The Wrong Crowd: Pulling the strings while hitting the notes
“This is the real brain- melt moment,” says mezzo-soprano Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, in a break in rehearsals for a new touring production of Jonathan Dove’s family chamber opera Swanhunter. “You will have seen us at the most difficult stage. I’ve never picked that horse leg up before.”
The limb she’s referring to, which at this early stage resembles an articulated crutch covered with copper cladding, is the work of Rachael Canning, designer and puppet director on Swanhunter and co-artistic director of the Wrong Crowd, the theatre company collaborating with Opera North to bring the production to the stage this spring.
First produced by Opera North in 2009, Swanhunter is an opera for audiences aged seven and up, based on a tale from the Finnish folk epic The Kalevala. This new production is the Wrong Crowd’s first foray into opera and its first time co-producing too. But Canning and co-artistic director Hannah Mulder aren’t fazed.
“I think our work relates really well to opera, these epic tales, because we are creating everything visually. And with this story there’s all these beasts and quests. So the puppetry works for this sort of thing,” says Canning.
“I think opera encourages this sort of visual language,” Mulder adds. “There’s a kind of acceptance of that in opera – the scope of design and the scope of imagination. I think we’ve always loved that aspect of it.”
Jacqui Cameron, education director at Opera North, agrees, singling out the “energy, inventiveness and expertise in visual storytelling” that the Wrong Crowd brings to the mix. She calls the company’s style “a brilliant fit for the fantastic and magical elements of the Swanhunter tale”.
Opera North first came across the Wrong Crowd when Mulder and Canning’s first show, The Girl with the Iron Claws, played at the Howard Assembly Room in 2013. The two companies have been cooking up this new project together ever since, each contributing 50% of the £160,000 production budget, with rehearsals taking place at Opera North’s HQ in Leeds.
Opera auditions don’t usually involve singing nursery rhymes and magicking life-size elks out of cardboard, but the Wrong Crowd’s Swanhunter will be no ordinary opera. The team needed to find singers “that were going to be flexible and playful and willing to try something that they might not have done before,” says Canning. Just being able to sing Dove’s complex score wasn’t enough – performers had to be “happy working in an ensemble way, being on stage all the time” too.
It turned out, much to the pair’s surprise, that “there was quite a good, innate sense of how to puppeteer” among those they auditioned, says Mulder. “Maybe because there’s a clarity in music about articulation and breath and rhythm. Maybe there’s a natural affinity with the puppetry.” The skill of the casting team at Opera North might have had something to do with it too, they’re both quick to acknowledge.
It’s not just breathing and rhythm – the teamwork involved in manipulating the different parts of a puppet is familiar too, says soprano Suzanne Shakespeare. “We all become the horse. It’s like choral singing or Greek chorus, where everyone has a different line to sing but we’re trying to sound like the same voice. We’re three people with three different objects that become one object. We have to breathe together.”
It may be familiar, but that doesn’t mean it’s not difficult. “Memorising all the music before you start rehearsals was of the utmost importance,” says Afonwy-Jones. “It’s always important, but I almost feel like I’m not singing because I have to concentrate so hard on what I’m doing physically.”
Working out the mechanics of puppeteering while singing occupied a significant proportion of the three-day research and development period that took place several weeks before rehearsals began. “Animating a puppet, looking at the conductor: how much can they move and sing at the same time? We just didn’t know how that would work in the space,” says Mulder.
The company is making good progress by the time I join members in the second week of rehearsals in Leeds, spending an afternoon blocking a scene in which Lemminkainen, the hero of the tale, tames and rides the devil’s horse.
At this stage in the process, explains conductor Justin Doyle, the musical side of things is somewhat on the backburner. “I know that musically it will be spot-on because it has been from day one, so now I have to sit back and keep my trap shut. But on the other hand I’ll take conscious notes of, ‘Oh, that’s going to be tricky’, and occasionally I’ll chat to the directors.”
Meanwhile, Doyle is considering some of the production’s more “pragmatic issues”– how to ensure a good balance of sound when singers and orchestra are on the same level, for example. “Acoustically, you have to give it some thought,” he says.
Mulder and Canning, whose previous projects with the Wrong Crowd have always been co-devised, are relishing the new experience of collaborating to create a production around an existing score and libretto.
“It’s a completely different way round in that the music is already there and you’re working the storytelling on top of it, making sense of what is already there. You’re allowing it to speak what it’s doing and it’s really lovely,” says Mulder.
“Lovely and a challenge,” says Canning, with a smile.