Written by: Mansel Stimpson
But for his tragic death last November Richard Hickox would have been conducting this new production of The Beggar’s Opera (it is now Christian Curnyn and will be recorded by Chandos), the first to be staged in the Linbury Studio Theatre. The Australian Justin Way will direct it. Had that happened, it would have been yet another example of Hickox flying the flag for Benjamin Britten, a stage-work that can justifiably be described as the one most in need of revival. The piece is a version of John Gay’s work dating from 1728 which set a precedent by telling a story through songs and dialogue, the musical side involving no less than fifty-five airs. Britten’s treatment of it – “music realized by Benjamin Britten” is the phrase usually chosen to describe it – was first heard in 1948, but, given the origins of the piece, it could readily be thought of as an arrangement and therefore a work that is not really a fully-fledged part of Britten’s operatic canon. That is not, however, the view held by the American singer Tom Randle who is here to perform the leading male role in it.
“It’s Britten through and through and if, unknowingly, I were to walk into a room where it was being rehearsed I would think to myself, ‘That’s got to be Britten’. It’s a bit like listening to Pulcinella, Stravinsky’s treatment of Pergolesi (and other Italian Baroque composers). You can hear something from the past but Britten quite as much as Stravinsky nevertheless makes it his own. The wit of it and the sheer theatricality and drama taken together with the way in which he uses the materials make it completely and unmistakably his. I have a fair experience of doing early music and the Baroque and, because of the nods to the past present in The Beggar’s Opera, one has to think at times of the musical phrasing of the 18th-century. Even so, in preparing this I feel much more connected to the experiences that I have had doing Britten operas than to anything else.”
As it happens Tom’s first appearance with Royal Opera was in 1997 when he played Johnny Inkslinger in an earlier Britten work for the stage that stands apart from the full-scale operas, Paul Bunyan. As such it makes for a particularly interesting comparison with The Beggar’s Opera although Bunyan was an original piece. “I was just discussing that very thing with Jeremy White who plays the two-faced Peachum in this and who was also in Paul Bunyan. We both loved that show and feel that they really ought to bring it back every Christmas! And, yes, it’s exactly the same in that it’s a ballad opera: its songs, its numbers. The key to handling that dramatically is to find the moment to take the logical – or some would say the illogical – step from speaking to singing. The same issue came up when doing Medea with Phyllida Lloyd for Opera North and we used a spoken text for the recitatives that I guess Cherubini didn’t set musically. We made an exercise of finding the right treatment to convey that moment when you feel that you can’t express any more what you want to say in spoken dialogue and the music has to start. We would literally concentrate on the transition by taking the last word of dialogue and the first note of music, so that it felt connected and not a ‘and now for the next number’ kind of thing. In The Beggar’s Opera it’s less tricky to do that than it was in Paul Bunyan, and possibly the fact that its origins lie with John Gay help and aid the flow.”
In so far as Britten’s realisation involves an interpretation through the accompaniment created for the original airs, some well established, it might be felt that there are affinities here with Britten’s Folk Song arrangements. “There are parallels but, of course, the folksongs are self-contained, each perfectly formed, whereas the songs here are less complete and more a part of the whole. Some people argue that Britten could be too clever for his own good at times and that the cleverness of some of his arrangements made them skin-deep rather than getting to the heart of the matter. But to my mind Britten has the supreme asset of being one of the great people of the theatre. In that respect he’s alongside Shakespeare, Verdi and David Mamet, all of whom know how to put a show on because they understand drama. Britten is right in there. In the case of The Beggar’s Opera you have fairly lightweight material superficially, but our director, Justin Way, is aiming for a production which, despite going completely over the top, will also cut through that stuff and, if I dare say it, cut through some of the slight tweeness that Britten put into it. Whether or not Britten was himself aware of it, there is something deeper going on in this work, and it’s really worth mining it. In that respect there’s also a parallel with Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in which he and Auden were looking back to the 18th-century because there’s the same temptation to play it on the surface because it’s clever and witty and stylised.”
The notion of setting this particular production in a somewhat futuristic 21st-century Soho might seem a questionable way of depicting the decadence that characterises The Beggar’s Opera, but it is a feature of this work and its variants that it seems to flourish naturally in many settings. In the original the rogue Macheath is a highwayman whose desire for women leads him to deceive both Polly (Peachum’s daughter) and Lucy Lockit whose father is a jailer, by combining seduction with promises of marriage. It’s a corrupt world of prostitutes and criminals set in and around Newgate Prison in which everyone, including those who are outwardly respectable, is on the make. But far from belonging exclusively to its original context the piece is today probably best known in the form of The Threepenny Opera as presented by Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill. That’s where the period is brought forward to 1900 or so and Macheath becomes Mack the Knife. The ‘morality’ of the piece is suddenly seen to fit perfectly the sardonic satire central to the Brecht/Weill collaborations, The Seven Deadly Sins just as much as The Threepenny Opera itself. The fact that Peachum and his wife disapprove of their daughter’s involvement with Macheath not because of his having his way with her but because of the talk of marriage which would prevent Polly from rising in the world illustrates this perfectly. It could also mean that in our own cynical age the work will seem entirely at home amongst the sex- and betting-shops of present-day London.
