In 2019, formidAbility launched with an ambitious double bill of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and Gillian Whitehead's Hotspur. formidAbility directors Joanne Roughton-Arnold and Holly Mathieson discuss the process of making opera with accessibility at the core of the creative process.
Transcription of Scordatura podcast interview with Joanne Roughton-Arnold of formidAbility,
presented by Holly Mathieson
[percussive intro music with bells]
Welcome to Scordatura. My name is Holly mathieson. I’m a conductor, occasional writer and erstwhile academic living in Scotland, and trying to better understand this weird and wonderful classical music business in which I work. Join me as I ask some annoying questions, interview the most fascinating people you’ve probably never heard of, and try to better my own professional practice by learning from the wisdom of others.
Today is the summer solstice, 2019. I’m sitting in a lovely little 18th-century cottage, which forms part of a gorgeous old manor and estate in the Cotswolds, looking out over freshly mown grass on the paddocks with my large mug of Earl Grey tea. There’s [sic] beautiful, centuries-old, copses of trees and things. So far this morning I’ve seen wild hares, some herons flying low over the paddocks, dragonflies. It’s absolutely quintessential, chocolate-box England. Though, of course, you can probably also hear the hum of the M40 not far off, because this is England and this is reality after all.
Now why, you might ask, am I here? Well, at this time of year, most of Britain’s conductors, singers and pianists find themselves involved in the summer opera festivals out in the big country opera houses, and this year, I’m at Garsington assisting someone – well, he’s a lovely, lovely human being, first of all, but also a fantastic conductor – Richard Farnes. I’m assisting him on Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw.
So far, so Establishment.
However, down the road in High Wycombe, a completely different type of project is underway, and it is actually there that I would really like to draw your focus. It’s a beautiful project, a beautiful thing, led by New Zealand soprano Joanne Roughton-Arnold, and [this] is the first in a series of a few episodes I’m going to do, in which I’ll explore the now very well-trodden paths of access, engagement and diversity. Don’t cringe! Because, I’ll be doing it from a completely different, and sometimes challenging and surprising, perspective. Well, I hope that’s what I’m going to do…
I’d a rotten cold on the day; you can probably hear the trails of it now, also thanks to Richard Farnes – it’s the one thing I’m not pleased I picked up from him this month. So, please forgive me for sounding a little bit like a walking corpse. Jo and her husband Paul had just brought home a new puppy, Phoebe, who makes her presence known at one point, as well. So, listen out for the little puppy whines near the end of the podcast.
[Recording of an excerpt from Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, voice singing in German with piano accompaniment.]
H.M.: First of all, tell us about your position in formidAbility. Who are you?
J.R.A.: I hold several positions. I’m one of the two directors who founded the company, I’m the producer, and I also sing.
H.M.: And your first performance is at the Arcola [Theatre] with the Grimeborn Festival. You’re doing Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, which a lot of people will know, and also a less-known work. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that piece?
J.R.A.: Sure. Hotspur by Gillian Whitehead and Fleur Adcock. It’s the first work that these two amazing New Zealand artists created together back in, I think, 1980. It’s set in 14th-Century Northumberland. It tells the story of Henry Percy, who the Scottish Army gave the nickname of “Hotspur” to. But it tells the story through his wife’s eyes. So I’m singing Elizabeth, and she’s seeing her husband go off to battle constantly; seeing him be very successful. But she’s aways got this nagging fear that something terrible is going to happen. Fleur calls it the “dark tide” that is threatening to engulf them.
[Recording of a piano excerpt from Whitehead’s Hotspur]
J.R.A.: Our collaboration with Signdance Collective International opens up an amazing new possibility. Isolte Avila is going to also be playing the role of Elizabeth, but portraying her through Signdance, and expressing her inner consciousness. So, you have the two of us onstage, being the same character, but you see two different facets going on simultaneously.
H.M.: That’s fantastic. I mean, that’s every theatre practitioner’s dream isn’t it, to be able to be able to show the subtext, very literally, at the same time.
J.R.A.: Exactly, exactly. And because she’s signing the libretto live, as I sing it, so the text is being communicated very, very clearly to anyone with a hearing impairment. But the whole audience sees this incredibly beautiful movement that is so expressive, and it doesn’t matter if you don’t read sign language, you’ll still get what Isolte is saying.
