An uplifting evening at Basildon’s Towngate Theatre from the Thames Opera Company Chorus and guests

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Thames Opera Company’s Opera for All: Thames Opera Company Chorus, Anita Watson (soprano), Nancy Holt (mezzo-soprano), Luis Gomes (tenor), Blaize O’Callaghan (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), Ashley Beauchamp (piano) / Jeremy Haneman (conductor). Thomas Guthrie (director), Ian Skelly (host). Towngate Theatre, Basildon, Essex, 20.4.2024. (JPr)

Thames Opera Company Chorus (centre front, chair of TOC Matt Smith) © Rachel Cherry

Choruses, arias, duets, trios and ensembles from Verdi’s, Nabucco, Il trovatore, La traviata; Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George; Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Idomeneo, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte; Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin; Delibes’s Lakmé; Barber’s Vanessa; Boito’s Mefistofele; Richard Taylor’s Ludd and Isis; Puccini’s La bohème; Dove’s The Adventures of Pinocchio; Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor; Bizet’s Carmen

I am grateful to Alexandra Godfree, producer of Opera for All, for this information about the Thames Opera Company’s chorus and how it began life over a decade ago under the auspicious banner of the Royal Opera House in Purfleet’s High House Production Park. For ten years it performed locally and further afield to great acclaim, as the Royal Opera House Thurrock Community Chorus, where it found a strong following within the community. At its height it attracted over 120 members aged between 8-80, quickly becoming an integral part of the lives if its members.

Following the hardships experienced by the arts during the global pandemic, the ROH made the difficult decision to withdraw funding, disbanding the chorus – a blow felt most deeply by its members. But you can’t keep a good chorus down and it became apparent that this chorus meant too much and was too important to its members to just let go, and so the Thames Opera Company was born.

Run by its members for its members, it has established itself as an independent arts charity, championing opera in the community, and putting as much emphasis on the community elements as the operatic. Built around its chorus and drawing on the ethos set from their earliest days, it is open to everyone and is completely non auditioned. Many of its members had never been to, listened to, or even thought about singing opera before. Yet together, they have found a real love for the art, in a welcoming and friendly community where they can belong.

Of course, Opera for All was about opera after all and although there was plenty of lighter fare, there was some of ‘dark’ stuff as well. It was compered in hit or miss fashion by BBC Radio 3’s Ian Skelly who exuded bonhomie and one of his better – and oft-repeated – quips was how all the heroines seem to die at the end of operas we heard excerpts from! (Oddly, he didn’t seem to spot, twice, that his notes said Verdi’s ‘Anvil Chorus’ – actually from Il trovatore – wasn’t from his Aida!) More also could have been done to briefly ‘set the scene’ for everything that was sung for those hearing the music for the first time.

No one – without having been told – would realise that the Thames Opera Company Chorus had not been auditioned; with some having little or no prior knowledge of performing (in general), or of opera, or how to follow a score, or sing in a foreign language. As usual for most amateur – and some professional – choruses female voices outnumbered the male voices (here by almost 3:1) but they were so splendidly coached by TOC Artistic Director Jeremy Haneman and TOC Musical Director Ashley Beauchamp that the balance of voices was fine throughout. Beauchamp providing excellent support – and no little atmosphere – to all the varied musical items on the programme from his piano.

For me, despite the efforts of director Thomas Guthrie and colleagues to ‘stage’ some of what we saw and heard the chorus was best when they mostly just stood still and sang. Their highlights included Sondheim’s ‘Sunday’ (from Sunday in the Park with George), ‘Salve Regina’ (from Boito’s Mefistofele), ‘Placido é il mar’ (from Mozart’s Idomeneo), and they were at their excitable, high-spirited best at the very end of the evening for Verdi’s alcohol-fuelled ‘Brindisi’ (from La traviata) and Bizet’s bullish (!) ‘Toreador Song’ (from Carmen). For the latter they were joined by the spirited pupils of St Clere and Thames Park Secondary Schools (who deserved to be acknowledged by Ian Skelly).

A starry line-up of singers were present to sing alongside the chorus or have their own moments in the spotlight: Patron of TOC – who needs absolutely no further introduction – famed baritone Roderick Williams; former Royal Opera House Jette Parker Young Artists Anita Watson (soprano) and Luis Gomes (tenor); and young mezzo-soprano Nancy Holt (one of this year’s Garsington Opera Alvarez Young Artists). Intriguingly they were joined by a former member of the Thurrock Community Chorus from when she was 8 (!), soprano Blaize O’Callaghan, whose studies in singing are ongoing and who is aiming for a professional career. On the basis of her resplendent ‘Blue Fairy’s Aria’ from Jonathan Dove’s The Adventures of Pinocchio her future seems assured.

TOC Patron Roderick Williams singing the ‘Toreador Song’ with the Thames Opera Company Chorus © Rachel Cherry

Among much else for all the soloists, Roderick Williams was sublime in Mozart – in a Don Giovanni duet with Anita Watson and a trio from Così fan tutte with Watson and Nancy Holt – but relished going OTT as Bizet’s swaggering toreador; Holt’s warm-toned mezzo-soprano was heard best in the plaintive ‘Must the winter come so soon’ from Samuel Barber’s Vanessa and with Watson in the Classic FM-favourite Delibes’s perfumed Lakmé duet; the extended Act I finale from Puccini’s La bohème sung by Watson and Luis Gomes was just as good as you might hear anywhere and Gomes’s pliant and bright tenor stood out in the ensemble shenanigans of the ‘Chorus of the Wedding Guests’ (from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor) and Verdi’s ‘Brindisi’.

What was clear for all to see in Basildon’s packed-out Towngate Theatre was how much the chorus of Thames Opera Company were relishing being up on the stage and performing to family, friends and anyone else drawn – like me – to this uplifting evening. There was a true ‘love for the art’, an all-for-one, one-for-all feeling of real community endeavour and, last but not least, let’s not forget how genuinely talented they all appeared to be.

Jim Pritchard

For more about Thames Opera Company click here.

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