Yesterday was Valentine’s Day. What could be more fitting than our announcement of the programme for our Festival of Sex, Love and Death? Well, apart from chocolates, roses and champagne.
The initial idea for #SLDfest began to roll around in my head almost three years ago. We all know that producing opera is an expensive task. Double - or even triple - casting the largest principal roles has become standard practice at fringe level. This enables a company to plan back-to-back performances of the same production, even - on occasion - achieving the seemingly mythical ‘eight shows a week’ that is so commonplace within drama and musical theatre. Producer’s hat on: avoiding dark nights in the theatre makes the production far more financially viable. Director’s hat on: multiple casting allows for different singers to bring even more experience and imagination to the roles.
Opera up Close has been doing this brilliantly for years; I saw Robin Norton-Hale’s production of Carmen at the Soho Theatre in 2015 twice within a few weeks to make sure I caught both casts. The same production, the same narrative, and the same clear, directorial interpretation but a completely different experience when watching Flora McIntosh and Anthony Flaum’s on-stage relationship than it was when seeing the story from Mike Bracegirlde and Lilly Papaioannou’s perspective. Creatively exciting - tick. Two tickets sold to the same person - tick.
However. The downsides - for us - of double casting are that a) the fee budget doubles, and b) the very nature of sharing roles means that each singer gets slightly less individual rehearsal time.
So what if there was another way?
I had become very aware that HeadFirst Productions claims to be a theatre and opera company but, so far, everything we produced had been opera and classical music. Where were the plays? Where was the spoken word? The physical theatre?
I was also conscious that if HFP was to have any real longevity, we needed to start working with other directors. Of course it was inevitable that the first few productions would be directed by the company’s Artistic Director, but widening our pool of creative collaborators would be key to avoid the company existing as my vanity project!
So, the three questions I asked myself were:
“How do we produce a run of more than four performances without double casting or leaving the venue dark?”
“How do we broaden our artistic output to include non-opera productions?”
“How do I bring more Directors on board without passing up my own directing opportunities?”
And so the seed of a multi-arts festival was sown.
The flagship production would be Mozart’s masterpiece Don Giovanni, an opera for which I’ve now been developing ideas for almost a year and a half. The next step was to come up with a theme that was relevant to the opera, broad enough to elicit a wide range of creative responses, but specific enough to package in a gripping title. ‘Sex, Love and Death’ would do nicely.
Finding the right venue would be vital to making this festival work. We did our research and decided that the Pleasance Theatre in Islington was exactly what we were looking for: an auditorium with almost 300 seats, an incredibly board artistic programme, and one of the few Off West End theatres that hadn’t yet welcomed opera. After a few tweaks to our initial proposal, the team at the Pleasance programmed our festival.
So now what? We had to programme the events. Assuming that this would be a challenge, we aimed to find three productions, one for each theme: sex, love and death. Boy we were wrong! We advertised for open submissions, inviting companies, collectives or individuals to propose a project for inclusion in #SLDfest. We received four times as many applications than we were expecting and could have programmed the entire festival four or five times over. If we ever needed a reminder about the competitive nature of this industry, this was it.
Our shortlisting was brutal and completely instinctive. What were the shows that we would want to see? What were the shows that were creatively risky but had strong logistical foundations to back them up, the shows that would complement each other, that responded to our core themes in an unusual way? We met our shortlist but just couldn’t choose three. So we chose seven. Double our initial intention. Six of them feature as double bills for one night only, one of them has two performances, and Don Giovanni will run for five performances over the fortnight.
We’re still planning at least one masterclass and an Outreach Project in schools, and we’re continuing to raise money to cover our budget. There is a long way to go but each day brings new and exciting developments, not least the announcement of our programme:
Sex, Love & Death:Don Giovanni (HeadFirst Productions)
Sex:Submission (Liver and Lung Productions) & Ladylike (Ella Mesma Company)
Love:The Extraordinary Cabaret of Dorian Gray (Ruby in the Dust Theatre)
Death:Buried Alive (Oskar McCarthy) & Mortgage (Created a Monster)
Sex & Death:Whalebone (Hatch It Theatre) & Silent Meat (David Levesley)