100 years ago last week at Craiglockhart Hospital for Neurasthenic Officers in Edinburgh, Wilfred Owen introduced himself to Siegfried Sassoon and one of the great literary friendships was born. Wilfred was recovering from shellshock, deeply traumatised by his time on the Western Front in 1917. Siegfried, grieving and angry at the deaths of his friends and men in his unit, had protested against the continued conduct of the First World War. After intervention from Robert Graves, he was sent to Craiglockhart rather than face a court martial. As the aspiring poet Wilfred was well aware, Siegfried was already a moderately famous poet. In the few weeks together they had in Scotland, Siegfried encouraged and mentored Wilfred.
Wilfred was killed on 4 November 1918, exactly a year after he left Craiglockhart and a week before the Armistice, however in the time between meeting Siegfried and his death he produced some of the most famous war poems, including Anthem for Doomed Youth and Strange Meeting. Their shared influence can still be felt today – their works are still taught in school, and Siegfried’s quote “I died in hell; they called it Passchendaele” has been widely quoted in the ongoing commemorations of the Third Battle of Ypres.
We know so much about their friendship as they both wrote about it – Wilfred in excited letters to his mother and Siegfried a couple of decades later in his volume of autobiography Siegfried’s Journey. This documentation has provided excellent source material for modern authors looking to portray the two poets. They are the subject of a two-hander play Not About Heroes which covers Craiglockhart in Act One and their different paths in Act Two. Intimate and moving, this is a powerful play (but having directed it a few years ago I am quite biased).
Perhaps the most well-known depiction of their friendship is in Pat Barker‘s award winning Regeneration Trilogy. However, in Barker’s interpretation of Siegfried’s time at Craiglockhart, his friendship with Wilfred is overshadowed by his connection with his doctor, W. H. R. Rivers. There’s a lot going on in the trilogy – the cultural construct of masculinity cracking under pressure, mental health, sex, pacifism – and Siegfried and Wilfred are only one strand to this. Rivers is perhaps the main character and the marvelous fictional creation that is Billy Prior dominates the last two books.
I’ve mentioned before how Billy is possibly my favourite literary character. He’s the working class kid who becomes an officer; he’s bisexual; he’s somewhere on the continuum of sanity and insanity; he’s a split personality. He’s so many things that in some ways he shouldn’t work but – to me at least – he does. Billy and Rivers tie the trilogy together.
And so a chance meeting 100 years ago is still being interpreted and played out today; the voices of those caught up in conflict still resonating.
There’s a song by the comedy band Tripod with a line that goes: “I always get into stuff/ Just as it’s finishing being cool...”, and embarrassingly this often applies to me. A couple of years ago I listened to the first song of the (Alexander) Hamilton musical and thought it was good, but it didn’t blow me away. I figured I’d try it again another time.
A few weeks ago I put it on as something to listen to while cleaning the house, and this time I stuck with it; halfway through listening to “Satisfied” I was a firm fan. I kept cleaning just so that I could finish the musical (which never happens, believe me). The house was spotless by the time the last refrains of “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” faded out, and I may have cried a few times while folding the washing. How did a story about another country’s history affect me (and millions of others) so deeply?
For a start it’s incredibly well written; it’s a musical but it’s sung-through, so you can hear the entire story by listening to the cast recording. While many of the songs are incredibly catchy the story is what compels you to continue listening to Alexander Hamilton as he drags himself up from nothing to something; he’s not always likeable, but you have to admire his incredible work ethic, and he was clearly charismatic to many.
Articulate, intelligent leaders are always interesting to read about, and he surrounded himself with articulate, intelligent men and women, including my favourite character — his sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler — who sings my favourite song. Hamilton isn’t a musical that shies away from shades of grey, portraying both Hamilton and his frenemy Aaron Burr as complex rivals with a fundamental difference in character. Lin-Manuel Miranda manages to pack all this complexity into two and a bit hours by using rapid-fire delivery and lyrics that seem throw-away on the surface but unpack to give multiple meanings and allusions to hip hop masters, Shakespeare, and historical events.
