One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is involvement in projects that take music and movement to sectors of the community who might not otherwise have that access. As well as co-leading the ENB’s Dance for Parkinson’s programme, I work with dance artists Roosa Leimu-Brown and Louisa Dalton to deliver music and movement workshops as MuMo Creative. Drawing our respective backgrounds in biology, history and dance, we build our sessions around story, science, and themes tailored specifically to clients’ needs—such as a series of workshops for older people, based on the Museum of Rural Life’s collection, and a series of free homeschooling videos and gentle seated exercises during the Covid-19 pandemic. For more details, see our website.
I’ve joined forces with a number of dance artists to create live music sessions in hospitals and homes around the area, including a project at Witney Community Hospital, visiting the wards and day room to bring some song and dance into the daily routine. Dancer Rhonda Sparrey and I were among 12 practitioners funded by the FLOURISH programme to encourage the use of arts among people with dementia. We led a course of eight Dance for Dementia workshops at the Christchurch Centre in Henley, featuring themes such as A Night At The Theatre and A Day At The Seaside. Here’s a short film about our work, which gives some idea of the extraordinary power of music to revive and reconnect.
In August 2019 I joined a chamber group of musicians at beautiful Snape Maltings in Suffolk (below), where we accompanied Amy Mallett’s opera The Catchpole Chronicles, devised by Co-Lab, a team of experienced outreach artists. The piece was created from workshops with people who have Parkinson’s Disease, and inspired by the story of 19th-century convict Margaret Catchpole. The musicians returned to the recital hall to record the music, and there are plans to bring The Catchpole Chronicles to the Royal Opera House—watch this space!
It’s been a privilege to work with talented dance practitioner Danielle Teale, creator of the DfP programme, on a variety of projects: leading a weekend of DfP workshops in Glasgow for Scottish Ballet, and an introductory course for DfP teachers at the People Dancing conference in De Montfort University, Leicester; and, along with dancer Sarah Lewis and musician Amy Mallett, participating in devised opera The Catchpole Chronicles in Snape Maltings. The physical and psychological benefits of music, movement and imagination are increasingly recognised by the medical profession, and their effects on our participants in every session are an absolute joy to see.
Opera Anywhere’s touring productions have entertained audiences around the country in theatres, schools, village halls, cowsheds and even an air hangar. Some shows feature locally recruited chorus singers; others follow workshops with schoolchildren, who then join in the action. I have great fun as the MD and pianist, and along with flautist Nick Planas, percussionist Dave Hadland and cellist Rosie Burchett I enjoy the challenge of accompanying a production where anything might happen! The programme includes operettas and operas by Gilbert & Sullivan, Puccini, Mozart and Humperdinck, and several modern one-act operas, including Menotti’s The Telephone, Samuel Barber’s mini-opera A Hand of Bridge, William Walton’s The Bear, and Menotti’s The Old Maid And The Thief. In 2019 we added ‘Hansel & Gretel’ to the repertoire, in a beautiful new production by Serenna Wagner. This has now become the basis for one of a series of ‘learning through opera’ digital projects for children aged 8 to 12, with an audiobook featuring specially commissioned illustrations and wonderful text by Serenna and recordings, and video modules exploring the music, characters, costumes, set and lighting.
One of the best things about being a pianist is getting to play the role of ‘orchestra’ for smaller-scale productions and performances. As well as enjoying the rich and exciting operas of Mozart, Puccini and others in my regular work as MD and pianist for Opera Anywhere, I’ve had the opportunity to accompany some thrilling close-up opera at the Arcola Theatre in London, where Paula Chitty’s company Irrantional Theatre presented a dramatic double bill of ‘Gianni Schicchi’ and ‘Pagliacci’ as part of the annual Grimeborn opera festival. ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ is the best-known aria in Puccini’s witty tale, in which Gianni Schicchi uses his impersonating skills to take revenge on his snobbish family; and in Leoncavallo’s highly emotional melodrama, based on a real murder case, professional clown Pagliacci lets reality break into performance, with violent and terrible consequences. Two original and involving productions, and two nights of excellent and accessible opera.
Stuart Pendred’s inspiring Oxford Opera Company brings opera to new audiences, with a winning combination of superb professional singers and community and school choruses. It’s been a privilege to work for OOC as répétiteur and in the pit with the Oxford Chamber Orchestra, for a concert performance of Puccini’s ‘Tosca’, featuring international soprano Lee Bisset; and two fully staged productions at the Oxford Playhouse, both directed by Paul Carr: ‘Carmen’, with renowned mezzo Hannah Pedley in the lead role; and in 2020, a stunning version of ‘La Bohème’, with the latest stars of the opera scene Sam Furness and Marlena Devoe as Rodolfo and Mimi.
Blue Skye Thinking is a charity set up in the name of Skye Hall by his parents, Sally and Andrew. Skye was a lively, lovely boy who died as the result of the radical treatment received for an aggressive brain tumour, and the charity raises funds for research into more appropriate treatment for children with cancer. Sally, Andrew and Skye’s little brother Jesse have worked with astounding courage and energy to promote their campaign Loom to the Moon, inspired by Skye’s curiosity about the number of loom bands it would take to reach the moon. In collaboration with his favourite magician, Simon Says, I’ve written a magical musical based on the campaign, which will tour children’s hospital wards to entertain the patients and draw attention to the charity’s work. Loom to the Moon, the musical, tells the story of Skye’s visit to Simon’s magic shop, and how he finds a way to visit his mum on the moon—with songs, puppets and jaw-dropping magic tricks along the way. Here’s one of the songs from the show, performed by children from Dr Radcliffe’s CE primary school (conducted by Guy Brigg), with me on piano, Dave Hadland on drums and sound recordist Oli Whitworth on bass guitar: