
'This day, much against my Will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and 'Lord have mercy upon us' writ there - which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll tobacco to smell and to chaw - which took away the apprehension.' (7 June 1665)
Plague mask image by Unnaturalist
The Temple Church was built by the Knights Templar in the late 12th Century. It was first used in 1165/6, and this year, 850 years later, it will host our opera, And London Burned. 350 years ago, the Fire of London threatened, but spared the Temple Church, and our opera will evoke those frightening days. I want to encourage the audience to dwell on these vast expanses of time and history, and I think this beautiful building will help us to do that.
I took this picture standing in the pulpit, looking down on the rest of the production team as we all considered the challenges and opportunities of the space.
Just received the completed score from Matt Rogers. An extraordinary 203 pages of mysterious and intriguing instructions to the horns, cellos, clarinets and organ of the orchestra. It's quite awe-inspiring to hold a brand-new opera in your hands - now we have to make the staging!
Director, producer, cold-water swimmer