H.M.: In terms of this being a first project for formidAbility and Signdance to collaborate on, it’s kind of an ideal piece in many ways. What about the Schoenberg? Why? Why that pairing?
J.R.A.: Well we were looking for something that would balance, that would work and complement Hotspur. It was Scott Wilson’s idea, our Music Director. Pierrot Lunaire is an incredibly iconic work. It’s well known. It… We hope it will draw people in, curious to see what our approach is, because we aren’t just performing it as a concert performance, as it’s so often done. We have David Bower, who is going to be portraying Pierrot the clown, as I sing. He’s going to interact with me. He’s going to interact with the instrumentalists. David is actually deaf, but his performances are incredibly compelling, and we’re going to have little, subtle visual cues that will give him the clue for when to move onto the new section.
[Recording of an excerpt from Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, voice singing in German with piano accompaniment.]
H.M.: For me, if I were going to do Pierrot in any other way, it would be to use a mime artist, rather than a singer. That seems the perfect way…
H.M.: … because it’s meta-symbolic. Do you know what I mean? It’s…
J.R.A.: Yeah, it is.
H.M.: The way Schoenberg writes is kind of an abstraction from the sung voice.
J.R.A.: Yeah, that’s exactly it. And that’s exactly what David’s doing. David’s actually co-choreographing the work with Sara Brodie, our Director – one of New Zealand’s leading directors and choreographers. So, the two of them are working in tandem on this. David is using a lot of mime, so it’s not so much literal sign language, as such, as he is miming what is being described in this incredibly colourful poetry that features throughout the work.
The other interesting links we found with… to pair it with Hotspur… There’s a very simple practical one: both works have five instrumentalists and a singer. The instrumentation is very, very similar – so, there’s only a little change between the two works and who will be onstage in the ensemble. The ensemble will be onstage; there is no pit at the Arcola Theatre, so they are going to be very visible, and they’re going to be used in the staging
There’s a nice little thematic link, in the form of the moon, between both works. It’s very obvious in Pierrot Lunaire. So much of the poetry refers to the moon in all sorts of different ways, taking on a character. There’s one point, one that I find very funny, where Pierrot – he sees what he thinks is a spot of plaster on his coat, and it’s the moonlight, and he’s trying desperately to rub it off, and it won’t go away. He gets very frustrated by this. In Hotspur there’s a reference to the Harvest Moon. This is a time that is very key in the whole play, or rather the poetry, that Fleur Adcock wrote. There are going to be some banners in Hotspur, which are taken from illustrations by Gretchen Albrecht, a wonderful New Zealand artist who is very, very well-known internationally. She illustrated Fleur’s original booklet of the libretto of Hotspur. So, we’re taking some of these illustrations, turning them into large banners to hang during the show, and light at different times when they’re appropriate for different moments of the story. And there is a beautiful one of the moon. So, of course, that’s going to be a nice link in our staging with Pierrot Lunaire in the second half.
H.M.: The usual scenario is that creative practitioners – orchestras, opera companies, ballet companies – devise performances and then add accessibility, engagement, learning with kids etc, sort of as afterthoughts, albeit really well-meant ones. How does formidAbility differ from that? What’s your approach, and how are we going to see, or hear, or feel accessibility in the creative fabric of the project?
J.R.A.: We’re turning that whole usual process on its head, and we’re putting the accessibility at the heart of our creative process. So, we’re giving it equal with the production as a whole. We’re finding ways so that the accessible elements are not just something practical to help you out, and understand the artistic intentions of the Director, the Music Director, the composer and so on – the artists onstage. What we’re doing is putting the accessibility front and centre, so… In particular, for deaf people in the audience, by using Signdance Collective International, by collaborating with them, the signing becomes integral to the production. It’s not just someone on the edge of the stage, standing still and signing. It’s someone taking on a role of their own in the production, also signing or miming in a way that makes it really clear for anyone with a visual [sic] impairment what everyone else is hearing, but it also makes something really beautiful that anybody can appreciate and find enhances the whole experience – it doesn’t matter whether disabled, or not.
