Caro Meets Musicals & Opera Interview

Alison Buchanan: Pegasus Opera Double Bill

By | Published on Friday 14 April 2023

We always look forward to the work of the Pegasus Opera Company, which – as you may know – creates opportunities for artists from African and Asian heritage, and promotes opera in underserved and culturally diverse communities. 

Their latest show is a double bill of two great operas, ‘The Six Of Calais’ and ‘Ruth’, by Philip Hagemann. 

I spoke to company Artistic Director Alison Buchanan, for a chat about the upcoming performance and to catch up on all things Pegasus. 

CM: Your upcoming performance is a double bill, so can we start by finding out a bit about each of them? What can we expect from ‘The Six Of Calais’? What story does it tell? 
AB: ‘The Six Of Calais’ is based on George Bernard Shaw’s play about true events in Calais in 1347 during the Hundred Years War between England and France. 

Bernard Shaw used wit and humour to comment on the absurdity of the situation. King Edward of England decided to execute the six burghers who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the town, but his wife Queen Phillipa uses her cunning and charms to get him to change his mind.

We find out later that there is a connection between one of the burghers and the king which reminds me how small the world really is and in war we fight an enemy who in other circumstances could be our kin. Both operas also highlight the role of women in changing history and impacting the world.

CM: And the second piece, ‘Ruth’? What is that about? 
AB: The opera ‘Ruth’ is based on the Old Testament story with the same name – one of only two books named after women. It is a story of loyalty, sacrifice, kindness and inclusion as Ruth, a Moabite, marries the Israeli Boaz.

They have a son called Obed who was the father of Jesse, the father of David from whose line Jesus came. Ruth and her mother-in-law, who lose their husbands during a pandemic, continue our theme of strong women impacting the world.  

CM: Can you tell us about your own role in this performance?
AB: I will play the role of Ruth, this role was written for me by the composer after we met at the Wexford Opera Festival in 2000. 

CM: Can you tell us about your fellow performers? Who else is involved? 
AB: We have a terrific cast for these shows, all based in England but hailing from all around the world, reflecting our commitment to diversity.

We have singers with Indian, Caribbean, African, Latin American, Egyptian, Hong Kong Chinese and English heritage, and our cast includes seasoned singers as well as students studying at college and several making their operatic debuts.

It’s difficult to single anyone out but there are many ‘future stars’ on our stage. 

CM: Can you tell us a little about Philip Hagemann and his work with the company? 
AB: Philip Hagemann has been writing for voice for over sixty years. He made a name for himself writing choral music. One of his most popular pieces is ‘Fruitcake’, which was just reprinted after 50 years and is performed by choirs all over America. 

Philip is a big fan of Bernard Shaw, which is why he wanted to create operatic settings for his comic plays. Pegasus Opera has championed Philip’s works, and in turn Philip’s support of Pegasus has been tremendous. We have been fortunate to be able to give his opera their European debuts.

Philip has also set to music the works of Oscar Wilde – ‘The Nightingale And The Rose’; Edith Wharton – ‘Roman Fever’; and Henry James – ‘The Aspern Papers’, which we did last year. 

Philip has composed an extensive library of songs, most of which I have had the privilege to perform. This canon of work encompasses classical, cabaret, blues and folk styles. All in all we consider ourselves the world authority on the works of Hagemann.

CM: Can you tell us about conductor Avishka Edirisinghe and director Cassiopeia Berkeley Agyepong? 
AB: We were introduced to Avishka three years ago. We invited him to play for rehearsals, then he became assistant conductor the following year and this year will make his operatic conducting debut with us.

It has been a joy to watch this impressive, remarkable young man go from strength to strength: while in rehearsal with us last year he won the Kathleen Ferrier accompanist prize at the Wigmore Hall, and also became the assistant chorus master at ENO. This season he will join the music staff for Holland Park Opera and Glyndebourne. We are very proud of him and his is certainly a name to watch out for.

