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On stage at Glyndebourne, irrespective of age

The Imago cast rehearsing on the Glyndebourne stage. Photo: David Illman
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I wrote recently in The Stage about Garsington Opera’s first ever community opera and the education and training benefits inherent in such a project. Since then I’ve spoken to Susannah Waters, director of Imago at Glyndebourne, which has a 20 year history of a triennial community opera.

Imago, which runs at Glyndebourne from March 7-9, is an intergenerational story with music by Orlando Gough and libretto by Stephen Plaice. “Glyndebourne invests money in its community operas so Imago, designed by Es Devlin and Bronia Housman, has full production values, including the support of the same backstage team which manages the shows which are part of the annual festival,” says Waters.

The story – which claims to be La Boheme for the digital age – gives us an eighty-year-old woman, Elizabeth. She is bed-bound in a care home and creates an imago – an eighteen-year-old digital version of herself. Launched into a digital world, her imago, Lisette, enables her to experience the things she feels she is too old to do. In the parallel world, her new self falls in love with an imago, Gulliver, projected by a fifteen year old boy.

Fifty young people recruited from all over East Sussex sing along with 16 middle aged people and 16 elderly performers. The youngest cast member is 15 and the oldest 81. On stage almost continuously, they work alongside professionals such as Jean Rigby. “And everyone is treated equally and taken totally seriously so that they can learn from each other without barriers” said Waters. There are also young players in the pit working alongside professionals from the Aurora Orchestra under Nicholas Collon as well as others, out of sight, learning backstage skills.

Having had the music since October, the community chorus has been rehearsing since January 16 two evenings a week and all day Saturdays. They are also in for the whole of this week – half term for the students and a requirement to take leave for anyone who is at work. The intensive week is, effectively, a training course.

“One of the big advantages of being part of an organisation whose main work is a festival is that we can have access to the stage for many weeks at this time of year and rehearse with sets from quite early in the process,” says Waters.

A handful of Imago’s young participants have done this before, but for the majority Imago is a first experience. Some have their sights set on vocational training later. For others it is simply a terrific general learning experience.

And some are already on their way. Joanna Songi played the child, Flora, in Glyndebourne’s The Turn of the Screw in 2007 and 2011 and has worked with Waters before. Now in her second year of the Royal College of Music’s post-graduate course, she sings Lisette as a paid professional in Imago and has a job at Garsington this summer.

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