You know, opera is all about telling a story that has really big emotions – a character feeling an emotion so strongly that they have to sing; there’s no other way around it. Signdance takes sign language and makes it big and expressive and beautiful, as a way of expressing this incredibly emotional story in a way that someone with a hearing impairment can understand and appreciate.
[Recording of an excerpt from Whitehead’s Hotspur with voice and piano]
H.M.: In 2015, you commissioned Gillian Whitehead’s Iris Dreaming – so, same composer, and Fleur Adcock did the libretto as well. That was a new piece, a world premiere, and that was funded by Creative New Zealand, wasn’t it?
J.R.A.: The initial commission was funded by Creative New Zealand, and then the world premiere was funded by Arts Council England and several fantastic organisations in the New Zealand community in London – the New Zealand Society, the New Zealand Studies Network, and numerous very, very lovely private donors that made it happen.
H.M.: That was fantastic, and you worked with Jon Hargreaves and the Octandre Ensemble, one of London’s premiere new-music ensembles and conductors. What did you learn from the process, as a producer and solo artist, because that was a one-woman opera as well? What did you learn from that process that you’re bringing into this project?
J.R.A.: That was my first time producing, so the learning curve was like this! [raises arm]. It was so steep! It was, yeah… It was extraordinary. I learnt about fundraising; I learnt about the practicalities of making a production happen, all the finickity little details that you have to get right to make sure everything runs smoothly. Artistically, it was a joy, a challenge, the most exhilarating experience to be, first of all, receiving a score for something that wouldn’t have existed had I not had this crazy germ of an idea, of commissioning a one-woman opera, and then get the funding. I felt like a kid at Christmas every time Gillian sent me a little… a new section of the score. And, I confess to shedding a few tears when I was reading through what she’d written for me.
Then, the process of rehearsing as the only singer in a production is incredibly intensive, and I was going into it thinking “I know I have a healthy vocal technique; I’m going to have to call on everything I’ve got to make this work.” And it did. Six hours a day in the rehearsal room and it was completely fine. Very intensive, when you’ve got the director and conductor giving you notes almost simultaneously, and you just have to keep a cool head, take notes, do everything you’re being asked to do. I loved it, absolutely thrived on it. So, going into this production, I’m pushing myself further. I’m pushing the boundaries further, starting a company, rather than doing it completely on my own, albeit with some wonderful.... I had support, when I did Iris Dreaming, but now I’m formalising that into a company.
This is a bigger project – we’re bringing in more artists. I don’t want to be a one-woman show. We’ve got these incredible dancers from Signdance Collective International joining us; we’ve got Sara Brodie directing, who also directed Iris Dreaming, so I’m thrilled to be continuing that collaboration with her; we’ve got a conductor I haven’t worked with before, Scott Wilson, a fantastic young Australian conductor with a real passion for new music and 20th-century music, and he’s putting together a great ensemble of players to cover this music.
[Puppy barks outside]
H.M.: That’s the puppy in the background.
J.R.A.: She’s the company mascot. [Laughs] This has got challenges, both for me as a producer and… It’s on a larger scale, so we have more money to raise and more facets to coordinate, plus all the accessibility elements for the audience. But also making sure that the personal access needs of those of us with a disability are taken care of. That’s really, really crucial so that everybody can do their best work and have a level playing field with any able-bodied artists.
H.M.: I mean, it kind of strikes me that this is like a little petri dish test case to see, in an ideal world – run by people who have mixed abilities – what works. And that then becomes, kind of, something that you can use to advise the wider arts community, which is amazing.
H.M.: Rather than it coming in the other direction.
J.R.A.: Yeah, yeah. This wasn’t planned, but when we did our research and development in March , and as part of our evaluation process, I asked each member of the team to indicate – anonymously – whether they classed themselves as having some kind of disability or long-term health issue, or not, or preferred not to say. And it came out as a perfectly even split between disabled, non-disabled, and a little bit for preferring not to say. So, that’s… The balance is amazing.
H.M.: You’ve been a pro violinist. Where did you train for that?
