The University of St Andrews Opera Society’s debut performance of Georg Friderich Handel’s Semele (1744) has it’s opening night today and three of the key figures from the cohort driving the project took time out of an exacting rehearsal schedule to outline the opera’s progress so far. First-year Joe Houghton (director), history Ph.D. student Sean Heath (conductor), and fourth-year Meg Inglis (President of the Society itself and playing Ino) discussed the beginnings of the Byre Theatre production, its current state and a logistics of the work itself.
The prospect of Semele, an English-language opera (a “musical drama” as Handel himself called it), is a beguiling one, especially in its being relatively late in the composer’s career- indeed it is the penultimate of around 40, produced about the time of his much-loved Messiah.
Sean, who is a battle-scared performer of Handel, having played around ten of his operatic works, talks about the growth of the production: “We cast it in around October and started rehearsing pretty much straightaway.” The cast consists of around 8 soloists and a chorus of 15 or so. Accompanying the vocalists is a 17-strong orchestra of strings and select wind instruments (and walk-on brass), mostly picked from the members of the St Andrews Chamber Orchestra.
He went on to explain the premise of the work, which takes its subject matter from the tale of a Theban princess and her relationship with Jupiter and the ire of Juno: “Musically, it is a very cleverly-composed piece, well-thought through, starting with a really quite dark overture, fast and furious, setting you up for Semele’s striving after this god-like status, and it is that over-ambition that eventually causes her downfall.”
Joe talks of “a Broadway-like feel to Baroque opera in its directness, so saturated with singular emotion and very visual.” He says “it isn’t as subtle as some more modern operas, which means you can make it loud and exciting, filling the space.” The prospect of a 1930s New York gangster setting certainly raises eyebrows. The general consensus of Sean is that it adds relevance: “it’s not so much a contemporariness, but a more human touch to an aloof, classical world.” Meg agrees: “Joe’s setting is more engaging than the traditional settings of Semele, and the flourish that Handel brings goes well, juxtaposed against a darker, smokier idea.” Organising sets and costumes hasn’t been easy for Joe and his team: “This isn’t Covent Garden where they’d take dimensions and it would be done by a creative group. Instead, I’ve given out briefs and images to the cast of what each character might wear and left it to them. For some items, the Mermaids costume store’s been a boon, but mostly it is quite a minimalist production.” One gets the impression it’s been a taxing experience, but rewarding for the trio.
“It’s more than we could have hoped for a first opera for the Society,” Meg continues, “it’s been a work of passion and love, in that none of us study music.” Sean says that, despite no substantial academic study of music at St Andrews, talent is not an issue: “Even though people don’t come here to study music, we’re very lucky to have such a vibrant musical scene, and there are a lot of people, particularly singers, who are aspiring to perform professionally.” Interestingly enough, the titular role is being played by a medic, Christina Bell, whom an anonymous source in the production has touted as the highlight of the show, as well as Alice Gold, who plays a “fiery” Juno. Musically, artistically and dramatically, it seems the place to be tomorrow night!
The University of St Andrews Opera Society’s Semele has the first of its two performances at 7 pm in the Byre Theatre on Monday 27 February followed by the same time on Tuesday 28 February. Tickets for students cost £8.