On Saturday, 21 January 2023, at 7:30 p.m., a concert performance of Bizet’s famous opera, Carmen (featuring Harrow’s Trinity Orchestra – conducted by their Music Director, John Andrews – guest led by Christian Halstead, with soloists Victoria Simmonds as Carmen, Charne Rochford as Don José, Charmian Bedford as Micaela, James Cleverton as Escamillo, and with Kids Choir Harrow as the street urchins), in English (translated by Christopher Cowell), will take place at Harrow Arts Centre, Hatch End, HA5 4EA. There will also be a chorus run-through with the audience, who can join in with the Habanera and Toreador songs, at 7 p.m.
I spoke to Victoria Simmonds (the well-known mezzo-soprano who performs the title role, “Carmen”, and Co-Director of Kids Choir Harrow), and to Tim Smith (Co-Director of Kids Choir Harrow), a few days before the performance. I started by asking Ms Simmonds why “Carmen” right here and right now, for her.
“It was John [Andrews]’s idea”, she smiles. “I did this opera quite early in my career … I was lucky enough to do it at the Albert Hall in London … with laryngitis, at the time”, she laughs. “It fits my voice and range so well, so it was a dream role for me. So when John suggested it, for Harrow, I was so happy to say yes! It’s great and fun for me to do things with Trinity Orchestra, my friends can get tickets, locally, the acoustics are great … it’s a great place to perform music in!”
I ask her about the controversy that this opera generated at its premiere, which stands to this day. Where does she stand on this, given that some people adore this opera and others, not so much? And how does she see the title role, in terms of musical value?
“Oh, it has stacks of musical value”, she replies. “We are cutting some stuff out in this performance, otherwise it could be a long evening, I suppose. We are also cutting out some of the dialogue (which can be clunky at times), and we are doing it in English, too. I was practising it today, and I was thinking that one can be critical of any music if one wants to be … but, with Carmen, many of the numbers tell the story subtly, such as the number where I’m singing for Don Jose’, smashing castanets and so on … so there are so many interesting things going on, the off-stage trumpets, and so on! The interesting thing about Carmen, therefore, is that all these numbers actually make sense, it’s not just people singing about what they are doing, as some operas may feel like. It all feels quite natural! I know it may not be for everyone, but then again, Rossini and Wagner may not be for everyone – but, at the end of the day, it’s just music! So, I suppose it’s a question of trying not to pre-judge, but just come and listen! It’s full of charming tunes which you may know, some stuff you may not know … give the music a chance”. Her sincere enthusiasm for this music is obvious and catching.
I ask her about the different challenges that this opera poses whilst preparing for it, especially as this is a concert performance, not a fully staged event.
“The challenge is that everyone prepares separately, and then comes together at the end, for only two rehearsals or so … whereas a staged version has many more rehearsals, where one gets to act, practise, etc. . It will be a little bit of a challenge, as we all want to act, etc. … but there will nevertheless be enough acting, in any case, for everyone to understand what’s going on. And, of course, much of the acting comes through the voice anyway! I do think that we are all experienced enough singers to do that, though, and work with John on the day – that’s what musicians do! The orchestra has been rehearsing more, together, that much is true. It’s not a show that’s done that often, so everyone is finding this as an excellent opportunity. I can’t wait to hear everyone else! I’ve worked with many of these wonderful soloists in the past, so I can’t wait to hear them again”.
How great is it, I ask her, to have such great colleagues to share the stage with, and to be conducted by John Andrews, himself a wonderful conductor?
“I’ve been involved with the choir myself, and I know John well … so this is excellent. He is very easygoing, and the soloists are lovely. We are all going to enjoy this piece – although it is a tragedy, not a comedy”, she laughs. “It’s a mad, crazy experience, it shouldn’t work, but – when working with such amazing people, you can relax and let go and know it will have that extra edge … touch wood”, she smiles.