What is common to all these versions is the substantial amount of spoken dialogue, a factor often viewed with reservations by singers. Tom explains why. “There are in any case two kinds of singers. On the one hand you have the few who can just stand on a stage and sing and have the quality to get away with it. As with the late Pavarotti, for example: the voice was the thing they presented. They did it without apologies and with them the public would never feel that they hadn’t got their money’s worth. The others are those who take the view that singing itself is only half at most of what they should be doing and that the role and characterisation need to be fully expressed. But even those in the second camp, myself included, tend to run a mile at the thought of dialogue and the thorny problem of handling it. Singing is not unlike breathing: there may be more than one interpretation possible, but phrasing and shaping the material is part of your response to the music. With spoken words, however, it’s like learning a foreign language because you have so many choices. That’s the thing. There is no key-signature or time-signature to push you down the track: you can make your own spaces, create silences, speed up or slow down, anything indeed within reason – and that’s why it frightens most people because you haven’t got anything to hang on to.”
With The Beggar’s Opera there’s also the question of the director’s approach to the material and, in Tom’s case, the question of how one seeks to portray the character of Macheath. “I think that what Justin regards as fundamental is the fact that in this society everybody’s got something on everybody. It’s like piranhas in a pool nibbling at each other’s tails all the time, so eventually new fish are born and get into the same cycle of violence, corruption and greed. Peachum is one who works both sides of the system, shopping to the authorities the very pickpockets and crooks who work for him. There’s an incredible tension between everyone because, despite the glue that’s holding it together, the fact is that if anybody sells out it could bring down the whole thing. In some respects it’s like the Mafia and there’s a certain code of behaviour, rules that people adhere to: they know that you don’t ever cross the line. One reason why Macheath becomes so dangerous is that because he’s sort of marrying into the family he is getting too close to Peachum’s empire. It’s okay for Macheath to be a highwayman and to have all sorts of women around him, but Peachum’s attitude, his ‘not with my daughter’, is not only a natural protective paternal instinct but an awareness that if Macheath gets one step closer he’ll be the one to inherit should Peachum be pushed under a horse and carriage.
“As for interpreting Macheath, any actor will tell you that, however unscrupulous or despicable such a character may be, you’ve got to make the audience care about them. That’s why there have always been anti-heroes. If there’s ruthlessness as well as charm, you have to be compelling enough and magnetic enough to carry the interest of the audience for some two-and-a-half hours. It’s part of Macheath’s appeal that he operates on so many levels. He is able to see the big picture at once, to know exactly where he needs to go and how to get there, but he’s also very good at handling the immediate situation: he’s a wordsmith who knows exactly how to play up to people. And it’s all done to preserve himself including his recognition that he needs to play-off Polly and Lucy against each other. He’s very fatalistic and it’s much more a matter of simple self-preservation than of his being a bad person.”
Unexpectedly our conversation now comes full-circle. At the outset Tom had talked of growing up in Los Angeles and of singing in school and church choirs. His father was a jazz pianist and his mother studied piano and played the cello while his siblings, all having good voices, would just naturally sing. For Tom himself, this was the background that led him to embrace oratorio, musical composition and, eventually, with some scepticism, the world of opera “Opera can be fantastic as we know, it can be fabulous”, he says while putting to one side his memories of some distinctly dodgy productions. If Seiji Ozawa conducting The Firebird inspired him regarding classical music at the age of ten or eleven, it would be English National Opera in the mid-eighties that epitomised for him what opera should be.
But in thinking about Macheath and what the character means to him he reaches back to other memories of what it meant to grow up in LA. “My neighbourhood was one in which you didn’t really expect to live much past the age of twenty-five or thirty. That’s something that nobody speaks about, but it’s thick and heavy in the air. It completely colours your views on every aspect of life – you’re not thinking about jobs, pensions, marriage, kids or anything like that. You exist day to day, week to week, month to month, and there’s always a sinking feeling buried beneath whatever you’re doing to get through the day that at a certain point your time is coming: it will be quick, it will be violent, it will be over. And that’s Macheath’s world too: you’re going to be sold out eventually, shopped or impeached. It’s this temporal sense of existence that makes life so stark, so real, for the characters in The Beggar’s Opera and that is what Justin Way is really going for in this production.”
- Performances in the Linbury Studio Theatre begin on Tuesday 20 January at 7.30 p.m. (with some performances at 7)
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera