Caro Meets Musicals & Opera Interview

Philip Hagemann: Passion, Poison and Petrifaction + The Prodigal Son (L’enfant Prodigue)

By | Published on Friday 27 August 2021

We’re big fans of the Pegasus Opera Company, for the fabulous work it stages, but also because it champions diversity, offering opportunities to artists of African and Asian heritage based in the UK.

Its latest offering, to be staged at the Royal Academy Of Music this week, is a double bill comprising an adaptation of Claude Debussy’s ‘The Prodigal Son’, and ‘Passion, Poison And Petrification’, based on the play by George Bernard Shaw.

Composer Philip Hagemann adapted the former, and wrote the music for the latter. I arranged a quick chat with him to find out more.

CM: So, we’re looking forward to Pegasus’ upcoming double bill performances. The first one-act piece is an adaptation of Claude Debussy’s ‘The Prodigal Son’ – can you tell us a bit about that? What is about, and what changes have you made to the original work for this performance?
PH: Debussy wrote this in 1884 for the Prix De Rome competition. He won the prize which afforded him a scholarship to further his education. He scored it for a full orchestra. As it runs only about half an hour, it is rarely performed.

I compressed the orchestra to chamber size and gave it an English translation. It has had some performances, the most recent about eight years ago with the Metropolitan Opera soprano Leona Mitchell. I have made no changes for this performance.

CM: What made you want to stage this work in particular?
PH: It is based on the biblical story which I found moving, and I found the music very beautiful. I thought that by compressing the orchestra to chamber size it would receive more performances.

CM: ‘Passion, Poison And Petrification’ is the second part of the double bill, and this is based on the play by Bernard Shaw – can you tell us a bit about it, and the story it tells?
PH: Shaw wrote this farce in 1905 to be given at a fund-raiser for an orphanage. In my opinion, it is nothing like the message plays so prominent in Shaw’s oeuvre. I really do not want to give away the story, as it is so farcical that it needs to be seen.

CM: What made you want to create this musical version of it? How would you describe the music you’ve created for it?
PH: The story jumps out of the page and cries out for song. My music is a true pastiche with the opening reminiscent of Verdi then veering into almost musical theatre. There are three well delineated arias, each for the three main characters. These can easily be sung in concert or auditions.

CM: Do the two pieces have any style or themes in common?
PH: They have absolutely nothing in common. That is why this should be a very interesting match!

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the other team members involved in bringing this show to fruition?
PH: All arrangements were made by the Pegasus Opera principal staff – Sonia Hyams, Alison Buchanan and Jordan Mullineaux. They did a beautiful job and we are now in rehearsal.

CM: Can we talk a bit about the past, now? Did you always want this kind of a career, and how did it begin? What steps did you take to progress?
PH: I set out to be a music teacher in middle and secondary schools. I attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, receiving a degree in music education. After teaching a few years, I decided I wanted a humorous choral piece for the school’s chorus, so I wrote one using an Ogden Nash poem called ‘Christopher Columbus’. That started me on my choral writing career. Fifteen years later, I started writing operas, with ten completed ones ready for performance.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career to this point?
PH: So many! Having my operas performed by Pegasus is certainly one of them. Being part of the theatre community is another. One of my theatre highlights was being onstage at Radio City Music Hall receiving a Tony as one of the producers for the play ‘Red’. I loved that play and loved being part of it.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
PH: I have in mind another opera which I hope to begin working on soon, I like to keep busy.

CM: How has the pandemic affected you? Have you managed to keep working through lockdown?
PH: The pandemic really hurt me as I did very little. I am now returning to normality which is good.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
PH: In April, Pegasus will be performing my first full-length opera ‘The Aspern Papers’ based on the masterful novella by Henry James. We have just cast the principal parts and I am thrilled with their quality.

‘Passion, Poison And Petrifaction’ and ‘The Prodigal Son’ is on at the Susie Sainsbury Theatre at the Royal Academy of Music from 10-12 Sep. Get your tickets here.