Caro Meets Musicals & Opera Interview

Ella Marchment: #operaharmony

By | Published on Friday 8 May 2020

I first heard about a new lockdown inspired venture called #operaharmony a few weeks ago and was immediately interested.

A host of opera professionals of all kinds – composers, librettists, performers, directors and more – are working together from all over the world to create mini operas to be broadcast online.

It was very much in the planning stages back then, but now we are much closer to seeing the results of all that labour. I spoke to Ella Marchment, the creative force behind it, to find out more.

CM: Can you start by telling us the aim of #OperaHarmony? What did you set out to achieve?
EM: There were two main reasons for starting #OperaHarmony.

The first being the innate instinct of adapting to circumstances and striding on. Artists have always made art, and they always will, even in the darkest times and the most difficult circumstances, so I was determined that I wouldn’t stop being creative just because of the current situation.

The second being the opportunity to explore innovative ways of working and to build new creative relationships. There are people on different continents working together on #OperaHarmony projects today who might never have otherwise met. Irrespective of the short-term output of #OperaHarmony, its long-term legacy will clearly grow from the seeds of the creative relationships it is sewing.

CM: What did you do to get the ball rolling?
EM: #OperaHarmony is a huge logistical and technological challenge.

The opera I was working on in the Netherlands was closed by the lockdown just days before the show was due to open to the public. With all the theatres shut, I thought it might be interesting to see if anyone would be up for the challenge of writing and staging a small opera over the internet.

I put a post on Facebook and thought I’d be lucky to have a few adventurous souls join me. More than 200 people signed up in under twelve hours, and #OperaHarmony was born.

CM: What inspired you to do this? What made you think it would work?
EM: As I said, I was inspired by the closure of theatres – but also borders – and the realisation that lots of artists were feeling exactly as I felt: they wanted to scratch at their creative itch.

I am driven by the core belief that determination is omnipotent, so although I knew it would be difficult to stage an opera with people scattered all over the globe, I also knew that there are solution-oriented people out there who would relish the challenge.

This isn’t just about composers and librettists writing mini operas for post-lockdown performances. We’re actually going to stage online operas, bringing singers and musicians and designers and directors around the world together digitally, thanks to the skills of very talented sound and video engineers. It’s essentially a complex means of learning by doing. 

CM: How did you choose who would be involved? What process have they gone through to create the work?
EM: A lot of people contacted me to offer their help for free – no one is making a penny out of this – we are doing it in order to adapt, stay relevant, keep some form of creative stimulus in our lives and build new communities. We have also become an extended support network to each other.

My first task was to pair composers and librettists so that the pieces could be written. I have tried to create interesting and contrasting pairings, introducing many people to each other for the first time. As this is an intercontinental venture, it’s really fascinating to see how different cultural backgrounds, ideas and working methods are having to meld and mould into new shapes.

When the pieces are written, and the voice types and instruments identified, I then choose the singers, musicians, and other creatives needed to form a mini production company, albeit one whose rehearsal room is a multi-country Zoom meeting.

CM: Can you tell us about some of the people who have got involved in the project?
EM: #OperaHarmony is much like any other opera or stage company in that it involves creatives right across the spectrum.

What’s interesting is how culturally and geographically diverse people are working together and finding out how to make the available technology fit their needs. I don’t want to pick out individuals, as this is very much a collaborative effort where the core ethos is that #OperaHarmony should be a win–win situation for everyone involved. I’ve opened my contact book for this project, and this has had a snowball effect.

What I haven’t been able to source myself has been granted through singers recommending other singers for roles, directors recommending other directors, and so on. One example, I couldn’t find a harpsichord player the other week. I ended up finding one through a friend of a friend that I had emailed, but I also published a shout out on social media and had several recommendations of contacts sent to me by other peers too.

The more we collaborate, the more we create opportunities for everyone involved. It’s lovely to see people climbing the ladder and offering a hand to other people who are also climbing with them. And it is lovely to see people who have already reached the top of the opera ladder being so open-minded in supporting others too.

CM: Can you tell us about the first piece to be released?
EM: An opera is a dramatic work, set to music. We are very open-minded about the type of music people produce, so long as their work deals thematically with either ‘distance’ or ‘community’.

The first work scheduled to be released is by the singer–songwriter Daisy Boulton, who I am currently working with on an adaptation of Jeremy Gavron’s book ‘A Woman On The Edge Of Time’. Daisy has written one song so far, and we are now working with producer Johnny Stanley on a video to accompany that song.

The piece fits with the theme of ‘distance’ because Jeremy’s book is about his mother – Hannah Gavron – who took her own life when she was just twenty-nine, leaving a chasm in the lives of the people who knew and loved her. The work was going to be released independently, but we have now decided to release it as an #OperaHarmony piece.

