Alex Fice takes a look behind the scenes of Cambridge Handel Opera Company’s next big show
Cambridge Handel Opera Company (CHOC) has made quite a name for itself over the past few years. Rising like a phoenix from the ashes of its predecessor (Cambridge Handel Opera Group), the organisation won immediate acclaim with a production of Rodelinda, and was shortlisted for the 2021 Gramophone Award for its performance and CD of Eccles’ Semele with the Academy of Ancient Music.
This year, it has been busy preparing for its next big stage production, Handel’s Tamerlano. Running from 5 to 9 April at The Leys Great Hall, opera aficionados will be eagerly awaiting this intense exploration of conflicted loyalty, status, family bonds and thwarted passion. But where do the group start when it comes to creating an operatic epic?
“It’s a bit like a game of multidimensional chess, because there are so many aspects to it,” says artistic director Julian Perkins. “As well as rehearsing the music, you have to cast and book the singers ahead of time, organise the orchestra – and find a stage director with whom you share a common vision.
“You then have to put together a production team, which includes a stage manager, deputy stage manager, lighting and costume designers,” he continues. “All those elements need to come together as a cohesive whole. You have to make sure everything is in place; if there’s no plan, it will fall apart like a house of cards!”
It takes a highly skilled and dedicated team to make it work, and CHOC is certainly a hotbed of talent. This is especially true of its performers, comprised of professional singers and instrumentalists, as well as students from music colleges and the University of Cambridge. “We have experienced singers like James Laing and Christopher Turner working alongside young pros at the start of their careers,” says Julian. “This is a really powerful combination, because energy is generated between the two. Sparks fly – in a good way!”
This approach is followed in the orchestra, too, where leading period instrumentalists from Julian’s group Sounds Baroque are placed strategically throughout the orchestra to support the students. “We hope it’s a useful experience for our advanced student performers to take part in a fully professional production. We try to provide insight into the music and drama, and give them an idea of how productions work in the professional world.”
CHOC’s educational ethos runs deep, propagated by a rich programme of endeavours with local and global reach. As well as providing experience to students in higher education, CHOC offers workshops on baroque music with local schools. For those interested in the scholarship surrounding Handel, there is a chance to attend an in-depth discussion on the work performed, on the last Saturday of its run. Finally, a new didactic initiative started during the pandemic provides opportunities to learn more about the world of opera, accessible to a broader audience than ever before. “We call it Handel’s Green Room, which is an online series of discussions between myself and various other creatives. It’s chaired by Dr Ruth Smith, a very esteemed Handel scholar who lives in Cambridge,” explains Julian. “We had people watching from Australia, the United States and even Japan!”
The success of these talks demonstrates that opera continues to engage and inspire people across the globe, despite most classic works being written centuries ago. When asked why this might be the case, Julian had a simple answer: “The emotions are as true now as they were then, and it helps us see how human beings have faced the same feelings throughout time. For me, an opera is like a roller coaster of emotions, and seeing how that comes together with the staging and music is truly empowering.”
There will be a new series of Handel’s Green Room in the run up to Tamerlano’s opening, including an interview on 2 March with famed countertenors James Laing and Lawrence Zazzo, who talk about their preparations for this outstanding piece of work. Book tickets for Tamerlano now, at cambridgelive.org.uk