Saturday, 13 August 2022

Opera stars ready to sing the Bard’s praises

A HENLEY-based charity that specialises in giving young singers a start is about to embark on its 2016

A HENLEY-based charity that specialises in giving young singers a start is about to embark on its 2016 season of opera-related events.

Opera Prelude hosts celebrity masterclasses, community rehearsals, lecture-recitals and concert performances at venues in Henley and London.

The first of these — a lecture-recital on “The operatic after-life of Shakespeare’s Hamlet” — takes place at the Cadogan Hall on Tuesday (January 26) and at Opera Prelude’s “country” venue two miles from Henley on Friday, January 29.

Both run from 10.30am to 12.30pm, with details of the Henley venue supplied on booking.

Accompanied by pianist Natalie Burch, mezzo-soprano Adriana Festeu will be discussing how the widespread circulation of Shakespeare’s works brought with it the potential for their operatic adaptation.

As early as 1706, Francesco Gasparini offered his take on the tragedy, through his Ambleto, which premiered in Venice.

Adriana’s lecture offers an overview of some unknown operatic adaptations of the play and focuses on its most popular setting: Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet as well as Berlioz’s La mort d’Ophelie (Op 18).

As Opera Prelude founder Fiona Hamilton explains, it was her experience of meeting Adriana in 2010 that inspired her to get the project off the ground.

She said: “I was helping Fawley Church organise a fundraiser, because we needed a new roof. Everybody in the village was involved, doing different forms of fundraising, and the only thing I could think of that I liked or knew anything about was to organise a concert. So I started work on the concert and I had a group of singers from the Guildhall School of Music booked to come to Fawley to sing.

“I started probably six months in advance, working on the concert, and one by one the singers kept dropping out and we’d have to change them and find replacements — it’s fairly normal, I now know.

“And eventually I had it all organised — I got the programmes printed, all of the singers’ biographies printed, and the night before the concert the mezzo-soprano dropped out... I remember taking ill and I cried on my husband’s shoulder because I was so upset.

“Luckily Adriana [was able to fill the role]. We were rehearsing the concert in the afternoon and I was chatting to her outside the church.

“It was the first time I’d actually met an opera singer and she was not much older than my own children — mid-twenties at that point — and she was telling me that she was being paid six pounds to sing a solo role for an opera company and her train fare was 12 pounds.

“I was so shocked and instinctively I wanted to do something to help her. I don’t know where the inspiration came from but I realised that my husband had been taking me to the opera for 20 years and I hadn’t a clue what was going on — I used to sit there in the dark waiting to go home.

“I had no idea where Mozart fitted in in relation to Verdi or anything that happened in between. And so in a flash I said to her, ‘Listen, I know nothing about opera, and I really ought to by now after all these years of going. How about if I got some friends and we organised an opera history lecture series — you could tell us about opera.’

“And so once a week for six weeks we met with a group of people, a group of neighbours, a group of local people from the community, and Adriana talked and sang her way through 400 years of opera history. It was absolutely amazing — you’ve got no idea how incredible.

“The first week we didn’t know what to expect — and neither did poor Adriana because she’d never done anything like it before. She was talking about the beginning of opera and singing to us lots of really early stuff that was quite unfamiliar.

“We quickly progressed through to Handel, Mozart, and then all the lovely Rossini, and the Verdi and on to Puccini. And then the 20th century stuff.

“It was fascinating being taken on that journey by a young opera singer and having the live performance — that’s what really made it, because anyone with an academic background could probably give a lecture on music and opera history, but to actually sing it, that was the incredible thing.

“Everybody loved it and we all just gave money straight to Adriana and she gave a little concert at the end and everybody loved it so much we thought, well, let’s do another one.

“So the next one we did was a series called ‘Women in Opera’ and everybody loved it and more people wanted to come.

“ Adriana had a friend called Rosie who was a soprano, so obviously that’s a different voice type, and we did a lecture with Rosie where I think she did something about the bel canto Shakespeare because a lot of opera composers use Shakespeare as the basis of their opera [storylines].”

The Bard’s continuing impact on the form has inspired Opera Prelude’s “Shakespeare in Opera” lecture series for 2016 — of which Adriana lecture on Hamlet is only the first.

The series continues at the Cadogan Hall on Tuesday, February 9, with a discussion of “Shakespeare in Love” featuring soprano Callie Swarbrick and mezzo-soprano Rosie Clifford, with piano accompaniment by Natalie Burch.

Having been run on a non-profit basis since 2010, Opera Prelude became a registered charity in 2014, which enabled it to benefit from Gift Aid and set up a Singer’s Friends Fund that last year disbursed more than £7,000 in mini-grants and bursaries in addition to the fees paid to performers.

As Fiona explains: “Every ticket sold, every subscription or donation made, directly supports Opera Prelude’s chosen singers. Our affordable, friendly and inclusive events form a bridge across the footlights, introducing you to young opera singers and their diverse, enriching art form.”

Currently a PhD student at the Royal Academy of Music, where she is researching the Zwischenfach voice, supported by funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Adriana is also Opera Prelude’s course director.

Tickets for the Cadogan Hall lecture-recitals are £25. Tickets for the Henley lecture-recital on Friday, January 29, are £20.

To book, and for full details of forthcoming events in Henley and London, visit

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