CM: How soon after this can we expect to see more?
EM: The current plan is to release a trailer for Daisy’s work in mid-May, but it’s slightly dependent on some conversations that I am having with some other streaming services, so it’s an either/or at the moment.

We will either release everything on a free streaming platform or independently staggered on the Opera Harmony YouTube from mid-May onwards. The final delivery of the nineteen projects to me has been set for the end of July, and we will definitely be sharing teasers before this point.

Setting specific release dates for individual operas is quite hard at the moment because we are only learning how much work it takes as we do it, as this is the first time we are trying to present in this way. I would probably anticipate the bulk of the releases to come in August though, with potentially a few before. 

CM: Can we talk a bit about you, now? What is your professional background? How did you come to be working in the arts? Was it something you always wanted?
EM: I fell in love with opera after joining the chorus of Dorset Opera as part of a work-experience scheme when I was sixteen.

I was a music scholar from the age of eight, playing piano and cello, as well as singing. While studying music at King’s College London, I organised operas and concerts, and then went on to set up the opera company Helios Collective, specialising in commissioning and staging new works, running masterclasses, and operating opera club-nights in a Peckham warehouse.

If I hadn’t chosen directing as a career, I would probably have studied art, although I did once ambitiously strive towards a career in dentistry. I had a bad accident as a kid and have a face full of false teeth now to show for it. I went through so much reconstructive work that thirteen year old me developed a fascination for accident dentistry.

However, being at Dorset Opera in the summer before commencing A-Levels changed me, and I ended up exchanging chemistry for art just four weeks into my AS course. Twelve years after stepping out to sing in Bizet’s ‘The Pearl Fishers’, I have directed works in Europe, Scandinavia, Russia, and America, lectured in England and America, and spoken about the arts and women’s rights at conferences in the UK and Europe.

For the last three years, I’ve directed The International Opera Awards at The London Coliseum and Sadler’s Wells Theatre. I absolutely love the work I do and the creativity of the people I collaborate with.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
EM: While I am very interested in what opera was and is, my real drive is in pushing opera forward to what it might be. It has, I believe, so much untapped potential, and I am especially fascinated at bringing the classical genre and other contemporary and non-Western musical genres closer together, and creating shows with more mainstream popular artists in an operatic manner.

I have this burning urge at the moment to create an electronic Afghan Pashto work. You see, for me the potential of opera to welcome in other non-Western practices into its presentation is the key to unlocking its future potential.

I really enjoy the challenge of reaching out to new audiences, which is why new works fascinate me, and why I have run opera-based events in atypical venues, such as opera club-nights in London warehouses and operas staged in urban spaces, including squares, parks, and even under railway viaducts.

Of course, I also enjoy celebrating the tradition that opera has grown out of as well as the aura of major venues, and, like every other opera director, I hope that I will have many opportunities to work on the world’s premiere stages directing more ‘traditional’ pieces too: The Royal Opera House, London Coliseum, The Met, La Scala, etc.

However, the places that I would like to direct at most are venues that hold a sentimental value to me as houses or companies that have given me chances when I have really needed them. Konzert Theatre Bern, Danish National Opera, and Dorset Opera are three places that have been instrumental in my development and for which I really hope to return to one day and direct at.

I have been approached to take on artistic-director roles at houses in Europe, and, in time, I expect I will accept this sort of opportunity to programme seasons of juxtaposed traditional and ground-breaking music alongside my work as a director.

CM: What would you have been doing if we hadn’t been locked down?
EM: I would have just completed the show with Dutch National Opera and directed this year’s International Opera Awards, now rescheduled for the autumn. I then had sequential productions at The Guildhall School Of Music And Drama and The Royal College of Music.

CM: How are you coping in lockdown? What’s keeping you sane?
EM: The lockdown period has been filled to the brim with #OperaHarmony. I am also preparing online teaching and production resources for Guildhall, as well as writing a book about the arts, which was commissioned by my publisher last year.

Keeping busy is keeping me sane, but I am also making sure to take time out to exercise and to have some downtime to talk to friends and family, join online games, or just stream a film or series, and I’m actually in the process of developing two projects with some really unique female artists.

Additionally, I am the artistic director of the Opera Festival Of Chicago, which is due to launch with ‘I Vespri Siciliani’ and a workshop production of ‘Roberto Devereux’ next summer. At the moment we are optimistically continuing to plan towards that happening, and although I am in England I am still contributing to the management efforts from afar.

We are due to launch a streamed concert series titled ’12:21′ – titled so because we will have twelve concerts in our countdown to our launch in 2021 – with the first coming this month.

A director’s brain really doesn’t have an off switch, just a range of gears, and I am always hungry to keep on learning too…

The first work from #operaharmony is currently expected to premiere on YouTube at 7.30pm on 25 May, with many more to follow. Subscribe to the channel here.