OpSoc are hard at work in rehearsal. Their exciting retelling of Handel’s Semele will be the first opera staged entirely by St Andrews students. To find out more, I sat down with Luisa Hill (producer), Joseph Houghton (artistic director), Lauren Macleod (vice-president and performer), and Sean Heath (conductor). Their excitement for the production was infectious and they chatted with great enthusiasm about building people’s interest in opera. Their performances definitely sound like something to look forward to!
Your society was only founded in April 2016. Was there anything specific that got the ball rolling?
Lauren: I don’t think there was anything specific. It was just that a conversation happened in the right time at the right place. The university already has Byre Opera as part of the Music Centre, but a group of us had talked about how great it would be to have an opera society staging productions that were completely student-led. Furthermore, Byre Opera performs to a very high standard and we felt there was room for something more accessible. We wanted a group where people who didn’t know anything about opera could both watch and get involved. We now have screenings every two weeks and are running a trip in March.
Semele is one of Handel’s lesser-known works. What made you choose it as the first production for the society?
Sean: There’s a few reasons, the first and foremost being that it’s a very good opera! Also, what with us being a student opera group, there are certain practicalities we needed to consider when making our decision. For instance, other operas require bigger casts and more mature voices. By doing a baroque opera, we can produce something much more suited to young people’s voices. We also looked for works where we could still get as many people involved as possible. The chorus is very prominent in Semele, so we can get a good number of people on stage, which fits perfectly with the ethos of our society. Finally, Semele enables us to offer a nice contrast to Byre Opera. They’re focusing on 20th century works this year, so it’s great to present an earlier work alongside that. Although this particular opera is not so well-known, Handel is famous enough that it’s still accessible for people new to opera.
You describe the production as an ‘exciting reimagining’ of Semele. Can you tell us more?
Joseph: Being a Baroque opera, Semele lends itself nicely to redesigning. Baroque works are typically very black and white in terms of emotion. There is typically good guy and bad guy set up, accompanied by a goal and an interception. You can effectively replace Zeus with any powerful character, so we’ve made him a gangster. In the original work Semele wants to be a Goddess, so in our production she wants to be a gangster. Handel’s interception to this scenario is that mortals cannot be Gods, so we’ve made it that civilians can’t be gangsters given how dangerous it is for them. In our production process we’ve looked for eloquent ways to retell the story and make it more accessible.
Why should people come and see it?
Joseph: Opera is an absolute joy, and this is such an easy way to learn more about it. It is by students for students and it’s very fresh.
How has the rehearsal process been so far? What challenges have you found in being the first fully staged opera put on by St Andrews students?
Sean: Co-ordinating schedules is a big challenge, and we’ve had some intense organization going on! We cast Semele last semester and asked people to learn as much as possible over the break, which they did very well with. In a real opera house, the performers would be there for weeks on end doing nothing else. Obviously, we don’t have those resources, but it’s still come together exceptionally well. We’re not a professional thing so no-one’s being paid. We rely entirely on enthusiasm, which makes it really enjoyable.
Luisa: For a lot of singers, this is their first time acting, so I’ve been really impressed with what I’ve been seeing.
Your society does regular screenings and has a really strong social media presence. What do you think is the best way to get more people interested in opera?
Sean: Historically, opera is such an expensive art form. It has long been linked with the elite and it does still have those connotations, so anything that presents fresh ways to get more people involved is important. This a more traditional production as we’re staging it in a theatre, but our next will be in the union. People can also be a bit intimidated by the length of performances, so we’ve shortened Semele quite a bit. I hope our modern audiences will find something that is very enjoyable and accessible. It is beautiful music and that hasn’t changed, but we’ve presented it in a new way.
Joseph: I was manning our stall at Freshers Fayre this year, and when you suggested Opera Society to people their first reaction was always ‘no, I don’t sing’ as if that’s a hoop you have to jump through. I myself don’t sing and I really feel that opera is so much more about appreciation than people realize.
What is next for St Andrews opera society?
Lauren: As part of OTR we will be doing an interactive walk through of Dido and Aenaes. The audience will be led around the different spaces with some narration as well. We’re still considering what opera we want to do next year. Five of our committee are graduating or going on year abroad, but we’ve had a lot of engagement so we’re feeling really positive.
Sean: It’s been a really good first year for us. In November we did a concert of opera scenes in the Beacon Bar, which was pretty successful. We’d like to do more of these opera excerpts in smaller locations in the future.
Joseph: If you think about it, we’re staging one of the largest all student productions that could have been put on. We’ve arranged orchestra, production team, actors and singers. This bodes really well for keeping the society going.
Luisa: The fact that we’ve managed to put on this production will hopefully get people interested. We hope it will demonstrate just how accessible opera is, and also how fun.
Carla van der Sluijs
Handel’s ‘Semele’ is 27th/28th February 19.00 at The Byre. Tickets are £10 for adults, £8 for students and £5 for society members.
Images kindly provided by Opera Society