English Touring Opera Journeys into Space

United KingdomUnited Kingdom English Touring Opera Journeys into Space

Can you remember the name of the first astronaut? It was Laika – and she wasn’t a person but a dog which was propelled into space on a Soviet satellite in November 1957. She is being remembered this year in a brand new children’s opera, Laika, the Space Dog, which ETO has just premiered at London’s Science Museum and will take with it around Britain on its spring tour 2013.

The heroine is a stray mongrel who was found in Gorky Park in Moscow in 1957. Laika, alas, perished in orbit and had no chance to enjoy her fame, though she has her own memorial in Space City, Moscow. The opera focusses not only on Laika herself but also on the lives of the scientists involved, the relationship between men and animals, and the ethics of science and discovery.

The opera’s thrilling story is told in many diverse ways by nine professional performers – with singing, playing, drama, film, animation (created with children) and puppetry. It features also such strange remnants of the mid-twentieth century as the theremin, one of the weirdest musical instruments ever conceived. The piece is highly interactive, involving the audience directly, and including songs for everyone.

Laika, the Space Dog has a serious intent, too. It is designed for Key Stage 2 children in primary schools, and incorporates many areas of the curriculum, such as science, history and literacy, as well as music. (Teachers’ packs are available.) The music is by Russell Hepplewhite, and the design by Jude Munden. It has won the David Bedford Music Education Award of the Performing Rights Society which is supporting the performances together with the John Lyon’s Charity. See www.bbc.co.uk/news/laika for a snippet.

Adult audiences can look forward to more traditional fare during ETO’s tour. There is a new production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte directed by Paul Higgins, who has worked on many famous productions at the Royal Opera House, and has a special love for this opera with all its fun and folly. The cast will include Laura Mitchell, Kitty Whately and Paula Sides (all firm ETO favourites), with tenor Anthony Gregory as the passionate Ferrando and Richard Mosley-Evans as the man pulling the strings. The music director is James Burton.

The company will also be taking Simon Boccanegra on the road, its first new Verdi production for several years and an intimate drama uniquely suited to the theatres English Touring Opera visits. The story comes from the history of Genoa, for centuries a great maritime republic, and from it Verdi creates an impassioned plea for Italian unity.

The composer’s musical depiction of the shimmering Mediterranean is wonderful;, and so too are the characters he creates, from the rough-hewn buccaneer-turned-ruler (played by Craig Smith) to his spiteful adversary and father-in-law Fiesco (Keel Watson); from the embittered traitor Paolo, (Grant Doyle) to the idealistic Adorno (Charne Rochford). This is a massive undertaking for English Touring Opera with an unusually large chorus and orchestra. It is directed by James Conway, conducted by Michael Rosewell, and supported with a special grant from the Peter Moores Foundation.

Donizetti’s The Siege of Calais (L’assedio di Calais) , the story of the burghers of Calais, is the fourth opera ETO will be touring this spring. Sung in Italian with English surtitles it features bel canto arias and ensembles of extraordinary quality, culminating in one of the most moving ensembles in all of opera, the momentous O sacra polve, o suol natio (O Sacred Earth).

The opera also includes poignant, intimate scenes between the young couple at the heart of the drama (played by soprano Paula Sides and by mezzo Helen Sherman), and between the leader of the city (baritone Eddie Wade) and his anguished followers. Meanwhile, at the gates, the triumphant Edward III (played by extraordinary young baritone Cozmin Sime) shouts for blood. The new production features designs by Faroese artist Samal Blak, inspired by the siege of Stalingrad. Jeremy Soilver conducts; James Conway directs.

The indefatigable ETO will be taking their productions to theatres in the following localities: Hackney, Leicester, Bromley, Exeter, Norwich (March); Crawley, Poole, Sheffield, York, Wolverhampton, Ald eburgh, Buxton (April); Cheltenham, Warwick, Perth, Cambridge, Guildford, Truro (May).

Roger Jones