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Q&A with Ella Marchment

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Connecting creativity in the Coronavirus Crisis, #OperaHarmony looks to assemble teams from across the globe for all new homemade micro-operitas to be shared online. With ongoing support, composers will be paired with librettists to build the pieces on the themes of ‘distance’ or ‘community’ before being matched with directors and singers to record and turn their micro- opera into an online reality to share with the world. 

This entirely innovative way of creating networks, at a distance, between all those invested in creating opera comes from the current Stage Director of the International Opera Awards, Ella Marchment. Ella has worked for world-renowned companies and conservatoires as a director and teacher including Guildhall School of Music and Drama, The Julliard School, Dutch National Opera, Wexford Festival Opera and The Royal College of Music. Additionally she has a track record of creating opportunities for artists and new commission and, through her organisation, Helios Collective, has engaged over 1,500 artists in making opera, and commissioned numerous new operas and plays many of which have been endorsed and hosted by English National Opera. 

We caught up with Ella Marchment to ask all about #OperaHarmony and life since lockdown.

What were you doing when the announcements were made for the theatres to close?

I was directing at Dutch National Opera when the producers announced that theatres were closing and that the production could not go ahead. That was on Friday the 13th March, and we were just one day away from our first audience run. While the sands were shifting around us, the company explored the idea of streaming the production without an audience, but that too had to be abandoned a few days later, and everyone was sent home.

What immediate affect did that have on your work?

As a freelance director, you get used to change. So, while the immediate impact was a nine-week engagement suddenly coming to a mid-contract end, it didn’t throw me. With borders in Europe closing without notice, I had transport and accommodation issues to face, but my initial thoughts were for the welfare of the people involved in the production and the disappointment of so many people’s hard work being lost. 

Days earlier, the International Opera Awards (which I currently direct) had taken the decision to postpone the 2020 ceremony, and in the days that followed, more of my scheduled engagements disappeared. I was also in the middle of applying for a visa to work in America, but with visa offices closed, I don’t know where I will be later this year, let alone next.

How did you and your colleagues process that together?

With disappointment and determination. With seven projects cancelled or indefinitely postponed, my landscape had been dramatically reshaped, and so had that of others. The loss of the Dutch National Opera production was shocking in its speed and immediacy. We were hours away from doing our final pre-dress run of the show when the theatre closed. The company had one last meal together and then everyone went their separate ways. It was very emotional. But since then, determination has really kicked in, with the belief that things can still be done right now and that we all need to plan for how we will produce works when the lockdown finishes and life shapes a new normal.

Could you explain what #OperaHarmony is all about?

#OperaHarmony is about bringing people together to share, explore, and challenge their creativity during the lockdown. Artists worldwide are collaborating across a range of disciplines to create, stage, and record completely new operas, each under ten minutes in duration. We’re learning how to cooperate online and how to harness diverse technologies to realise our ideas. Everyone is giving their time freely because we are using this time to challenge ourselves creatively to arm ourselves with new creative tools for the future. We’re making music because that is what we do, and we are determined that even in such terrible circumstances, we will still be artists and true to our art. The coronavirus situation really is awful, but we are doing something that is positive now and will hopefully have a long-term legacy. There is a real sense of camaraderie both between teams and across everyone involved in this first round of operas. Everyone wants to learn from each other HOW we can possibly keep making opera in this way. Last week we had a collective meeting and lots of people offered to help other groups with different technical aspects of realising the operas. We are also setting up the rehearsals in a way that other participants are able to observe, as we all believe that we can learn just as much from watching others as doing so ourselves. In a way although there is a performance outcome it is also a collective practical way of learning for us all. 

How did you come up with the idea for #OperaHarmony?

When the Dutch National Opera show was cancelled and the lockdown began, I found myself in the Netherlands, cut off from friends, family, home, and work. In the face of so much absence, I realised that although I was alone, my circumstances were not unique and that there must be other artists with similar feelings. I wrote a note on Facebook to some of my friends, asking if any of them would be interested in either creating or performing short operas during the lockdown period, just for the enjoyment and challenge of doing something entirely new. I woke the next morning to find that my post had been shared and that more than 200 people worldwide wanted to be involved: composers, librettists, directors, designers, singers, musicians, video editors, etc. We are not just looking to write operas and have someone sing them with a piano accompaniment: we’re actually going to stage mini operas, even with people working and performing in different countries. It is a huge artistic and technical challenge.

How can people get involved in #OperaHarmony?

People can get in touch through Facebook, Twitter, or email (operaharmony2020@gmail.com). At the moment, we have seventeen operas in production, and as I am the only person coordinating the projects, things are pretty hectic, especially when working across multiple timezones. I’m not commissioning more operas right now, but as soon as some of the original operas have been completed, we will look at creating new teams to produce additional works.

It is really rewarding to see former strangers working together and challenging each other by sharing ideas and methodologies, let alone creating new ones. It feels as though we are at the cutting edge of what is possible in terms of music and technology. For sure, some things won’t work out perfectly, but the learning experiences alone are equally as important as the final works.