J.R.A.: I… Well, I came to the UK to study the violin and, yes, get a career going as a violinist. I came to study privately with a wonderful Hungarian teacher in Oxford called Kató Havas, and then I went to Trinity College of Music in London, and I did a post-graduate year there.
H.M.: And you… Obviously you’re a singer as well. Talk to us about your… You’ve sung with a number of UK’s professional opera companies. What’s your training been in opera? When, how did that change?
J.R.A.: Well. When I came over to the UK, I had no idea that I had any real professional vocal potential. That was a lovely, delightful sort of discovery. I had something inside me that said “I want to sing”. I had a few lessons with a housemate in New Zealand, who was a singer, but I never took it seriously. I never imagined that it would be something that I could actually do professionally. So, when I came to the UK, and I was studying the violin, I was very focused on the violin – that was all I wanted to do. And when I got to Trinity, and there was a chance to do a second study, I thought “this is a chance. You know, grab the chances, the opportunities that come along in life. Don’t have What-Ifs in your head”. So, I went to the head of vocal studies and said “I would really like to take singing as a second study”. She said, “fine”. So, I was sent to Esther Salaman, who was a wonderful teacher then in her 80s, so no longer coming into college. I had to go out to her lovely, eccentric studio in Highgate for lessons.
H.M.: That’s the best thing about weird old music teachers – the strange places you have to go and see them for lessons.
J.R.A.: Absolutely! She had a tree stump in the middle of her studio with ivy growing across it.
H.M.: Of course, she did.
J.R.A.: Of course, as you do!
J.R.A.: It was amazing. She had her singers’ platform that you had to stand on, so that she could see you at the right… at a higher angle than the piano. It was gorgeous.
H.M.: And how was it for you getting into the mainstream opera world, and dealing with your sight impairment. How was it, working with directors? And, did you tell anyone that you had an impairment?
J.R.A.: Well, when I… One of the reasons that I decided to switch professionally, from violin to singing, was partly because I just got such a kick out of the text that you get to play with as a singer, having language. I’ve always been fascinated by language. I was also finding, as a violinist, that it’s really difficult as a string player in an orchestra with a visual impairment, because you have to share a stand. As a student, when I was at Trinity College of Music, I could read the page nearest to me, but the other page would be too far out of focus for me to be able to see. And I couldn’t get close enough because of having a desk partner sharing the stand, and the instrument sticks out in front of you – you can only get so close before your bow bangs into the music stand. So, I would memorise everything I couldn’t see in rehearsals, and as a student that works, because you might have a month of rehearsals before a concert. And if the conductor was working with, say, the wind, I could just lean over and check the bit I couldn’t see – was that a natural or a sharp? Because, to me, they look the same unless I’m really close, and that’s quite crucial.
So, I…Yeah, I coped like that. But when you get out into the profession and you’ve got, maybe, one rehearsal on the day of the concert, and then the concert, that just doesn’t work anymore.
As a singer, you haven’t got that problem. And I went into singing perhaps naively thinking “Oh, it’ll be really easy. It’ll be great. It’ll be fine because I don’t have to read music as I’m performing. Or, if I am, I can hold it where I need it, to see. So, when I was at Birmingham Conservatoire, doing my postgraduate, my Masters in Voice, when I came to finish the course, I was given a lovely reference which explained what I’d done in college – as a soloist, as a member of ensembles, dancing, moving on stage, negotiating scenery, etcetera, etcetera. Never being a danger to myself or others, minimal extra technical time. And the advice given was that when I went to audition for opera companies, professionally, I should do my audition – because no one could tell, looking at me, that I had a visual impairment – and then, at the end, just say “by the way, no big deal, but I’m partially sighted and here’s a reference to assure you I’m not any kind of risk.” And, unfortunately, the reaction was usually embarrassment from the panel, and no work.
J.R.A.: So, I stopped saying anything, and then I got my first work with Opera Holland Park, singing in the chorus with them. And I sang in the chorus for them for five seasons. I was a Young Artist, and I had a small role in one of their main productions. I kept my visual impairment secret for four of those seasons, because I was terrified that if I was to let on, then maybe I wouldn’t get asked back, or maybe I wouldn’t get opportunities that I felt I really wanted, to progress my career.
