This Sunday, the Auckland Chamber Orchestra performs Peter Maxwell Davies’s seminal music-theatre work, Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot, at the Raye Freedman Arts Centre. Listener blog editor Alex Taylor caught up with husband and wife duo conductor and music director Peter Scholes, and Miss Donnithorne herself, mezzo-soprano Claire Scholes, to talk about violin violence, vocal extremes, expletives and establishmentarianism.
Alex Taylor: Perhaps let's start by talking about the major work on the programme - Miss Donnithorne's Maggot by Peter Maxwell Davies - how did you come across this work and what made you want to put it on in concert?
Peter Scholes: I saw a performance of Eight Songs for a Mad King in my youth - it was quite a formative experience for me. This is of course a companion to that piece. Claire introduced me to Miss Donnithorne, and it was all go from there.
It's also totally made for Claire's voice and performance style.
Claire Scholes: I first heard about it back at university through Robert Wiremu, who introduced me to a massive range of exciting modern repertoire that he thought would be up my alley. He played me the Mary Thomas recording (with PMD conducting) and I was hooked - I showed it to the voice teacher (Glenese Blake back then) and she opened it up directly to a page of expletives and expressed her opinion that it was a no-go. (It would have been too hard for me back then anyway!)
Peter: It fits the ACO [Auckland Chamber Orchestra] programming style very well. We have done numerous operas over the last fifteen years and it's great to do a more 'recent' (ok not quite an opera!) vocal work. ACO did Poulenc's La Voix Humaine a few years ago - there are some similarities here.
Alex: What sets this work apart from Eight Songs for a Mad King do you think?
Peter: Well ... the violin stays in one piece.
Peter: Both represent madness: one monarchical, one domestic.
Claire: It's a bit more bel canto vocally; and although it still stretches the singer physically (multiphonics etc) it doesn't cover the same Roy Hart spectrum.
Peter: It's got some gorgeous tunes in it.
Alex: Miss Donnithorne was written in 1974 - do you think it still has contemporary relevance as a piece of theatre? How do you bring it into the twenty-first century?
Peter: There was a tabloid item about a groom not turning up to wedding just recently: the bride was going through grief but seemed to come out of it intact. Not so with Miss D of course.
Mental health is talked about now and supported much more than back then. It wasn't that long ago that women were put into asylums for the flimsiest reasons. So the key theme is mental health and this work delves into it in a very real way.
Claire: There are aspects of it that at first glance seem a bit dated to me, which the performers and production have to consider and work around - for example, the chauvinistic notion of madness in women being caused by sexual repression; and madness being played for laughs. There are some stage directions in the score that I think are best taken with a pinch of salt as they would come across as cheap gags. I feel sympathy and empathy for the real life Miss D., and feel that it would be only too easy for any of us to slip into her way of being - so I guess we've tried to find a middle ground where we're true to the guts of the score without playing it for laughs. (In his composer's note PMD says emphatically that Miss D. is not intended to be funny.)
Peter: It's also pure music in that it is about the voice - and the expression that comes from extreme techniques. The range is almost four octaves! [Eb below middle C to a super-high B natural five ledger lines above the stave]
Alex: Claire - how do you prepare for a role like this which is so extreme, vocally and theatrically?
Peter: You should ask the neighbours!
Claire: It's been an extremely slow careful process! I got the score last November, and the first step was the donkey-work of note-learning, and gradually getting the notes comfortably into the voice. It was a good six months before I could truly start playing around with the character of Miss Donnithorne without being glued to the score. Once the score was memorised I had sessions with choreographer/director Marianne Schultz where we fine-tuned Miss Donnithorne's movements. I've also been working with my singing teacher Patricia Wright on technical aspects from early on in the process. I've been in touch with Jane Manning in the UK (who I believe is the only other person to have performed Miss Donnithorne in NZ, back in the 70s with Fires of London) and she was extremely helpful in clearing up some of the more mysterious aspects of the score!
Alex: It's quite a mammoth commitment.
Peter: It's one of those pieces which make you grow as a performer. It extends the voice outside of its comfort zone and in doing so opens up a larger-than-life expressive power.
Alex: Peter, you mentioned the operatic or music-theatre works that ACO has done recently like La Voix Humaine - why do you think we see relatively little of these sorts of expressionistic music-theatre works in New Zealand? Berg's Wozzeck, for example, or other contemporary operas?
Peter: Got my eye on Wozzeck! Just need a bigger band - that's all.
Alex: I guess I mean the music establishment in general - we see a lot of Verdi and Puccini, but do you think there's resistance to putting on more adventurous works or is it purely practical?
Peter: Mainstream opera repertoire is the way to get audiences. Even when we did a production of La Clemenza di Tito, it was a difficult sell, whereas our Lucia di Lammermoor sold out. We are getting Nixon in China though!
Claire: I think [John Adams’s] Death of Klinghoffer sold quite well.
Alex: And Nixon in China is adventurous?
Peter: In the context of a menu of just Puccini, Verdi and Mozart, I think it is breaking out.
Alex: Perhaps. A bit cheeky of me I know - but if audiences see Adams as being at the cutting edge, what hope is there for the truly adventurous?
Peter: Opera companies will always follow the masses, and Adams has achieved that support in his way. It's up to smaller groups to drive more adventurous projects. Opera need not have massive production budgets so with the right team more can and should be done. Of course funding is also driven by audience numbers - I think more so than when I was starting out.
Alex: You've certainly got a long history of striking and adventurous programming with ACO - what do you see as the orchestra's role or place in the music scene?
Peter: Red Peak flag.
Alex: As in...? well-designed, colourful, popular...?
Peter: It has good stories - it tells good stories - it is a flag. I enjoy working old and new music - we balance familiar with the unfamiliar. Personally I live for the new stuff – e.g. Graffiti (Unsuk Chin), Rautavaara, Anna Clyne, Alex Taylor. It is important that new music from other countries gets played here. I take risks with that because sometimes a piece is so new that it hasn't been "tested" for popularity. But that does not bother me… Lei Liang was a highlight. And Michel van der Aa. I am fond of John Adams too.
Alex: Perhaps we could talk a little bit about the rest of the programme - how does it fit together? How might a listener experience it as a whole?
Peter: The concert starts very small and intimate - just a duo [Lilburn’s Sonatina for clarinet and piano] - then the quartet [Rodriquez’s Innocents in Love] - then Miss Donnithorne. So it is a progression. The chamber music first half - I see its intimacy as a good introduction to the second half. The Rodriguez has an opera link too. So the sound world develops by the addition of instruments and more complex musical material.
Alex: The Rodriguez is new to me - how would you describe it?
Peter: Post-romantic. Fragile and expressive.
Alex: Perhaps it's a sign of the vibrancy of the Auckland music community, but you're competing with a number of other events on Sunday - how do you go about drawing an audience?
Peter: Tooooo many clashes. It's a disaster really. I think we were all setting our dates ages ago and then this happens. We need to talk more. Anyway, to answer your question, we just hope there are enough people to go around. I don't mind a small audience - I remember concerts in London with tiny audiences - amazing musicians. But if people like this sort of thing happening, it would be great that they came. See you there!
Auckland Chamber Orchestra, Raye Freedman Arts Centre, Sunday 20 September 5pm. Tickets $39/$29/$19 available from iTicket