We talk about the give-and-take between conductor and soloist. I tell her of my personal view of John Andrews as a conductor who really gets the best out of his soloists.
“The best conductors usually do”, she replies. “The best conductors want you to do the best, too. Obviously, there is give and take … mostly, you follow them, but sometimes (as for example when I have to do a lot of coloratura), they follow you, too”, she grins. “Especially when you are under pressure, there has to be trust … so we all in Harrow are very lucky to have John”.
Finally, I ask her what moments of the performance she looks forward to, most, and what the audience should look out for.
“Carmen never shuts up”, she grins, “but Act 4 is my favourite”, she adds. “I love the songs, too, but Act 4 is such high drama. ‘It’s you’, ‘it’s me’! – and so on. She is not a romantic lead. She is really great, and in Don Jose’s face … chucking him the ring and so on. A little like Eastenders, when there are episodes full of drama and featuring only two characters”, she laughs. “It’s a fantastic way to end the show, with so many different styles of numbers before that – the Micaela moments, Don Jose’s Flower Aria, Escamillo’s bullfighting aria … the lovely kids’ and adult chorus … I haven’t heard the latter, just yet, but I know the kids’ chorus is sounding wonderful! It also looks like tickets are selling well, so I’m really, really looking forward to this performance”, she concludes.
I later talked to Tim Smith (Co-Director of Kids Choir, Harrow). I asked him about the specific challenges and enjoyment derived out of preparing and conducting a children’s choir.
“The kids’ choir has been going on for nearly four years, ever since Trinity Orchestra did a performance of Hansel and Gretel, which has children’s parts in it. We thought it would be a pity to leave it there, so here we are, four years later, doing Carmen”, he smiles. “It’s a great opportunity for the children to sing a style of music that they may not usually sing – and to sing with a full-time orchestra, something they may not have done before, and which will make a huge difference to them, as opposed to singing with just recorded piano accompaniment”.
We talk about the collaborative nature of music, stemming from my question about what it is like to prepare a choir which will, on the night, be conducted by someone else (John Andrews himself). The sense I get from Mr Smith is the same I got from Ms Simmonds … a sense of utter enthusiasm for making music, and for the upcoming performance. It really is refreshing to hear this from music interviewees, and I tell Mr Smith this.
I ask him about the highlights that the children’s choir takes part in, in the opera. He tells me about their role as the “ragazzi”, or street urchins, at the beginning of the opera, as something in particular that the audience can look forward to. “They set the scene for the rest of the opera, mocking the local soldiers. It’s a cracking little number, full of spirit, wonderfully written for children to sing – Bizet knew what he was doing”, he tells me. “And then they come back at the end, before Escamillo (the bullfighter) returns, together with the adult choir. That one is a little tricky number to learn, but, in the middle of it, they sing the Toreador song … a great tune which it’s great to be part of, before the story ends”.
Finally, we talk about working with his colleague and co-director of the Kids Choir, Ms Simmonds, as well as John Andrews, who will conduct the performance.
“I worked with John when we did Hansel and Gretel, a few years ago. He’s very easy going, very laid back, and knows exactly what he wants – but he’s also very much a practical musician, there is no big ego which gets in the way. I love collaborative work, where everyone works for the same end, and John is that kind of person, who serves the music collaboratively. Victoria is just great to work with. I’ve been fortunate to see her on stage, in operas, and heard her in concert. She is just fab, fun to work with, easy going and brings kind of slightly different musical tastes to my own, so we complement each other there”, he smiles. “We have different skills and knowledge, and we bring that together to make something exciting for the children, so they can learn and develop and produce some performance which I hope that they themselves will remember throughout their lives”.
“If it’s not fun to do it, don’t do it”, he concludes, on the subject of making music. “Do something else, if you’d rather. Making music, together, gives me, at least, a heck of a buzz, and I hope that that’s what everybody who is part of this is doing it for: because they love to do it and because it’s fun to do”.
It all seems to shape itself towards an excellent performance, which I hope you will not miss.