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Highbury Opera Theatre – ‘The Weekend’ (interview with composer Scott Stroman)

“One man’s quest to avoid a family gathering”, ‘The Weekend’ is a new comic opera from Highbury Opera Theatre. Based on Michael Palin’s 1994 play, it has been adapted by composer Scott Stroman and librettist Tamsin Collison, and is directed by John Ramster, reuniting the team that put together Nick Hornby’s ‘Fever Pitch’ (2017). ‘The Weekend’ may be the first work in the operatic canon with a role for a podiatrist. Sebastian Scotney interviews Scott Stroman:

The whole company in socially-distanced rehearsal last December

LondonJazz News: What first alerted you to the potential of Michael Palin’s play to be made into a comic opera?

Scott Stroman: I’ve always admired Michael’s work, especially his writing, and while reading his Diaries I came across The Weekend. Though it had not been a huge commercial success, I thought there was a really strong story there that could be brought out through music. After mulling it over for a while, I mentioned it to Tamsin when we were working with Highbury Opera Theatre on Fever Pitch. She liked the idea, having heard the play on Radio 4 – not only that, but it turned out she had coincidentally been directing Michael’s recording of his Diaries for audiobooks and was in contact with him.

LJN: When you approached Michael Palin how did he react?

SS: He thought we were pulling his leg! But he came to see Fever Pitch, really liked it, and gave his approval, trusting his baby to us to develop it as we pleased.

LJN: Who are some of the characters and what is the situation at the start of the play?

SS: It’s based around a rather tetchy retired man, Stephen Febble (originally played by Richard Wilson, and sung for us by Adrian Thompson), and his long-suffering wife Ginny. Stephen just wants to get on with his own quiet weekend when he learns that his daughter Diana, son-in law Alan and teenage granddaughter Charlotte – plus their dog – are coming for the weekend. Ouch! On top of that, he’s forgotten that they are hosting the village garden party, he learns that his best friend Duff has betrayed him…and then there’s a randy podiatrist who winds him up. Fuelled by drink, all collides at the party.

LJN: It’s a comedy, and Michael Palin was one of the main writers of Monty Python. Are there perhaps echoes? 

SS: Echoes all over the place. It’s a black comedy, and the music tries to undermine the pretentiousness of the situation wherever possible. Michael compared what we did with a big chorus scene to what the Pythons did in the Lumberjack Song.

Stroman with the band

LJN: It sounds like a very different kind of work to Fever Pitch

SS: Totally different. It’s 80 minutes of through-composed and quite high-energy music that takes you on a ride. It’s hard to describe the sound: perhaps Kurt Weill or Bernstein’s music is a good reference, but there’s also Bartok, Bill Evans, Stravinsky and Strayhorn, with lots of atmospheric tango!

LJN: And tell us more about this “randy podiatrist”….

SS: He is key to the whole thing exploding into disaster. The charming Cleveland Watkiss swoons all the ladies while the party transforms into a macabre, gothic waltz, driving Stephen crazy. I wrote it during a sleepless night on a campsite in Devon and am really quite proud of it.

LJN: Highbury Opera Theatre brings together a community group and top-flight professionals, that must be quite a challenge?

SS: Yes, but it’s also a helpful focus for composing, and the payoff is sensational. They bounce off each other and it raises everyone’s game. It’s like winning the cup when you get to the end.

LJN: And the pandemic can’t have helped to say the least….

SS: Nothing stops you when you believe. We were delayed by a year, but we found imaginative ways to rehearse – and even slipped in a recording.

LJN: Who are some of the singers and musicians involved?

SS: Other than Cleveland [a jazz singer who has sung in Julian Joseph’s operas], the singers are all opera singers with a jazz vibe. I’ve written it – bespoke – for them, especially the big leading role for Adrian Thompson, who is also a fabulous actor. His wife Ginny is played by Kathy Taylor-Jones, daughter Diana by Joanna Harries, son-in-law Alan by Rob Gildon, and granddaughter by Rachel Maby. The chorus – who have a huge role in the piece – are mostly members of my choir Eclectic Voices.

We have a mixed instrumental ensemble: jazzers Josephine Davies and Mick Foster on saxes and winds, Noel Langley on trumpet, Martin Gladdish on trombone, Calum Gourley on bass and Chris Wells on drums and percussion. Then there’s Lucy Waterhouse (a tango specialist) and Nick Cooper on cello. The biggest responsibility falls to the guitar, and young Ralph Porrett has nailed it.

The Weekend is at Bloomsbury Theatre for four shows across three days: 25–27 September

LINK: Find out more and book tickets

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