Dorset Opera Festival: Small-scale venture with big ideas for producing world-class opera
Credited with introducing several operas to this country, the annual festival returns with a UK stage premiere of Massenet’s Le Cid as well as a production of Puccini’s La Boheme. Roderick Kennedy, under whose artistic directorship the event has soared to new heights, tells George Hall how he continues to raise the game
During a quiet moment in the operatic calendar towards the end of July, the Dorset Opera Festival comes into its own. The unique institution offers a summer school, with training and rehearsals that end with public performances, this year running at Bryanston School from July 24 to 28. The festival has been running since 1974, when it was founded by local music teacher and conductor Patrick Shelley, who wanted to stage top-level opera, while bringing artists and technicians through: from singers to stage managers.
Following Shelley’s unexpected death in 2003, bass singer Roderick Kennedy became artistic director and the event has tripled the number of performances and moved to a bigger venue.
Kennedy himself has enjoyed a substantial international career and has sung principal roles at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and Glyndebourne. He was living in Dorset when Shelley’s sudden death led representatives of the company to approach him, initially with a request to join as chairman. He offered to run the company instead and has done so ever since.
As well as organisational skills, Kennedy brings a wealth of experience and boundless enthusiasm to his task of raising the game of a small-scale enterprise, which for many years presented just two performances of one opera each year. In 2018, there will be a total of six performances of two operas, playing to an audience of more than 3,000 in the modern Coade Hall Theatre – the venue to which the new administrator moved the event in 2005.
The festival runs over a period of 17 days. Two full-scale operas are mounted from scratch at the end, with fully professional principal singers. Before that, members of the chorus and the technical staff are offered the option of taking part in masterclasses as well as coaching in voice and languages, spatial awareness sessions, training in the Alexander technique, and what Kennedy terms “fight club” – or stage combat.
Prospective students generally discover this practical performance course through a music college, the company’s website, or by word of mouth. The chorus itself – the backbone of the festival – varies in size. “This year, there will be around 70 participants,” Kennedy explains, “but when Jonathan Miller did La Traviata for us we had 80, while for our production of Aida in 1977 the number rose to 180, packing the stage to the gunwales.”
Opportunities to hone existing technical skills or to acquire new ones are central to Dorset’s mission. Onsite specialist training ranges from costume-making and training crew through set-construction, painting and prop-making, to assisting the professional lighting designer and the stage management team.
“For the whole technical side, we have professional stage management, including some quite well-known stage managers,” Kennedy says. “The deputy stage managers, who are on the books, are very experienced, but it’s with the assistant stage managers that we really open up. Under constant supervision from the stage managers, they learn on the job during the rehearsals. Costume makers also train with us; in all, they will create or alter some 250-300 costumes for our two productions.”
Some of those taking part will go on to enjoy full-scale professional careers, either as singers or in some technical capacity. Among the members of Dorset’s chorus who have subsequently sung principal roles with major companies in the UK and beyond are soprano Kate Royal, tenors Andrew Dickinson and David Webb, and baritone Ben McAteer.
Five facts about Dorset Festival Opera
1. The Prince of Wales attended the first performance in 1974.
2. Over 45 years, nearly 4,000 young people have been introduced to all aspects of opera.
3. The youngest person ever to take part was seven years old; the oldest was 84.
4. Including this year’s production of Massenet’s Le Cid, the festival has presented seven British stage premieres since 1985.
5. In 2007, Dorset Opera presented the British stage premiere of the Luciano Berio completion of Puccini’s Turandot.
Another former participant is rising director Ella Marchment. She is currently attracting increasing attention for her creative work and is one of the leading lights of Supporting Women and Parents in Opera (known as SWAP’ra), a campaign group that seeks to offer practical solutions to issues faced by women working in opera. “The three summers I spent with Dorset Opera were some of the happiest weeks of my life and I will cherish them forever,” Marchment says. “With my final year in the chorus for Carmen in 2010, I came to the realisation that this was what I wanted to devote my life to. And since stepping off stage after the final performance, I have pursued a career in directing opera.”
Marchment now runs her own youth opera company, the Helios Collective, and has worked all over Europe. “However, it was Dorset Opera where I fell in love with opera,” she says.
Alongside promising young singers, Kennedy casts seasoned professionals in the productions’ principal roles, adding significant status, as well as audience appeal, to the festival’s programme. In 2006, Rosalind Plowright sang the title role in Jules Massenet’s Herodiade. The US bass-baritone Mark S Doss has appeared in a series of productions in Dorset. He played the title role of The Flying Dutchman in 2013, then appeared as Pizarro in Fidelio and Amonasro in Aida the following year, as Macbeth in 2016 and as Mephistopheles in Faust last year. His tenor compatriot Leonardo Capalbo has also taken part, first in 2008’s The Pearl Fishers, then in L’Elisir d’Amore in 2015 and Macbeth the following year.
How does Kennedy choose which works to perform? “First of all, they’ve got to have a big chorus, because that’s essentially why we exist. I love Massenet and some of his works are underrated. This year, I’ve chosen Le Cid, which we’re performing in repertoire with La Boheme.”
The Massenet score represents a UK stage premiere – something by no means unusual for a company that has introduced several operas to Britain. Director Christopher Cowell returns to the festival to take charge of Le Cid, while Peter Relton oversees La Boheme – their respective conductors are the festival’s music director Jeremy Carnall for the Massenet and Peter Robinson for the Puccini.
Making such a large-scale event happen is an enormous task, requiring the participation of more than 240 people during the year, including volunteers. And over the course of the festival, students are accommodated at Bryanston School. “With soloists and production teams, an orchestra of 50 – of which around 10 are academy students on bursaries – and this year a chorus of 70, we have around 180 people living on campus,” Kennedy says. Last year, 72% of those taking part were aged between 16 and 25.
“As one of our participants said of last year’s summer school, it’s an essential experience for any budding opera singer,” Kennedy notes, “and we do attract some fantastic soloists, conductors and directors who subscribe to our ethos of giving young people a foothold in the industry.”
Profile: Dorset Opera Festival
Chief executive/artistic director: Roderick Kennedy
Number of performances: Six
Audience figures: 3,300
Number of members: 142 patrons, 500-plus Friends of Dorset Opera
Funding levels: Arts Council England – no funding this year.
• General enquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org
• Operations director Susannah Hubert: email@example.com
• Chorus manager Rob Brooks: firstname.lastname@example.org
Further information is available at: dorsetopera.com