Cassiopeia is a newer member of what I like to call the Pegasus family. Cassi is an actress, singer and theatre-maker who is passionate about new writing in theatre and in opera.

She has been wonderful to work with and there has been a great feeling of collaboration, exploration and play in the rehearsal room. She has brought a great sense of depth to each work. Her body of work speaks for itself and we are very lucky to have her creative input in this year’s opera double bill.

CM: For readers who aren’t aware of Pegasus Opera, can you explain how the company came into being, and its aims and ethos? 
AB: This year Pegasus Opera celebrates its 31st year. It was founded by my friend Lloyd Newton to create opportunities for singers of black and Asian heritage, at a time when there was little to no opportunity.

Lloyd passed in 2016 and today we continue his legacy: we are in our third year of the Pegasus Mentorship scheme which works with artists of all stages of their career, helping them to hone their skills working with people like Sir Willard White, Roderick Williams and Danielle de Niese. 

This year is the second year that we are partnering with Glyndebourne Opera. As well as opera productions we put on concerts which champion diverse composers, most notably ‘MAMI WATA’, a co-production with the Royal Opera House featuring diverse women composers. 

We launched Pegasus Talent to act as agents for our artists. We aim to demystify opera and make it accessible to new audiences and kids, which is not a new concept, but our diverse performers and repertoire has been ground breaking in our industry.

CM: What would you regard as the highlights of the company’s work, over the years? 
AB: I remember taking part in ‘Koanga’ by Delius at Sadler’s Wells, it was our biggest production to date with an audience which included members of the Delius society from all around the world.

‘MAMI WATA’ was also a personal highlight. The music was as diverse as the composers, and we incorporated dance and videography, and it was part of the Engender Festival at the Royal Opera House. 

Every year we perform a Legacy And Hope concert, and these are always fun: our audiences, many of whom have never been to ‘the opera’ before, always leave on a high and say they had not expected to like it as much as they did. It also gives me so much pride and pleasure to see how we impact the lives of our artists on so many levels.

CM: I think we last spoke to you in 2018 and a lot has happened since then in terms of global events, not least a pandemic and a couple of lockdowns… what’s been going on for you in the intervening years and did COVID have a big impact on you? 
AB: When the first lockdown began, I happened to be in Washington DC where I became stuck for three months. I began singing in the front yard and streamed it so that my family in England could watch: this became a thing, and I now refer to myself as Alison the yard singer.

I performed little concerts around the neighbourhood, and for the last and biggest one I invited my friend Kevin Short who sang the role of Porgy in the recent Metropolitan Opera production. 

COVID was a difficult period for all of us, I was able to teach virtually and do some online singing. Pegasus was able to adapt, and created online content. I think being a small company helped.

This period also saw the murder of George Floyd, and Pegasus were able to respond creatively on the digital platform, plus we also engaged with opera companies such as Glyndebourne to create more long lasting change.

CM: What ambitions do you have for yourself, and Pegasus, for the future? 
AB: We were delighted to become one of Arts Council England’s new NPO companies, this enables us to do some blue sky thinking, to develop our infrastructure and to further our reach. I would like to see us commissioning new works and championing works by diverse composers.

I would also like to see us having more of a presence around the country and even internationally. Another ambition that I have is to find a way to support burgeoning composers and diverse creatives who are interested in finding pathways to opera.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this? 
AB: Pegasus has commissioned a Windrush Opera which is being composed by Des Oliver with libretto by Edson Burton, so we will be focusing on delivering that, and we also plan to do one more opera by Philip Hagemann – ‘Roman Fever’.

In addition to my work with Pegasus I am also planning some recitals this summer on the west coast of America, and to get back to my teaching schedule which always gets neglected during production time.

The Six Of Calais’ and ‘Ruth’ will be staged at the Susie Sainsbury Theatre at the Royal Academy Of Music on 21 Apr, click here to book tickets.