The Royal Opera House reopens its doors.
It was not raining last night when I walked from Leicester Square to the Royal Opera House though the skies were dark and the wind was picking up. I was going to the first live production I’ve seen since March, apprehensive and intrigued. London’s theatres, opera houses and concert halls have been second homes for me since I was eighteen. This is the longest period I’ve been without live music (of the sort that I haven’t made for myself) for over fifty years.
The familiar labyrinth of entrances is now carefully managed so that doors are allocated by seating. Everyone checks in, either using the NHS track and trace app or via an in house alternative. No bars or cafes are open yet despite a hint on the original booking that ‘they only took card payments now’, and that in itself creates a sombre atmosphere. Within the theatre, seats are carefully marked off with red ribbons to ensure social distancing. And, everyone wears a mask.
Yet there was a palpable sense of excitement in the audience. The ladies on the row in front of me were dressed up to the nines in elegant black dresses and I could hear the kind of chatter from the stalls below that, blended with the sound of a harpist warming up in the depths of the orchestra pit, with my eyes closed would have made this no different to any other first night.
It was great to be back for these two Chamber Operas, with just a short two-minute break between them. With a 7.30 pm start, we were to be leaving the theatre by 9.20 pm, row by row, with social distancing carefully managed by the ROH staff. It was great to be back.
The curtain rose to a stunning set, with a flickering video projected across the stage. In the orchestra pit, a tiny orchestra, ably conducted by Jonathon Hayward, was playing, and on stage there was a bed, a few plates on the dark ground and a solitary figure.
The Knife of Dawn is Hannah Kendall’s one-man chamber opera originally performed by Baritone Eric Greene at the Roundhouse in October 2016. Set to a libretto by Tessa McWatt and directed here by Ola Ince, it tells the story of Guyanese political activist and poet Martin Carter, during a hunger strike in 1953 when he was incarcerated without charge. Video footage (designer Akhila Krishnan) pulled us into colonial Guyana under British rule. We learnt how universal suffrage in the 1950s had led to the first democratically elected government – and how that had lasted for just a few months.
Peter Braithwaite’s portrayal of Martin Carter was profoundly moving and his vocal capabilities undisputed. A sung monologue of this length is a real challenge for any singer, which Braithwaite ably conquered.
The set design, with stunning lighting effects and elegant props, was a poignant reminder for me of why live theatre matters. Apparently simple devices (prison beds that rose and fell, paper boats which floated onto the stage and a series of tin plates which grew through the production as the hunger strike continued) are what draws us into the narrative and makes it come alive. That immersion is critical. This production, along with New Dark Age was live-streamed and I will be curious to learn how it worked at home on a TV screen.
Finally, the libretto was astonishing. Or perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Much of it was based on Carter’s own poetry, the words carefully stitched into the story.
This is the dark time, my love,
All round the land brown beetles crawl about
The shining sun is hidden in the sky
Red flowers bend their heads in awful sorrow
This is the dark time, my love,
It is the season of oppression, dark metal, and tears.
It is the festival of guns, the carnival of misery
Everywhere the faces of men are strained and anxious
Who comes walking in the dark night time?
Whose boot of steel tramps down the slender grass
It is the man of death, my love, the stranger invader
Watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.
Hannah Kendall, a British composer of Caribbean/Guyanese descent has produced something which I believe will stand the test of time. For me, I went home to learn more about the history of Guyana and to read more of Martin Carter’s evocative poetry.
The second Chamber Opera, New Dark Age, is a new production for the Royal Opera House. Three stunning female vocalists – Nadine Benjamin, Anna Dennis and Susan Bickley walk us through their own experience of the pandemic through a series of vespers – evening prayers. The music, from three female composers (Mercury Prize-nominated composer, producer and performer Anna Meredith, Grammy-nominated composer Missy Mazzoli and award-winning Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir), takes the form of songs which the singers perform, unmasking on stage as they start to sing. All the while, we are walked through the chilling reality of London as it was during the last lockdown – a vast urban desert punctuated by hand sanitisers, social distancing signs, roadblocks and empty queues.
If anything this was too close to home for me. Just as I couldn’t bear staying in the Rothko room at the Tate, I struggled with the intense reality of this production. But perhaps that’s the point? As the programme notes say, to demand our engagement in the big questions of the current moment – where are we at? and where might we go from there.