I did keep it secret, and it wasn’t until – in the fourth season – when the R.N.I.B, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, were running a workshop in conjunction with Opera Holland Park for visually impaired children, the R.N.I.B. said to me, “We know that you’re keeping your visual impairment quiet, but we’d love you to be involved in running this workshop, helping in the workshop with these children. How do you feel about speaking to Opera Holland Park about your situation?” I think it was quite close to the time of the Paralympics in London, and it felt like attitudes were changing, so I had a quiet conversation with the Assistant Producer at Opera Holland Park and I said, “you know, I’ve been speaking to James at the R.N.I.B., and he’d really like me to be involved in this workshop.” And, I said, “I’ve had a lot to do with them as a client,” and she looked at me with a surprised look on her face and I said “because, I’m partially sighted.”
Figuratively speaking, the jaw hit the floor, and I explained that I’d never said anything because I was afraid of people making 2+2=5, and make assumptions that I would be a risk. You know, I said to her, “I’ve climbed up 2-metre high scaffolding onstage, I’ve carried lighted candles onstage. I haven’t fallen off the stage or set fire to the theatre”, so [laughs] I felt that I’d sort of earnt my stripes. And Opera Holland Park were fantastic. Absolutely brilliant. They got me involved straight away in helping with this workshop, and the following year I ran the workshop, the equivalent one. So, it was just lovely to be able to be more open.
Before that, in rehearsals, I was always trying to hide my visual impairment. So, you’d get tricky situations like… I can’t tell if someone is trying to make eye contact with me, unless they’re very close. And, quite often, a director won’t use names of the singers that he’s working with – or that he or she is working with – they would just kind of point to you, or look at you if you’re a member of the chorus, and ask you to do a particular task. And, I wouldn’t know if they were asking me to do it, or the person next to me. And you can imagine the embarrassment that that has the potential of causing. [laughs] You don’t want to either be hanging back, and not grabbing opportunities, not willing and not wanting to really engage, or just trying to elbow your way forward and being at the front, and taking on all the roles.
H.M.: And, I mean, it’s absolute pure luck that you were with Holland Park at that point, because of all of the opera companies – my goodness, they’re so open-minded. They’re… I mean that’s where you and I met.
H.M.: But they have always made a point of having a chorus that genuinely reflects, you know, really tries to reflect the population. So, mixed race, mixed ages…
H.M.: … which gets overlooked so often.
J.R.A.: Very much so. Yeah, absolutely.
H.M.: And you were not the only person with a disability in that chorus.
J.R.A.: No, I wasn’t. And I know I wasn’t the only person keeping it secret, either.
J.R.A.: But the camaraderie and the support within the chorus was fantastic. So, people… If someone knew that you did have some kind of an issue, they were fabulous at just helping you through that and making it clear so that audience would never have known.
In my first year, we were doing Carmen, and I had to look like I was being dragged on by the hair. And, my lovely colleague and very dear friend would, as we were going down these stone steps, would just quietly say “step, step” to me, so I wouldn’t fall flat on my face.
H.M.: You’ve gathered a fantastic team of collaborators. Tell us about them. You’ve got Sara Brodie?
J.R.A.: Yes. Sara Brodie is one of New Zealand’s leading directors and choreographers, and she’s doing more and more work over here in the UK as well, which I’m delighted about, because that makes her more available for formidAbility.
H.M.: And who do you have doing the Signdance for you?
J.R.A.: So, we have Signdance Collective International. We have their two directors which is [sic] Isolte Avila and David Bower. Isolte is physically disabled; she is hearing. She signs fluently; does beautiful, beautiful dance. She trained, I think, with Cuban Ballet. David is an actor and performance artist, and probably most well-known to the general public for his role in Four Weddings and a Funeral. David’s also… Recently he was on [BBC] Radio 4 as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and I listened to that – it was just so compelling.
H.M.: And who do you have conducting?
J.R.A.: Our conductor, our Music Director, is Scott Wilson who is a young Australian conductor based in London, with a real flair and passion for contemporary music and works of the 20th Century. So, I’m really excited to be working with him for the first time.
H.M.: The other person I’m interested to know about is… What’s happening with the audio description? Now, this is fascinating, that someone would want audio description for an “audio” event. How does that work? What is described to them?
