While the Music Lasts
Celebrating Musica Nel Chiostro
The Batignano Opera Festival
Adam Pollock has been making opera history for the past 30 years.
The festival he founded in a (once) little-known corner of Southern Tuscany known as the Maremma has provided a platform for an astonishing number of artists singers, directors, designers currently working in international opera today.
Fortunately, a camera-crew was on hand throughout the six-week run of festival, to shoot a full-length documentary about Batignano the first to be made there. The film is not only a tribute to Adam Pollocks extraordinary achievements, providing a unique glimpse behind the scenes of this highly charged, creative venture, and also gives us a platform to explore larger questions about the special relationship between the British and the Italians. For although the participants and founder are (for the most part) British, the operas have always been performed in Italian, largely for an Italian audience.
Adam Pollock was a highly successful, London-based scenic/interior designer who dropped out in the 60s and bought a dilapidated 17th century convent 60 miles south of Siena. Having restored part of the building, he was cajoled by friends into making use of the wonderful space, and in 1974, he decided to put on an opera.
Singers who have performed (and in many cases begun their careers) there include: Lesley Garrett, Eiddwen Harrhy, Bonaventura Bottone, Marie McLaughlin, Diana Montague, Nuala Willis, Della Jones, Anne Dawson, Neil Jenkins, Jonathan Best, Patricia Rozario, Alison Hagley, Derek Lee Ragin, Omar Ebrahim, Pamela Helen Stephen, Susannah Waters, Mary Plazas, Karl Daymond, Hilary Summers and John Daszak.
The first Tamerlano (Handel) in modern times was produced there; also a new version of Mozarts Zaïde (completed by Italo Calvino), now part of the standard repertoire; as well as The Seven Deadly Sins (Weill) in its first Italian translation. Other operas performed over the past 30 years have included works by: Peri, Monteverdi, Pallavicino, Cesti, Cavalli, Stradella, Provenzale, Purcell, Rameau, Handel, Hasse, Haydn, Mozart, Salieri, J C Bach, Storace, Schumann, Donizetti, Adam, Berlin, Britten, Bernstein, and Tippet.
So how does it work? In early July, singers,
Flights, food and accommodation are provided but no one is paid, and everyone is roped in to do the infamous communal washing up on a rota system. And its all hands to the deck no one worries about their job descriptions the cast help haul scenery and sew their own costumes, the stage crew double as extras. Its a bit like opera summer camp except that the standards are a great deal higher.
This is a process film, charting the rehearsal period for this years production. It is intercut with interviews from participants, patrons and audience members past and present.
In the summer of 2004 the festival celebrated its 30th Anniversary with the Italian premiere of Lopera seria by 18th Century Austrian composer Leopold Gassmann a riotous farce about a company putting on an opera, in the style of Noises Off; and the world premiere of a specially commissioned work by British composer, Jonathan Dove: Our Revels Now Are Ended, a setting of Prosperos last speech from The Tempest.
The latter was especially poignant, as it was Batignanos last ever season the final chapter in the festivals history.
The first seasons Dido and Aeneas was partly funded by the local Comune (town council) and was such a success that the Mayor of Grosetto (nearest large town) insisted on supporting a yearly festival. As Musica nel Chiostro grew in status and ambition over the decades, participation soon became a right of passage for any British opera hopeful.
Directors (many of whom produced their first operas there) include: Graham Vick, Tim Albery, Tim Hopkins, Stephen Langridge and Richard Jones.
Designers (creating miracles with virtually no budget) include: Maria Björnson, Yolanda Sonnabend, Richard Hudson, Sue Blane, Antony McDonald, Tom Cairns, and Nigel Lowery.
And conductors include: Jane Glover, David Parry, Nicholas Kraemer, Martin André, Ivor Bolton, Stephen Higgins and Harry Bicket.
In addition to discovering and encouraging performers, directors and designers, Adam Pollock has been uncompromisingly brave in choosing the festivals repertoire: always rarely performed and, more often than not, world premieres of very old or very new works.
follow, and everyone including the costume and set designers is starting from scratch. Most of the participants are young and fairly green but they are usually joined by more experienced professionals, many of whom have come back year after year.
The Batignano experience is undoubtedly testing but also great fun up to 90 British opera professionals locked together in a magnificent, crumbling, 17th century Tuscan convent, working incredibly hard all day, partying equally hard at night. Although some have described it (affectionately) as opera prison (without a car, there is no escape), there is a great sense of liberation in this voluntary exile, which is free from the corporate pressure of a conventional opera house. And despite the holiday atmosphere, there is an absolute dedication to the work, and the resulting productions in the cloister, under the stars are as unique as they are unforgettable.
Transience has been the cornerstone of Adam Pollocks philosophy (he has never kept a costume or a set), yet this well-kept secret on a Tuscan hillside has finally been captured for posterity and though the festival is over, the film and the spirit of Batignano will inspire people for years to come.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
From: Four Quartets (T S Eliot)