We all have a favourite ‘Messiah’, but very few can say they have a favourite staged ‘Messiah’.
On May 5 at 3pm The Merry Opera Company will transform St John’s into the performance space for their Handel’s ‘Messiah’. The twelve singers, with organ accompaniment, bring a whole new look to the performance.
We asked Matthew Quirk what it’s all about:
Your performance of the Messiah is staged, what does this add to the interpretation of the piece compared to the more traditional setting?
The Director, John Ramster, writes in the programme: Six weeks before rehearsals I gave each singer a short biography/backstory of the character they would play in the piece – a thumbnail sketch of their life and of the reason why they have come to a spiritual place, both figuratively and literally, where they need comfort. Through Handel’s Messiah, they confront what it means to believe and conversely what it means not to have that conviction and to know and feel that absence. Through the music, they find the solutions or at least the strength to cope. There is no need for the audience to know these personal narratives, and indeed the singers were explicitly forbidden to share their backstories with each other. But these backgrounds provide the singers with a need to discover the music and find motivations to sing from particular viewpoints that give rich and unexpected vocal colours, and as they progress through the piece the audience see them transform and blossom.
Does it work?
I guess the best way to answer this is to look at what the audiences think. Our audiences are have given us a standing ovation at every performance, and people have written to us and about us afterwards as follows:
“Out went the staid choir holding telephone book- sized scores and in came 12 vibrant, passionate performers who ran, danced, grieved, exalted and lived the Messiah.”
“I have never been to a concert before where the entire audience stood and cheered at the end.”
“That was the Messiah I have waited all my life to hear”
“Thank you for opening my eyes to how opera can be such a fundamentally moving experience”
“Even the Dutch gentleman next to me who arrived with the music, intending to go through the words as they were sung, threw his beautifully bound book on the floor and became totally absorbed in the performance.”
“A stunning example of originality and experimentation that paid off”
“Having been to countless Northern performances, with the Hallé Orchestra and Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus or the Huddersfield Choir, our standards are pretty high, but last Saturday was exceptional. It really was an experience I wouldn’t have wanted to miss.”
What do the singers think?
All of us have performed the Messiah in a more traditional format, so I asked some of the singers what it’s like to take part in this production:
“I have to think what the words and music of the Messiah really mean to the character in my backstory.”
“Even after many performances, there are aspects of the others performers’ backstories that I still don’t know. In every performance I see new and unexpected things to which I have to react, and each time this creates something new for me, to which others will react and so on down the line.”
“It is often tempting to let your mind switch off to the words of the arias and choruses in which you’re not involved. But in this production, I have to stay engaged all the time, which gives me a much more profound understanding and perspective.”
“We have not only an intellectual engagement with the music and the text but, because we move around, we gain also a physical and visceral understanding of the emotions it inspires.”
“I have to use the words and music of the Messiah to tell the other performers about myself, and yet even after many performances, they still don’t necessarily know all about my backstory, so this gives me enormous freedom in how I phrase my singing to them, and spontaneity, too, as I respond to their reactions.”
What was it about St. John’s that made you choose it as a venue alongside the other churches in which this is being performed?
We chose St John’s because performing this production there will be very difficult.
This is not as perverse as it may seem! However good a voice a singer may have, nevertheless his or her future career depends heavily upon how well that person can convince an audience. Up-and-coming professionals need to get as much experience as possible of performing in all sorts of different venues. Merry Opera is a charity (please give us money!) that provides this experience.
Not all churches are the same. St John’s is ve-e-e-ry long: the organ is right at the opposite end of the nave from the stage and the conductor. If we were to remain static on the stage then the organist and the conductor could compensate for the big distances, and the echoing acoustic would help to smother any mishaps.
But we will be moving around the church, under the galleries and along the back behind the audience as well as up and down a central aisle, so we will sometimes be very spread out. Some of us will be close to the conductor, others far away; some will be underneath the organ loft, others a long way from it. Those of the audience sitting close to a particular singer will certainly hear him or her, but will the audience sitting in one part of the church hear some singers in time, while another part of the audience hears the same singers out of time?
This is a matter not of failure but of physics: distance and the speed of sound!
We have encountered this in other churches – apparentlty without detriment to the audience’s enjoyment of the performance – but in St John’s it is particularly challenging, and will stretch our performers’ skills accordingly – exactly in line with Merry Opera’s charitable purposes.