J.R.A.: That’s a really good question. Audio description is, traditionally, literally just describing what is visually happening, and it can be quite dry. I have come across Nathan Geering and his Rationale Method of audio description, which he’s developed, and this is a way of making audio description really exciting, and something that really reflects the energy and the ethos and emotion of the production. And he or his team of audio describers will do it in different ways, depending on what is right for the production. In some productions, they’ll actually use beatbox techniques to describe a movement, because that is a really quick way... If you hear someone go “Whish! Whish! Whish!” you’ve immediately got an idea of the way they might be moving their arms. Other ways that they use it is using really poetic language, and that’s the direction I think we’re going to go in with this production, creating language that is really beautiful and artistic, and interesting and expressive in its own right, beyond just describing a practical movement. Yeah, it’s going to be very interesting. They’ll come into our rehearsals, and treat it a bit like some research and development to work out what is the right approach for our production. And we’d like to get some visually-impaired people to come and watch, and see what works for them, because they’re the people we’re doing this for.
H.M.: You have more than a couple of antipodeans on the team: Sara, Scott, myself on the board; and I’m often coming across antipodeans doing extraordinary projects – I don’t think I’m crazy for saying that – usually in quite a chilled, pragmatic fashion.
H.M.: Do you think there’s something, culturally, that allows us to say yes to things that many others would put in the too-hard, or too-bonkers basket, or where something doesn’t exist, we just decide to build it?
J.R.A.: I think there is. I think there’s something about being on that bit of the world that, on most maps, is right on the edge.
H.M.: Sometimes it’s not even there! [laughs]
J.R.A.: I was going to say! Yeah, yeah! Absolutely! [laughs]. That just makes us punch above our weight. You know, particularly… I mean, New Zealand is a small country; Australians are obviously our larger neighbour. But I think we do have this in common, this kind of ability to kind of think outside the box, and be really adventurous. Yeah, taking that kind of… I don’t know whether it comes from pioneering spirit or not, but we’re not… I don’t think we feel quite so constrained by traditions and expectations, perhaps.
H.M.: Yeah, I find that – often I think about this – that first of all, in terms of European artistic tradition in New Zealand, it’s very short. But also, that we‘re so unbelievably lucky to have access to, and insight from, the Maori and Pacific arts and creative communities.
J.R.A.: Absolutely, and that’s one of the things that I just love about Gillian Whitehead’s music. Her sound-world is unmistakeably New Zealand. There’s this… The way she blends European traditions with Maori, with nature – you know it’s so extraordinary. I mean, Hotspur is a more European work, because of the nature of the story, because of where it’s set. But when she wrote Iris Dreaming for me, she included Taonga Puoro, the Maori traditional instruments, in the scoring: having the cellist pick up a pair of stones and just tap them in his hand, while he changed the shape of the hand to change the colour; having a rain-stick – which is not so much a Maori instrument – but having a rain-stick that would sound exactly like waves pulling at pebbles on a beach at the end.
J.R.A.: And then in other works I’ve sung of hers, where the singer is literally mimicking birdsong from native New Zealand birdsong. And the other thing I just adore about her writing is that she tells the story through the writing: the rhythm, the melody, the orchestration and the texture. She writes music which can be challenging for the singer, for the instrumentalists, but it’s never challenging for being challenging’s sake. It’s never trying to be clever. Everything is there to be expressive and tell the story.
H.M.: And she has a long relationship with Fleur as librettist, which helps.
J.R.A.: And this is a lovely kind of circle, that Iris Dreaming is the last thing that they’ve… The latest thing they’ve written together – I’m not saying last! It’s the latest, from 2016 – and Hotspur is their very first collaboration from after they met, when they were both artists-in-residence at Northern Arts.
H.M.: That’s cool. What do you see in the future for formidAbility as a company?
J.R.A.: I want to see formidAbility grow. I want to see it both in terms of the kind of work that we do and the people involved in our work. I’d like to take this production and tour it, and reach more people and show what you can do; that artists who are really high calibre, and just happen to have a disability, can create really great art, just the same way as we are all astounded by the incredible sporting achievements of Paralympians in the sporting arena. No one looks at a Paralympian athlete and goes “oh, but they’re in a wheelchair”. You know, artists are the same.
