Caro Meets Musicals & Opera Interview

Alison Buchanan: Ruth and The Dark Lady Of The Sonnets

By | Published on Thursday 22 February 2018

Coming up at The Actors’ Church is a brilliant double bill presented by the renowned Pegasus Opera, who, as you may know, are dedicated to presenting productions with ethnically diverse casts. It’s a well balanced pairing, one comedic, one more serious in tone, and are both very much female-focused.

I spoke to the company’s artistic director, soprano Alison Buchanan, who also performs in the show, to find out more.

CM: You’re performing two operas in one performance. Can you tell us a bit about the first one, ‘Ruth’?
AB: ‘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 acceptance, of loyalty, sacrifice and kindness as Ruth, a Moabite, marries the Israeli Boaz. They eventually have a son called Obed, who was the father of Jesse, the father of David. Ruth and her mother-in-law illustrate our theme of strong women: after all the men of the family die, they have to do what they can to survive.

CM: And can you tell us about the second one, ‘The Dark Lady Of The Sonnets’?
AB: The Dark Lady of the Sonnets is based on a George Bernard Shaw Play of the same name. In this comic opera William Shakespeare finds himself trysting with two women of the court, The Dark Lady, and Queen Elizabeth herself. This opera continues the theme of strong women who take no nonsense.

CM: Why were these two pieces chosen for this performance? What made them appealing? Is the fact that they are female-led significant?
AB: Yes, we wanted to have a theme of strong women. ‘Ruth’ was chosen first, and it’s a serious biblical story so we wanted to pair it with a lighter comic opera. The composer Philip Hagemann is a big Bernard Shaw fan and has set several of his plays to music. In light of recent events and the MeToo movement we were pleased to have chosen this theme. Each of the women are strong and take control of their own destiny, particularly in ‘Ruth’ which is set at a time and within a culture where one might not necessarily think women were empowered to be the masters of their fate.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your co-performers?
AB: I am thrilled to be working with a wonderful group of artists… My step mother (Naomi) in ‘Ruth’ is the amazing Kamilla Dunstan, who is a rising star, so we are thrilled to have her at the start of her career, her voice is amazing. Boaz is sung by Bryon Jackson, an amazing baritone of Jamaican heritage. He has a powerhouse of an instrument. The composer has also used a female chorus to narrate – very much like in the Greek theatre tradition – and these three women sound wonderful. In ‘Dark Lady’ the three main protagonists Oliver Brignal (Shakespeare), Sarah Champion (Queen Elizabeth) and Annabelle Williams (Dark Lady) combine great singing with great wit and comic timing to create a stellar performance.

CM: And now can we talk about you? What’s your role?
AB: Hmmm… I wear a few hats. I play Ruth which is a great role, I get some luscious vocal lines and of course get to show off my dazzling high notes! I also get to seduce a man with great subtlety (not my usual style, lol!). Boaz becomes mine because I and my mother Naomi will it.

The other hat I wear is having a hand in making it all happen as artistic director. It is eye opening being on the other side… I am learning a lot.

CM: So, as you say, you’re also the artistic director of Pegasus – how did you come to be in charge? What are the company’s aims?
AB: I ‘inherited’ Pegasus Opera last year after the death of its founder and artistic director, my friend Lloyd Newton. Lloyd founded Pegasus Opera twenty-five years ago to address an imbalance in the British Opera World. Black and Asian singers (BAME) found it difficult to near impossible to get opportunities to hone their craft in the country they were trained in. Even with huge talent, unless you’re given the chance to develop, you soon find yourself out of the game.

So Lloyd started Pegasus and staged productions with multi cultural casting, This was ground breaking at the time. The majority of BAME singers in the UK have had some association with Pegasus over the years and many of them have made their operatic debuts with the company. Both the operas we are presenting have a mixed cast.

As well as giving opportunities to BAME artists the company’s other aim is to bring opera to communities that do not get the opportunity to watch opera, and certainly not opera with people who look like them. Pegasus has many initiatives that take music to schools in urban areas. We have an enthusiastic community choir. As well as opera productions we have commissioned new works, put on many concerts. Lloyd’s vision for Pegasus was ‘Harmony in Diversity’. We want to continue his legacy by extending our reach, by empowering and inspiring through music.

CM: What drew you to a career like this? Is it what you hoped for, growing up?
AB: Honestly, when you are given a gift sometimes you have no choice…. Singing chooses you and not the other way round… as a young girl I was drawn to music and tried playing several instruments (all very badly)… then I stumbled on an album of Christa Ludwig singing the Brahms Alto Rhapsody… it planted the seed.

When I sang people listened, really listened and through music I was able to express feelings I could not articulate verbally. At the age of 16 I became the youngest person to be hired to sing in the Glyndebourne chorus: ‘Porgy and Bess’ with Sir. Simon Rattle and Sir. Trevor Nunn. I remember being on the stage during a curtain call and thinking there is nothing better than this! It’s not an easy path to take. Some people have huge success; I have had some great highs and my fair share of lows… but even when things have not been so great there is a joy in music making and an ability to touch people on a profound level that transcends and makes you want to continue regardless.

CM: What would you say have been the highlights of your career thus far?
AB: There have been so many highlights. Working with Sir Colin Davis with the London Symphony Orchestra on Britten’s ‘Peter Grimes’ was a privilege and an honour. Singing on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, making my debut as Mimi at San Francisco Opera and then having to go on as Micaela at the last minute for the same company. Being involved in the Glyndebourne ‘Porgy and Bess’. Singing Strauss’ ‘Four Last Songs’ with various Symphonies (that’s my life’s work!). The arts festival in Harare and being the muse of the chief Buddhist monk of Korea who said he would build me three temples wherever I wanted them. I have travelled the world, seen the most amazing places, met incredible people… sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure I didn’t dream it all.

CM: What ambitions do you have for the future?
AB: I want to make a success of Pegasus, and I would like to sing a lead role at the Metropolitan Opera and at The Royal Opera House… lastly, I would like to sing in some musical theatre productions and be known as a great cabaret singer/comedienne.

CM: What’s coming up next, after this?
AB: I have some concerts in America, students to nurture (or torture, you choose!) and we will get busy fund raising for future Pegasus productions…

‘Ruth’ and ‘The Dark Lady of the Sonnets’ are performed from 28 Feb-2 Mar and on 4 Mar at The Actors’ Church. See this page here for more information and to book your tickets.

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