There is a lot more I could say on the topic, from how I love that it’s bringing verse back to stage performance as a great tool for compelling exposition, how it’s performing America then by America now with a diverse and talented cast, how I’ve managed to have seven different songs stuck in my head at once — and yes, if you listened to this back in 2015, you already know all this stuff. But for anyone else who’s heard about it but hasn’t quite gotten around to it yet, or who loved the Kate Shepard musical (That Bloody Woman) last year, borrow the Hamilton cast recording today and give it a listen. If nothing else you’ll get a clean house out of it.
Opening night at the beautifully restored Isaac Theatre Royal. The talk of the excited crowd dies down to murmurs as the lights dim. Light glitters from gilded panels. The open stage begins to fill with the cast, who stare heroically at the audience, then walk off to leave the lead character exposed.
Carmen, by Georges Bizet, is an Opera in four acts. It’s a passionate story, centred around Gypsy Siren come Revolutionary, Carmen. Her wily seduction of the Soldier Don Jose and the love triangle created when she spurns him for the compelling Toreador, Escamillo, raises passions that run out of control.
Directed by Opera Queensland’s Artistic Director Lindy Hume, (Lucia di Lammermoor, Rigoletto and Lacenerentola), the themes of immorality and the murder of the main character broke new ground in theatre, making the Opera controversial after its release in 1875.
The cast of Carmen are incredible. Relaxed and natural in their roles, they deliver a heartfelt and convincing performance. Don Jose (Tom Randle) has a powerful voice with which to express his pain (like a knife in the heart). His duets with Michaela (Emma Pearson) are exquisite.
Micaela (Emma Pearson)’s pleas with Don Jose to save his life from ruin are delivered with such feeling that I was moved by her performance. Her voice brought the role to life with powerful strength.
And Carmen (Nina Surguladze). Wow. She gave an incredible performance. Her voice filled the theatre, as did her personality. Nina has performed on the most famous stages in the world. Her Carmen was cheeky, strong heroic; her movements around the stage as graceful as her control over her voice, teasing us with soft notes, and inflaming us with her passionate mezzo soprano.
The supporting cast must not be forgotten. All great actors, their wonderful voices swelled the theatre with rousing performances of Amour and Toreador. Special mention to Kiwis Amelia Perry (Frasquita) and Kristin Darragh (Mercedes), Carmen’s companions. I loved their voices, and they brought more character to the stage.
Production Designer Dan Potra’s staging is clever and innovative. Moving panels create or take away space, ultimately leaving the lead characters, Carmen and Don Jose trapped.
The chorus and Escamillo take performances beyond the stage, singing shadowed behind the stage wall. Lights appear in a strangely jagged wall to create a mountain hillside, clever lighting (Matthew Marshall) creates swirling clouds from dry ice.
Lastly a hat’s off to the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Francesco Pasqualletti and Oliver von Dohnanyi. and It was thrilling to hear Toreador played live. Great job.
Favourite scenes? The whole cast singing ‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle‘ in Act I. The dancing scene in Act II: Carmen is completely in control; the women creating a whirlwind around the circle of sheepish, lustful men.
And the Death Scene. Best Death Ever! The crowd gasped as Don Jose fired his gun (filled with very loud blanks), then gasped again as Carmen slid down the wall, leaving a trail of blood. Especially entertaining as we all knew it was coming.
Footnote: My library colleague Rose O’Neill asked one of the Isaac’s friendly staff about The Ghost. It was thought that he had gone after the Quakes. Then after restoration he was seen behind the stage…
NZ Opera’s production of Carmen, Bizet’s tale of love and betrayal, gypsies and bullfighters, opens at the Isaac Theatre Royal this week and amongst the cast is a chorus of ten Christchurch schoolboys.
So what’s it like to be 12 years old and in a professional production of one of the world’s most popular operas? I asked twin brothers Archie and Jack MacDonald about how they got into singing, choirs, and their advice for other youngsters who might want to sing on stage.
How did you both get into singing and performing? Is that something you’ve been doing for a long time?
Archie: Well, we got into our first 2 big choirs [Christchurch Schools Music Festival special choir and the Christchurch Boys’ Choir] in year 5 but we’ve just been in heaps of school choirs and have always loved playing guitar and singing with our big sister, and it’s just sort of been a passion that we’ve always had all of our life.
Is singing something that you’ve always done together?
