Taking opera on the road is not for the faint-hearted, but the brave souls of English Touring Opera have been giving it their best for 35 years, picking up an Olivier Award this year for their efforts.
There must be easier ways of earning a living. Heaven knows, putting on opera is difficult enough, but touring opera from town to town is only for the very brave indeed. English Touring Opera has been summoning up the energy for a full 35 years, since it was formed as Opera 80 by the Arts Council. Under its current name for the last 22 years, it has built a name for professional performances of a commendably wide repertoire and a flourishing outreach programme.
This year it won an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera. Like the beer that reaches unexpected parts, the company travels to more regions and to more venues than any other English opera company, touring annually to around 55 venues and presenting up to 110 performances per year. (This is all neatly presented in a YouTube video: search for English Touring Opera and you can save yourself the effort of reading this piece.)
With that kind of track record, it is not the company to join if you are looking for a quiet life. For staff director Dafydd Hall Williams, climbing aboard for ETO’s spring tour this year was quite a learning curve. With three mainstage shows in about 20 different venues between mid-February and May plus three operas for young people, he is like a man stepping off a rollercoaster when we speak at the end of the tour. ‘I’m not sure what happened to May,’ he says.
The staff director, like the rest of the company, is a freelance, taken on season by season. Hall Williams describes the job as ‘helping support the work of a lot of different aspects of the company, supporting the singers to make sure that the performances stay as good as they were when they were done in London, helping support the logistical side, working with company manager to make sure that all happens and we don’t make any mistakes with scheduling, helping support the education work, helping to set up for the show for the evening.’ Then there is acting a role in one of the kids’ operas, and working the surtitle machine.
It sounds like a job and a half, but Hall Williams is a glutton for punishment. He is otherwise engaged for the autumn season, working at Wexford, but will be back for more ETO work with next year’s spring season.
‘It’s a great learning experience,’ he says. ‘I had worked with Mid Wales Opera and Welsh National Opera but I had never been to any of the venues before, so I was encountering all the different spaces for the first time, starting from scratch.’
The idea of staring at an empty space in the morning and creating a show by the evening would be challenge enough for most. (‘There are times when things are not plain sailing,’ says Hall Williams drily. ‘That would be far too easy.’) But if you have to pop off during the day to play the part of Archie the bully in Borka, the Goose with No Feathers in front of 300 children aged four to seven, it must focus the mind considerably.
Hall Williams trained as an actor on Oxford School of Drama’s foundation course, with a view to getting into theatre, and loves the immediacy of keeping children’s interest. ‘Kids in Reception, if they are not engaged they’ll just walk off.’
The education and outreach work, taking place alongside the mainstage performances, is a vital ingredient for English Touring Opera. Typically a good proportion of the company’s singers and players will perform in operas for young people at schools, libraries and small concert halls near a mainstage venue during the day, before performing that evening.
The spring tour is ETO’s showcase, visiting more venues, involving a chorus, and featuring more challenging repertoire. This year it toured King Priam, Paul Bunyan and Magic Flute, starting with a week at the Royal Opera House Linbury Studio and ending at Cambridge Arts Theatre.
The Olivier win came as an unexpected pat on the back for the ETO team, halfway through the spring tour. ‘That was a big shock,’ says Hall Williams. ‘We’d even had a banner made ‒ “Nominated for the Olivier Awards”. It was a huge surprise.’
As a company of freelances, ETO is fortunate to have a core of long-time performers, front and backstage, and the wheels are well oiled. ‘It’s very smoothly run really. When someone is ill and we have a cover go on, I’ll get one of my colleagues in the office to work the surtitles and I’ll be backstage with the cover, making sure they are happy and know their entrances.’
Hall Williams’ advice for would-be staff directors is simple: ‘Throw yourself into everything. It’s hard work, but everything in this industry is. If you are willing to keep on going and not let things get on top of you, you can really learn huge amounts, unexpected things, and enjoy it. Really embrace the experience.’
And, it goes without saying, expect the unexpected. ‘During the Magic Flute trial of silence, one of the performers dropped the magic bells backstage and they clattered down the stairs. That left me twitching slightly.’
There are no magic bells to drop in the autumn tour, which takes to the road between 17 October and 23 November with a new production of Handel’s Ottone, Handel’s Il mondo della luna and Bach Advent cantatas in collaboration with local choirs.
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