In preparation for the launch of Welsh National Opera’s new production Don Pasqualelater this month, we caught up with Conductor Stephen Higgins to see how he faced the challenges of bringing a classic Donizetti opera bang up to date.
Don Pasquale will be touring to mid-scale theatres. What type of changes have you had to make to the music?
A full-sized orchestra was not an option, so one of the first discussions I had with the Director, Daisy Evans was about what we could do instead. We didn’t want to do an ‘oh, this will have to do’ opera, so we decided to integrate the musicians into the dramatic action. We came up with the idea of people busking, musicians jamming together on the street and so on. The next question was – what sort of instruments and musicians would you find getting together on the streets of a large Welsh town like Cardiff or Newport after the pubs had closed? We came up with piano accordion, tenor saxophone, a couple of strings and a Miles Davis style trumpet.
There are two big chorus numbers in the show, so the players – including me – are going to be the chorus as well. It’s a big ask – suddenly we had to find musicians that were not only very good players, but that were happy to be in costume and act on stage while also holding a tune!
Will this be your first time doubling up as both actor and conductor on the stage?
I have tried it a few times before – but have never been in a situation when we as musicians are so integral to the staging and dramaturgy of the show. I guess the main challenges will be in maintaining contact with both the band and the singers – a lot of the time I may be behind the main action, which is unusual in opera; I will be accompanying the singers by ear, rather than leading them from the front.
You’ll also have a radio in the kebab van. How do you plan to use it?
I have always been fascinated by the gap – the gear change if you like – between speech and singing. A lot of the Don Pasquale score is recitative-like, and I wanted to find a way of presenting these moments in a musical way whilst keeping the naturalistic manner of everyday speech. So the radio idea came to me – who has never sung or hummed along to a favourite song after hearing it by chance on the radio, or in a shop? I hope that the singers will be prompted to dip in and out of spoken word and sung text by what they hear coming from Don Pasquale’s radio. The soundtrack that we have created is taken from the original Don Pasquale score, but subtly tweaked and altered to fit the situation the characters find themselves in.
Will the audience still recognise classic Donizetti coming through in the music?
Yes, absolutely. Everything in the show, from the arias and ensembles to all of the material on the radio is taken from the original score. The libretto follows the structure of the original very closely, and my re-orchestration for a busking street band is faithful to Donizetti’s original scoring for full orchestra. Don Pasquale is such a brilliantly-crafted opera – melodically inventive and structurally clever. We wanted to keep this brilliance for our re-imagining.
What have you enjoyed most about modernising this classic opera and what has been your biggest challenge?
The pleasure has been in forensically going through the piece and coming up with a solution for each scenario to ensure it fits with the overall concept of the world we have created. Updating a piece of 19th century opera is so much more than devising a setting and plonking the piece in it, hoping that everything makes sense. The joy for me comes in the freedom to subtly change text and music, whilst keeping the inspiration of the original, in order to tell the story in a new and innovative way.