Opera della Luna’s Jeff Clarke: ‘If you try to be funny in comic opera, you’ll fall flat on your face; play the truth in it, then it’ll be funny’
Jeff Clarke set up Opera della Luna in 1994 to stage the neglected repertoire of comic operas and operettas. He tells George Hall about how the company was nearly scuppered by strikes, his highlights from the past quarter of a century and how staging comic work is much harder than serious opera
Jeff Clarke’s passion for comic opera began early. The artistic director of Opera della Luna – who has directed every production since the company’s birth in 1994 – was taken to see the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company at the Opera House in Manchester aged 11 by his grandparents “and that was the start of it”.
At school, he remembers that the rehearsals of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society were the highlight of his week; then at the University of St Andrews, he relished playing Jack Point in The Yeomen of the Guard and then John Wellington Wells in The Sorcerer, before directing The Mikado in his final year.
How did he get from there into the professional theatre? “I read in the Daily Telegraph that Malcolm Fraser was starting a campaign to reopen the Opera House at Buxton, which had been closed for some years. I went for tea with him at the Midland Hotel in Manchester. He offered me a job working basically as an office boy on anything that needed doing on the campaign to raise the money.”
Then an advert appeared looking for clerks at the House of Commons, and he was given a job. “It was well paid and I discovered that I had long periods of paid holiday in the summer.”
He wrote to the opera companies explaining that he had 10 or 12 weeks in the summer on full pay, and asked if he could work on the rehearsals of one of their productions. “Kent Opera offered me a job as Jonathan Miller’s assistant on Falstaff. He was fantastic to me and it was a wonderful experience.”
Afterwards he wrote to a number of other directors, “and eventually I gave up the House of Commons to assist Anthony Besch in Australia, starting with Die Fledermaus, which starred Joan Sutherland at the Sydney Opera House”.
On his return to the UK, Clarke did a variety of theatrical jobs. He worked – for the first time – with actors as opposed to singers as the composer and music director for a Molière production at Chipping Norton – a process he found “immensely rewarding”.
Opera della Luna – or rather its predecessor, The English Players – was launched soon afterwards. “The idea was to bring actors and singers together to benefit from the exchange of each other’s skills,” he says. “I knew that there was a body of operatic work with a lot of dialogue that demanded a deal of singing but also a deal of acting – so I wanted to do attempt to do that.”
Though the new company was a success, the message came back from theatres that they wanted the word ‘opera’ in its name. “The English Players had done Haydn’s Il Mondo della Luna, and somebody said Opera della Luna. There was immediately a ‘ping’ because it had a nice lyrical sound to it, as well as being slightly off the wall, with an element of lunacy or whatever. So Opera della Luna launched in September 1994 at the Bloomsbury Theatre with Offenbach’s Robinson Crusoe.”
Unfortunately, the week the company opened there was a joint tube, train and bus strike, “So nobody could get there. We lost £8,000. To replenish the coffers, our then administrator Graham Watson suggested doing a Gilbert and Sullivan concert. I didn’t want a lot of stuffed shirts around a piano, so I thought maybe we could do an extended chunk of one opera. Then I thought, maybe we could actually do the whole of it in the second half? And then I thought, is there a way that we could stage this and put everything in costume? And if that were the case, who are those people going to be in the first half?’
Thus was born The Parson’s Pirates, an original version of The Pirates of Penzance that turned out to be one of the company’s most durable successes. “It was originally done for three performances, and by now we’ve done well over 300. It put us on the map while placing us in a niche market. I realised that there was actually nobody else doing this sort of comic work and I saw that there was potential to capitalise on that.”
Q&A Jeff Clarke
What was your first non-theatre job?
Clerk in Table Office, House of Commons, London (1979-82)
What was your first professional theatrical job?
I was employed by Malcolm Fraser as co-ordinator at the Buxton Festival in the year before the Opera House reopened (1978).
What is your next job?
Probably doing the garden.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
I wish someone had taught me the art of networking and schmoozing those who engage directors.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
Probably my grandparents.
What is your advice for auditions?
Try to be natural. Take the right song, but don’t think you need to do the director’s job for them. You are either what they are looking for, or not.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have done?
I’d have stayed in the House of Commons and become a rather wealthier grey person.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I don’t open good-luck cards till after the show has opened.
Why has the comic opera and operetta repertoire become neglected? “Because it’s actually quite difficult. Having done serious opera and comedy, I know which is the harder. There’s a lot more work involved in comedy – a lot more judgment and skill in terms of acting, timing and delivery.”
Apart from The Parson’s Pirates, Clarke’s points to other personal highlights since the company’s creation a quarter of a century ago. “One is the first show we did at Iford, La Belle Hélène, which not only started our Offenbach idyll but also a connection that has grown and grown: I’m reviving the piece this autumn in a co-production with New Sussex Opera.
“Then there’s Don Giovanni, because it’s a piece known as a director’s graveyard and it was very well received, and The Merry Widow, which we did on two long tours – the second of 47 performances in 35 venues. Also, having been stalwarts at the Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Buxton for years, to be part of the Buxton International Festival itself last year, with our sold-out Daughter of the Regiment.”
Despite 25 years of ploughing its unique furrow with considerable artistic success, Opera della Luna’s finances remain precarious. “We had one Arts Council grant for The Gondoliers, and we’ve had various handouts from trusts, but only one-offs.”
He continues: “The future depends on us raising enough money with our 25th-anniversary appeal to employ some administrative help. I won’t claim that I do everything, but I’m the only one who’s continuous. I’m very happy to go on being creative, but I don’t have the energy to spends hours over budgets, invoices, banking and paying people: somebody else has to do that.”
Clarke’s shows are genuinely funny and have acquired a loyal cult following. What is the secret of his operetta success? “If you try to be funny, you’ll fall flat on your face; but if you play the truth in it, then it’ll be funny. The kind of frilly frocks and champagne thing that operetta tends to clothe itself in is not always helpful. Our productions have a touch more edge. I’m fortunate in that some people share my sense of humour.”
CV Jeff Clarke
Born: 1955, Chester
Training: University of St Andrews
• Robinson Crusoe (1994, 2004)
• The Parson’s Pirates (1995)
• The Merry Widow (2001)
• La Belle Helene (2003)
• Don Giovanni (2011)
• The Daughter of the Regiment (2014)
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