So, please get in touch if you would like to join in. When time allows, I’ll set #OperaHarmony.2 in motion.

What do you think the outcomes of #OperaHarmony will be?

At the very least, #OperaHarmony will be seventeen new operas, hosted on YouTube. But more importantly, #OperaHarmony will be notable for the relationships it is forging and developing, and the working methods it is creating. It is about meeting and working with people and ideas you might never have otherwise encountered. There are teams comprising practitioners from The UK, Germany, America, Canada, France, Turkey, Denmark, The Czech Republic, The Netherlands, Sweden, and UAE. 90% of the individuals involved had never met or heard of each other until they joined #OperaHarmony.

Aside from #OperaHarmony have you been taking part in any other creative activities been happening online, on social media etc?

Although I have lost productions this year, I haven’t lost everything, as some of the organisations I work with have been able to adopt new working methods. For example, I was due to direct at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama in May, which will still be happening – albeit over Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Guildhall has a really fantastic technical theatre department, and their ambitions are pretty much unbounded. In recent online meetings, I’ve learnt a lot about different apps, virtual reality, and 3D scanning, and I am starting to think about how I will be able to integrate these ideas and skills into my other artistic work. Towards the end of last year, I was commissioned to write a book about the arts, so I am also working on that, as planned.

If you’ve seen any theatre shows or readings streamed online recently could you recommend one or two to our readers?

There is so much on offer right now, I’ve been spoilt for choice. The National Theatre broadcasts are a treat. I chortled hard at James Corden in One Man, Two Guvnors, although I don’t think it’s available any more. With some of these streams, you are up against the clock to watch them. 

I find myself racing each day to fit in the Met Player’s webcasts. These are definitely worth watching, firstly, because they serve up world-class opera online, and secondly, because they are now free to stream. At the moment, a new opera is being offered every day for twenty-four hours, and I am really hoping that Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin will be streamed soon. When it was presented at the Met in 2016, it was the first opera by a female composer to be staged in the theatre since 1903. Sad, but true.

Another brilliant story championing women is Netflix’s Self-Made – a series inspired by the life of Madam C.J. Walker, who was the first female self-made millionaire in the USA. I only planned to watch one episode, but found myself binging until the end. The money isn’t important: it’s the can-do attitude and drive that inspire.

What advice can you give to students or recent graduates about to or entering into the arts and music industry at this time?

Stop for a moment and look at what people are doing right now. A lot of the time, they are listening to music and watching drama series, films, shows, and other arts streams. Art is proving itself to be a vital coping mechanism used by the general public during isolation.

Art is necessary. Art is developing. Art will find new ways to exist. Although the world will change, there will still be a hunger for art in lots of ways, shapes, and forms. This time is an exercise in patience. Look after your health; embrace the new; push yourself to try something different, either in your own art form or in another that interests you. 

When all of this is over, art will still be there, it will still be needed, and it will still need people exactly like you. Don’t let the lockdown limit you, your ideas, or your ambitions. See it as an opportunity and an inspiration to be the best that you can be, in whatever art form you work in.

What do you think about the help from the UK government to support self-employed people from the UK theatre industry? 

Better than some. Worse than others. Societies need art and art needs artists, so any investment in art is an investment in the well-being of the entire country and its people.

Anything else you would like to add?

As we are currently celebrating #ShareYourShakespeare, I directed a work in 2016 about Anne Hathaway, whose husband was the playwright William Shakespeare. The piece was called Hathaway—Eight Arias For A Bardic Life, and it was commissioned as a joint venture between Buxton International Festival, Copenhagen Opera Festival, and Helios Collective. The piece is set in the hours just after William’s death, and as Anne tends William’s body, she reflects on their life together, focussing on how they met, how they lost their son Hamnet, and how she is determined that death will not diminish the influence of the written works. In that story, there is, perhaps, an allegory for our current situation: about how we are determined to survive and to cherish those we have lost and the legacy they leave. In one scene, Anne observes, “When sorrow came, it came so sudden; not as a single ship, but as an armada.” That line, I think, sums up the armada of sorrow we have all felt with the onslaught of the virus, of the lockdown that followed, and the tragedy of the lives lost.

At this point in the work, it feels as though everything is lost, but thanks to her resolve and courage, Anne wins through, closing the piece with the lines below. I hope that life will imitate art and that we will all – like Anne – overcome, remember, love, survive, and thrive.

If parting portends sorrow, then don’t part,

Still the stars, so tomorrow cannot start.

To love, to know, to live, to want, to care,

My heart, to you, I give, this much, I swear.

If time alone can heal this lover’s pain,

Then time alone has much for us to gain.

To live to see your works go on to thrive,

Will spare my soul to keep our love alive.

Upon this cup my lips shall find no cure, 

While in my heart your presence will endure.

For all that I’ve forgiven and can give, 

I choose the choice through me for us to live.