By Andrew Henley, tenor 2017/18

5 March 2018


After a whirlwind start to 2018 featuring an American opera scenes project with world-famous director Keith Warner and a French and German song project with the wonderful Iain Burnside, we were ready to get started on our main project of the Spring term – an all-Russian programme of scenes for our Scottish Opera residency.

And yes, you guessed it. We called it ‘From Russia With Love’.

The programme included works by such giants of the Russian musical tradition as Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky and, of course, Tchaikovsky. While several of the NOS singers have some experience with Russian music, this was for many of us the most immersive and intense focus on this wonderful repertoire we’d had so far. Hours of deciphering the Cyrillic alphabet and painstaking language coachings began the process, so that every syllable of this (somewhat unexpectedly) lyrical language could be understood and communicated effectively. The three brilliant Russian coaches brought in to get us up to speed – Maya Soltan, Anastasia Witts and Lada Valesova – worked tirelessly to both build the linguistic bedrock and release the musicality of the text of each piece. At this point I should confess that, being allocated the role of Tom Rakewell in The Rake’s Progress, I was working with an English rather than Russian text (I can only assume the powers-that-be thought my Russian ability was already too advanced and would embarrass the others…).

The music of our programme was predominately drawn from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period which represents the pinnacle of Russian artistic achievement. The works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, the plays of Chekhov and, of course, the musical achievements of Tchaikovsky and the Russian School of composers all date from this remarkable era. Despite ranging from the monumental Khovanshchina and Boris Godunov of Mussorgsky to the neo-classical irony of Stravinsky, the startling emotional intensity common to all of this repertoire binds it together, and marks it as distinctly Slavic in nature.

We were lucky enough to have Stuart Stratford, Music Director of Scottish Opera and our conductor in this project, come to London for some preliminary music calls before we started staging the show. His passion for this repertoire is both boundless and infectious, and we had the opportunity to take on board his musical directions at this early stage so that we would arrive in Scotland ready to hit the ground running. Staging rehearsals began with the fantastic Max Hoehn and his assistant director Franciska Ery, and I witnessed several faces drain of colour as it became apparent that they were both fluent Russian speakers. Yet we had nothing to fear – the work with our coaches had paid off and our collective Russian was intelligible to both! Max was able to weave together our selection of scenes into a show that includes comedy, tragedy, romance, political drama, near farce and a giant cut-out of a Tsar who looks rather like a certain US President. The selection was also notable for featuring many strong female characters, in something of a contrast to our Handel scenes. From the evil seductress Kashcheyevna and the battle-hungry Princess Marina to the indomitable Anne Trulove, the characters in our piece were a million miles from so-called ‘operatic stereotypes’. After an intensive period of staging work in Wandsworth, we boarded trains and planes and set off for Scotland.

Scottish Opera is the most wonderfully welcoming company, and it was clear from our first sessions in Glasgow that we would be working with them in collaboration as well as being there to learn. One of my favourite moments in any rehearsal period is the Sitzprobe, the first orchestral rehearsal, and the memory of the amazing Scottish Opera orchestra playing the prelude to Lensky’s aria still gives me chills! While rehearsing we also got the opportunity to see Scottish Opera’s production of Flight, a relatively recent opera by Jonathan Dove, and it was brilliant to see the Theatre Royal almost full for a midweek performance of a non-repertoire piece.

After seemingly no time at all, it was time for our performance. The Theatre Royal is the most fantastic space for singers – there is a real sense of intimacy despite the 1500-seat capacity, and the quality of its acoustic meant that none of us felt the need to force our voices, even with a sizeable orchestral accompaniment. The audience was incredibly receptive and warm, one moment laughing raucously and hooked in spellbound silence at another. Of all the many exciting opportunities that studying at the NOS has provided me with this year, this was undoubtedly the high point so far and, as many of my colleagues remarked, reminded me how lucky I am to be part of this organisation. Roll on Cardiff!

Tickets are still available for the London Showing of From Russia with Love. Book yours today


More photos:

All photos © NOS/Scottish Opera 2018. Photographed by James Glossop.