J.R.A.: What it takes to spread that message: I’d like us to commission new work, or look at what standard repertoire could we try applying this approach to. We need to start small-scale; we can’t go from a cast of three to a cast of thousands [laughs]. But I’d like it to sensibly, gradually grow, and to share our approach with the wider profession, and see whether other companies would be interested in working with us.
H.M.: For any artist self-producing in the arts, we’re caught between trying to plan responsibly for the future growth and creative longevity that you’ve talked about …
H.M.: … while at the same time exhausting all of our energies and financial resources, physical resources, mental health resources on the project to hand, to create something worthwhile. Now, the budget for this is massive, and you are producer, singer and chief fundraiser, among many other things. How do you balance those two things in your head: bringing this specific project to fruition, and trying to build a sort of a bedrock for formidAbility’s future?
J.R.A.: That’s a really good question. It’s hard. I would really dearly like to have another 12 hours in a day, please. If anyone could arrange that, that would be lovely! I’m just… I’m trying to… I kind of have to compartmentalise, and I have to say to myself, “OK, at this time of day I’m focusing on singing. This is my time to really bed-in what I’m going to be doing onstage, and make sure it’s the best that I can possibly do.” Because, if it’s not, we shouldn’t be doing this at all. That’s the whole reason for doing it, is creating really beautiful work that’s going to move people. But then when I’ve done that singing practice, then I have to switch to my producer hat, and I’m sitting at that computer, and I’m writing and writing and writing - many, many, many funding applications! I think for our Arts Council [England] one, I spent a fortnight over Easter working about 12 hours a day, give or take, because it is just a mammoth thing to do and to do right. I’ve felt the weight of it, the pressure on my shoulders, to make this happen. And then, of course, I’ve written to 70 trusts and foundations to ask for their support as well.
I think it’s about staying calm, staying focused, staying in the moment, which might sound like a cliché, but actually it’s what you have to do as an artist onstage. You can’t be onstage, giving your best, if you’re worried about what you’ve got to do tomorrow …
J.R.A.: … or what you didn’t do this morning. You’ve just got to be…
H.M.: Yeah, or that 5 bars [of music] ago wasn’t perfect.
J.R.A.: Exactly, exactly. It’s all about creating it in the here and now. So, it’s really learning to do that, and balancing that with earning the bread and butter and doing my other work: singing, teaching the violin and performances.
H.M.: Touring with Paraorchestra, amongst other things…
J.R.A.: Touring with the Paraorchestra. Yes, the week before formidAbility was incorporated, I was in Australia for a week, performing with the Paraorchestra. On our opening night, I got the email from Arts Council England to say that they were funding our research and development, which was going to start a fortnight later. The day I got back from… Or, the week I got back from Australia was the week formidAbility was incorporated, so everything kicked off.
H.M.: And it’s funny isn’t it, it’s one thing… We can all apply for funding for putting a gig on, but there is no one supporting, or giving funding for the work of administering, administrating – of running these companies.
J.R.A.: Yeah, exactly. You can put a percentage of that into an Arts Council budget, and a number of other trusts and foundations will allow you to put a certain amount in. But, it’s really difficult to get that initial sort of cushion of money to make it happen, you know. For formidAbility, we need a website. So, I’ve built the website. I designed the logo so that we don’t have to spend money asking a graphic designer to do that. Yeah. You know, it’s hard. It’s really, really hard, and when what I would love to be doing is putting that energy into creating the actual artistry, the artistic work.
[Excerpt from Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, voice and piano in German]
You’ve been listening to me, Holly Mathieson; soprano, Jo Roughton-Arnold; pianist, James Kreiling; excerpts from Gillian Whitehead and Fleur Adcock’s Hotspur, and Arnold Schoenberg and Albert Giraud’s Pierrot Lunaire.
[light, rhythmic music with bells plays in the background]
Thanks to Universal Edition for letting us record a little bit in rehearsal, to producer Heather Allen, to Music Director Scott Wilson and Director Sara Brodie.
[music crescendos and beat kicks in]