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Out of the comfort zone: staging Pay the Piper

Our new youth opera Pay the Piper will be our first ever production to be performed in the stalls of the auditorium. We find out just how challenging this will be...

The Glyndebourne stage will be out of action for several months this winter as a major upgrade to our backstage systems takes place. So our new youth opera Pay the Piper will move into the auditorium instead and be performed in the stalls for the first time. We find out just how challenging this will be…

Staging an opera involves many decisions – from where and when to set the action, to the scale and complexity of the set design, to the choice of lighting.

This winter, a new opera at Glyndebourne is seeking answers to those questions in the face of a significant logistical challenge, and finding in the process that necessity really is the mother of invention.

When the 2021 Glyndebourne Tour hit the road in early November, the opera house entered the second phase of a programme of crucial upgrades to its 27-year-old backstage systems, leaving the main stage out of action until spring 2022.

During this same period, the opera house will present the world premiere of a new youth opera called Pay the Piper, a reimagining of the Pied Piper of Hamelin story. It is the latest in a long line of projects that give local young people the opportunity to participate in top class opera-making and perform on the main stage at Glyndebourne – only, this time, the main stage is unavailable.

‘We were faced with this challenge where we wanted to put on a youth opera but we were committed to a stage automation project,’ explains technical director Eric Gautron. ‘So, in classic theatre style we said, “Okay, let’s roll up our sleeves and figure it out.’’

The team briefly considered staging the opera at another venue but quickly decided that it would be far more interesting to think creatively about the space at Glyndebourne. They settled on the solution of performing in the stalls of the theatre by removing all 329 seats; something known to be technically possible but which has never actually been attempted before.

‘That was really the kicking off point,’ Eric notes. ‘A simple pivot from the fact that the stage is not available, to the question of what do we do now? That decision has gone on to influence both the concept of the show and the writing of it in really interesting ways.’

Pay the Piper is the first opera commissioned by Glyndebourne from more than one composer. It was jointly composed by Anna Appleby, Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade, Cecilia Livingston and Ailie Robertson, the four participants of Balancing the Score, a development programme exclusively for female composers, set up by Glyndebourne to help address the underrepresentation of female composers in classical music.

Cecilia Livingston explains how the decision to perform in the auditorium influenced her ideas for the piece. ‘As soon as we heard about the opportunity to perform the opera in the auditorium in this unconventional setup, my imagination kicked into another gear,’ she remembers. ‘We’re telling the story of the Pied Piper: how does the audience feel when the children disappear from view? What if we can still hear them, laughing and playing, but they are out of sight? There are all sorts of vivid possibilities that tap into ways we think about parents and children: that we want to be able to see our kids, to keep an eye on them or an ear out for them. So I was seized by the chance to play with seen and unseen, heard and unheard: possibilities for this opera – in this space – to play with these points of reassurance and unease.’

It’s a thought echoed by fellow composer Anna Appleby: ‘I had a sense of things being hidden that are normally seen, the idea that sound might emerge from any far-flung point in the auditorium. It helped me to create a spacious opening line for a solo flute/piccolo. I imagined that the flautist might arrive amongst the audience like the piper in Hamelin, and subsequently a voice would arise from the darkness with a story to tell. The flute and the piper’s character became one in my mind, a sound or a song that could travel beyond the stage and capture the minds of those who followed it into silence. The voices of the chorus, Glyndebourne Youth Opera (GYO), became those followers and I wrote their hypnotised, repeated lines with the idea that they could continue singing as they gradually disappeared.’

To inform their plans for the opera, the four composers, together with the creative team, spent time in the theatre testing sound and sightlines, and imagining how a production could be staged there. ‘We had a fascinating afternoon in the auditorium space, working with some of the GYO singers, conductor Johann Stuckenbruck, and Eric,’ Cecilia remembers. ‘We made all sorts of sounds: singing from every possible vantage point – exploring laughter, clapping, snapping, shouting, stomping and whispering.’

Achieving a good sound never looked like it would present a problem, such is the quality of the acoustic in the theatre. ‘It might even be beneficial for the younger, less experienced voices from among our community performers because they’re in a space where sound resonates quite beautifully,’ Eric notes.

Sightlines have been more of a challenge and the capacity of the performance has been reduced accordingly. Another challenge is lighting. ‘On stage the world is our oyster – we can put lighting virtually anywhere we want,’ Eric explains. ‘Going into the auditorium, we are limited with hanging positions but also in power and control access so it will be an interesting challenge.’ With no traditional wing space and fly tower available, the production cannot use sets and scenery in the usual way. Instead the team have embraced the unique features of their unconventional performing space to come up with a creative solution – taking advantage of the height of the auditorium, the design centres around a large-scale puppet that will also act as a character in the drama.

‘In classic puppet theatre it’s not about hiding the puppet operator, it’s about making the puppet so beautiful and engaging that we trust the audience to forget about the operators,’ Eric explains. ‘There’s a real opportunity for that with this production thanks to the way the auditorium is built architecturally. We have the overhead working gallery that gives us decent hanging points for the main structure of the puppet and the tiered seating levels of the theatre offer us multiple different operator positions.’

Performing in the stalls raises the practical question of how to ensure that the conductor can be seen by all of the performers – which has provided further fuel for creativity. ‘As we discussed where the instrumental ensemble would be located in the space, I started to imagine the ensemble as a band and the Piper as a bandleader. That influenced the musical styles I play with: dance hall music, big band, vaudeville,’ says Cecilia.

Those involved are looking forward with excitement, if also some trepidation, to the forthcoming rehearsal process. ‘We’ve never done this,’ Eric points out. ‘When we’re putting on a production on the stage we have a very solid understanding of the infrastructure, of how that works; coming into the stalls, it’s not like that so it will be an interesting learning opportunity for all of us. The artistic possibilities are just as exciting as they are for a conventionally staged production; possibly more exciting in some aspects because it’s completely new for us.’

Cecilia echoes this feeling ‘there’s an exciting degree of risk in taking a new approach: until everyone is in the space, making music together, we can’t quite be sure how this will work. But that’s the fabulous part about making a show: how will everything you’ve imagined emerge into reality? Often the most magical things are what you don’t anticipate. So I’m looking forward to hearing and seeing those moments of unexpected synergy. I anticipate goosebumps!’

Pay the Piper runs from 25 to 27 February

This article was written by Kate Harvey (Glyndebourne’s senior press manager). It first appeared in Recit – the Glyndebourne Member magazine.

Image credits: Pay the Piper rehearsals, photos by Richard Hubert Smith | Balancing the Score composers, photo by James Bellorini

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