Some of the effects seemed more designed to suit the live stream than the house itself. A larger band in the orchestra pit was amplified at times to the point of making the floor vibrate. It was unusual for anything to be amplified at the Royal Opera House pre-Covid, so perhaps my dislike of that particular aspect was simply that it was unexpected.
Directed by Katie Mitchell and designed by Vicki Mortimer, with video direction by Grant Gee, I can see this making a powerful and moving film production but for me, it was less effective on stage. I suspect that the balance between film and stage is one which is hard to strike.
Walking home in the rain, I reflected that maybe in a year or so I’ll ache to be reminded of this poignant period of our lives.
However, I’m delighted to be back and am looking forward to an autumn season with some really special moments both on stage and streamed.
If you can’t make it to the Opera House, you could see the streamed performance of both The Knife of Dawn and New Dark Age via the ROH streaming service. You’ll find more information there about other productions which are currently available and some upcoming activities, both Ballet and Opera. Meet the Young Artists Week is a chance to meet some rising stars of opera world as they join the new Jette Parker Young Artist programme and, in Jukebox 2, Friday 30th October at 7.30 pm you can join for the live concert curated by the online audience. Each singer will perform the full song that received the most votes of the excerpts they performed in Jukebox 1 earlier in the week Public booking opens on 27th October and streaming tickets are £10
The Royal Ballet is back on stage with two special 75-minute programmes that will run without an interval. Elite Syncopations runs from the 4-7th November while ‘Within the Golden Hour’ runs from 10th-14 November. Public booking opens on Tuesday 27 October
Or, for a unique insight into the life of a dancer, join the Royal Ballet Company when they take a class – Daily Class on the main stage on 13th November at 10.30 am (tickets £5 – £16). Again, public booking opens on Tuesday 27 October
The Royal Opera is running a series of concert performances. Ariodante by Handel was the first opera written by Handel for the first theatre on the current Royal Opera House site in 1735 and has not been performed at Covent Garden since. These concert performances bring together singers Paula Murrihy, Chen Reiss, Gerald Finley, Sophie Bevan and the Royal Opera Chorus with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Baroque music specialist Christian Curnyn. There are two performances on Friday 20th November at 6.30 pm and on Sunday 22 November at 3 pm, with a Livestream on Friday 20th November. Tickets are £5-£100 while the streaming prices is £10. Public booking opens on Tuesday 10 November.
Falstaff on Friday 27 November at 7 pm and Sunday 29th November at 5 pm has tickets priced from £6 to £120. It sounds like a real treat, with two world-leading singers, bass-baritone Bryn Terfel in the title role and baritone Simon Keenlyside as Ford joining Royal Opera Music Director Antonio Pappano, who conducts the Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and a cast including members of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme. Public booking opens on Tuesday 10th November.
Finally, The Royal Opera House is staging a reworked, COVID-safe version of The Nutcracker for The Royal Ballet. This restaging of Peter Wright’s celebrated two-act production features students of The Royal Ballet School alongside the full company. Many of the much-loved elements of this cherished classic remain, from the magical growing Christmas tree to the enchanting dance of the snowflakes and spectacular pas de deux with the Sugar Plum Fairy and her prince in the Kingdom of Sweets.
There will be a new battle scene between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King and their armies, choreographed by Will Tuckett. This festive treat for the whole family has a special place in the hearts of ballet fans around the world, a production that has captivated children and adults alike since its first performance by The Royal Ballet in 1984. Combined with Tchaikovsky’s sumptuous score performed live by the Orchestra of The Royal Opera House and charming designs by Julia Trevelyan Oman, this is a magical ballet for the whole family.
Ticket prices are from £5 to £100 with tickets on sale from Tuesday 10 November for the following dates:
December 7,8,9,10,11,12,15,16,17 at 7pm
December 19,21,22,23,24,29,30,31 at 2pm
January 1,2 at 2pm
There’s more of course in the form of the Royal Opera House Christmas Concert and a whole series of free #Ourhousetoyourhouse broadcasts. Don’t miss the Friday Premiere streaming on 6th November – Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite’s Olivier award-winning Flight Pattern (2019), which will be broadcast for free, wherever you are in the world, on 6 November via the Royal Opera House’s YouTube channel. Her first work for The Royal Ballet, Flight Pattern was critically-acclaimed at its premiere and won best new dance production in 2018.
We hope to be bringing you a new update very soon with more good news both about live staged performances and about the live-streaming options
Browse the Streamed Events that are available now
Buy tickets for future events both streamed and on stage and listen to free broadcasts here
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