Jack: Yeah, I don’t think we’ve ever been in a choir that the other one hasn’t been in. And we busk together too. Either in the Riccarton Bush Market or the Re:Start Mall.
How much practising and rehearsing do you have to do for Carmen?
Archie: There’s quite a lot, particularly in our own time at home. We’ve been given a [music] file just to rehearse and get it all sorted… We’d do some at least every day for the last 2 weeks.
And for Carmen you’re singing in French. Is that a thing that you’ve done before?
Jack: We’ve sung in different languages before but not as much as in Carmen, so it took a few hours just to figure out the pronunciation and write it down in our music, and then there’s the notes and you have to put them all together and that’s hard but we’ve got the adult chorus to help us… when you’re acting as well, you’ve got to know what you’re singing about so that you can have facial expressions and act how you would if you were saying it in English.
And what’s it been like being part of an opera production?
Jack: It’s been fun. Last year we were in Evita with Showbiz but this is like another step up. We’ve got different costumes from everyone else and we’re running around [the stage] teasing soldiers, running up stairs and things – it’s been full on but fun.
Is it good to have other kids around (in the children’s chorus)?
Archie: Yeah, it sort of takes a little bit of the pressure off. Definitely a solo act is a bit trickier and a bit harder but everyone’s really supportive and it’s just great, ya know? But it’s a bit more fun with more boys.
It must be very nerve-wracking going in for an audition.
Archie: Yeah, you can never really take that away from an audition. You always want to get in and have heaps of time with whatever you’re auditioning for.
Jack: Yep, just being by yourself in front of someone and singing is quite hard… but then you feel good coming out of it.
So what’s the most fun thing about singing?
Archie: Definitely performances.
Jack: Yeah, performances in front of a crowd.
Is it more fun with an audience? What’s that like?
Archie: When the lights go up you’ll just see a crowd sitting in front of you and you’re just like “I’ve gotta do this. I can’t really muck up.” So yeah, it sort of boosts you a wee bit more and you’re really wanting to work hard.
Jack: Well, you feel nervous but then when you go off the stage and you’re done you’ll feel happy, like after an audition and you’ll think that you’ve done your job well. As long as you give it everything and work hard.
Is music something you’d like to do for a job one day?
Archie: I’ve always thought it would be a lot of fun to be involved in music but I’ve never really seen it as necessarily something to base everything around, as in, have as my job but it would be heaps of fun to just stay involved. I’ve really got a taste for how much fun it really is and I’d love to keep that going for as long as I can, really.
Jack: Yeah, I really like cricket but then getting into a good team as a job, that’s gonna be hard so I have to have something else to work on… I’m sort of still thinking about it.
Do you have any advice for other kids who want to be on the stage performing and singing?
Jack: Give it everything and enjoy it. And just work hard.
Archie: I’d probably say don’t hold back, just go for everything that sounds fun. Never think “there’ll be some people who are better at this role than me”, because it’s great to have an experience of just an audition. It sort of gets you a bit more used to things and less nervous for later on in life. The more you do things, the more you get to enjoy it, the more hobbies you get to have when you’re older. So just really get into it. Take every opportunity. Absolutely anything really. Go for anything and everything you like the sounds of.
Being in choirs seems to have been a big part of it for you.
Archie: [Christchurch Boys’ Choir] has taken us from having not too many musical opportunities to just singing with so many amazing groups and heaps of cool opportunities coming up.
Jack: It was only Boys’ Choir that was in Evita. We sang at the Crusaders vs Lions game (we sang Conquest of Paradise) and now Carmen. And they’re after boys to audition for Sister Act. Whenever we’re backstage we’re always singing and stuff because we’ve all got decent voices we can pick out a harmony while we’re sitting there… I really recommend the Boys Choir as a really top thing that will get you into heaps of things like this, end of year concerts, concerts in between, or maybe one thing a year like performances with Showbiz.
Archie: (about end of year Battle of the Bands at intermediate school) It was pretty cool because with the Boys’ Choir we’ve got audiences much bigger than a school of 500 people and we’re a bit more confident with that sort of thing. If we weren’t in the choir or involved with any productions or anything that’d sort of be massive and our hearts would be pounding. It would be crazy, you know, really nervous. It’s quite cool just to know, we were very confident going into that and it’s because we’ve just sung in front of so many people…