The King’s Head Theatre enters its final weeks in the current space and has chosen Tosca for its last opera. Daniel Perks explores director Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s relationship with Puccini:

The King’s Head Theatre has opened its last ever opera in its current venue. The oldest pub theatre is to relocate to a new, purpose-built space next door as part of the Islington Square development. Tosca, directed by Artistic Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher, contains a rewritten libretto by soprano Becca Marriott that pairs back the cast to just four. Not only that, but we fast-forward 144 years to the middle of World War 2, in an updating from the original setting of Rome under threat of invasion by Napoleon’s forces.

I caught up with Adam in the final days of rehearsal to discuss the final part of a Puccini trilogy before the King’s Head relocates:

Adam: I’m surrounded by a really talented group of performers and creatives. It’s nice to work with people that I’ve worked with before – the Musical Director [Panaretos Kyriatzidis] – but it’s really great to work with new people too, such as the Lighting Designer, Movement Director and a couple of cast members. We’ve discovered a major talent in Roger Paterson [playing Cavaradossi on selected dates] and working again with Becca Marriott [playing Tosca on selected dates] is wonderful.

Adam Spreadbury-Maher

This will be the last in a trilogy of Puccini works. What is it about this composer that so inspires you?

Adam: I opened my first opera company [OperaUpClose] with a Puccini, La Bohème, back in 2009, which went on to win the 2011 Olivier Award. It was all part of a larger story in developing a new form of opera – studio opera. There were examples of people doing opera in small spaces before, but this was the first time it was being done so unapologetically.

I didn’t realise I was doing anything special until people turned around and said that it was an artistic revolution – you don’t start out thinking that because it’s too self-aware. I had just come to the UK from Australia and was genuinely surprised; people like Peter Brook and Dan Crawford [founder of the King’s Head Theatre in 1970] brought theatre out from under the proscenium arch in the 1950s. So, to think that opera had to wait under 60 years…

I want to be it one complete experience with all the theatrical elements

Has momentum for this form of studio opera picked up since 2010, when it first started?

Adam: It’s definitely changed. When I led OperaUpClose into the King’s Head Theatre, we produced a lot of opera very quickly because we had to prove we were growing and keep the building open – we were venue based. Now, with Robin Norton-Hale as Artistic Director, OperaUpClose have spread their wings and become a touring company. It’s left a gap in the market for me to do what I’m passionate about, which is make studio opera without the burning desire to expand it into a bigger space.

Nowadays, we at the King’s Head make opera very differently. We don’t start with two casts in rehearsals – I find that we get a much higher quality of work if we make the opera with one cast, which I direct. For Tosca, Associate Director Helena Jackson has another cast who will only start rehearsals after we open. They’re able to rehearse on the set, use everything available.

One of the reasons why the King’s Head Theatre is a charity is that we are passionate about working with early career artists in this way. A lot of rehearsals are taken up with developing a shared language, getting on the same page before we can move forward.

I like to make opera in the same way I make theatre – with honesty and authenticity. It’s how I was trained as a director by a group of people who were schooled in the 1960s at The Royal Court, so I don’t see any difference. My process it to help the singers understand that they have to always know what they’re doing and ultimately what it means to be a human being.

Adam’s methods are clear when watching even a brief snippet of Tosca‘s rehearsal process. Instantly, the characters start to explore motivations, dig beneath the libretto and rationalise the reasoning behind each action. It’s unusual to see this level of attention paid to the theatrical aspect of opera, rather than the vocal score or the orchestration.

How different are the experiences of the two casts using this method?

Adam: There is a different experience because it’s a new libretto, an English version. My cast spend a lot of time initially ironing that out, whereas Helena’s cast will get the final libretto. My cast are still working with the design too, so there’s pros and cons to both.

The difference between the two casts on Tosca is chemistry – there’s no quality difference at all. It’s very much about getting the romance between the leads right, which is very difficult. The audience have to buy from a metre away that they’ve shagged earlier that morning and want to shag again right now.

Being daunted and invigorated are so interchangeable – I’m not sure I can have one without the other

This libretto also transports us forward 144 years, from Napoleonic invasion through to the middle of World War 2. Does this transition shift the atmosphere?

Adam: Absolutely. Many productions of Tosca feel romantic because the events were so long ago. But Puccini would have written it to be the equivalent of what we’re doing now, as the events are fresher in people’s minds. Here we talk about the Holocaust within World War 2 because it’s part of our living history and that does have a much stronger relevance to it.

This version of Tosca is meant to be risky; it’s meant to be audacious; it’s meant to reveal something about the piece that you didn’t already know; it’s meant to make you understand the drama and the music more clearly. It’s not meant to be safe and traditional.

The balance in Act 1 is particularly important – this act can be light and funny because it’s respite before what happens in Act 2. That will be really interesting to navigate in the previews. I treat previews like rehearsals where we add the last character in the play, the audience, to see how we can achieve that balance.

Becca Marriott

How important is it to have live music within opera, rather than a recorded track?

Adam: I’ve never worked with pre-recorded music. We are using a trio of performers in Tosca, but it’s not an orchestral reduction. We choose the key musical ideas, the key themes and associated dramaturgy.

It’s honest and raw – that’s what studio opera is about

 

Not only is this last in a Puccini trilogy, but the last opera in the current King’s Head Theatre space.

Adam: I’m not thinking about Tosca being the last opera, I’m thinking about what are we going to do next. It’s about challenging myself as an artistic director – how are we going to articulate work in our new spaces; how are we going to make opera in the 90-seat versus the 250-seat studios.

I’m really excited about what new composition we are going to do; what rare work we are going to do; how the trainee directors are going to tackle works in the studio space; how outside companies that are passionate about doing new opera in small spaces going to engage; how are we going to take the audience on a new journey; what work can we do for diversity in opera.

These are all exciting things that I’m thinking about, as well as there being a feeling of nostalgia.

I like to go down to the site, stand where the stages will be, close my eyes and look up. I can hear the people applauding the first performance – if it ever gets too much, I think about that because that’s what we’re going for. As long as we focus our principles and decisions on that moment, then we will attract everything else.

 

From a new King’s Head Theatre space to work moving on to the West End. How does you feel about La Bohème moving to Trafalgar Studios?

Adam: Amazing, I don’t remember Trafalgar Studios having any opera before. The King’s Head Theatre is known for doing opera, audiences love to come and see it there. La Bohème is a great opportunity to see a first opera – I suspect there’s an audience at Trafalgar Studios that haven’t engaged with this work before, so it means engaging more people with the form.

 

To read more about Tosca, which plays the King’s Head Theatre until 28 October 2017, follow the theatre on Twitter (@KingsHeadThtr) or visit the theatre website – www.kingsheadtheatre.com

Follow the link to an interview with Adam on Coming Clean, which opened the King’s Head Theatre Queer Season 2017.