A Digital Pint with… One of the people bringing Opera’s forgotten working musician back to life through drama and song, Mike Wells

A Digital Pint with… One of the people bringing Opera’s forgotten working musician back to life through drama and song, Mike Wells

Opera on Binge Fringe? I need a pint for that… Today we’re joined in the Binge Fringe pub by Mike Wells of Magic Hour Theatre, the co-writer and director of The Maestro at Brighton Fringe this year. Alongside Duncan Hopper, Mike has put a light to a forgotten voice of opera.

The creative team behind The Maestro are aiming to create a mixed-media show, blending drama and operatic performance in order to capture the essence of Gaetano Donizetti. Donizetti wrote over seventy operas over his life time and we’re here to share a pixelated pint with Mike. Hopefully, we can find out why Donizetti’s story is being revived in this performance.

Jake: So Mike, how did you set about getting involved in The Maestro?

Mike: I’ve been in theatre, amateur and professional, for years and years but I’m really a historian. I was interested in this because I’ve written about the background in Italy in the 19th Century. I have actually also directed an opera by Donizetti.

It never occurred to me to find out much about him! I’d worked with Duncan Hopper on a number of his plays. We turned a conspiracy theory about Marilyn Monroe being kidnapped by the Kennedys into a musical. It was mad.

Duncan’s wife comes from Bergamo in Italy, she was born only a few houses down from where Donizetti was born in a famous house with no windows!

We’ve developed a play now which is mixed media. It is still a play, it’s got a lot of recorded music and nine live arias. So, putting that together has kept us sane during lockdown!

Jake: I was interested about the arias – in my very limited understanding of operas those are very personal, expressive moments for the characters. How did that affect your approach to integrating them into the play?

Mike: In an opera, everything stands still. When you go to a play everything moves forward and you have to get used to that other structure.

What we’ve done with The Maestro is taken a scene with a particular emotion and then to try and match a Donazetti aria which most reflects that emotion.

At the start of the play Donazetti is looking back at the time of his early marriage and first artistic success, Anna Bolena, so we took an aria where Anna looks back on the happiest times of her life. The two things link up – there’s the emotion of the aria and the emotion of the moment.

That goes across all the emotive moments in the play, towards the end when he’s suffering with illness as well, but it’s not all doom and gloom! Donazetti had a very happy creative life alongside his troubled personal life and we hope that what we’ve done is boosted the play with the emotions by giving it the context of the aria.

Jake: I think that nuance is important – when you’re putting together a biopic-style story it can be very easy to fall into a repetitive structure of ‘rise and fall’. Life doesn’t follow that as clear-cut.

Mike: It’s important to say here that we have avoided doing a biopic because we thought, who would be interested? When I’m reading about people’s early lives I get bored stiff! Who cares?

We’ve started at the end – where he’s in a really tragic place in his life. We’ve gone backwards, then we go backwards and forwards. We wanted to capture the essence of what Donazetti’s music is – a sort of mixture of the tragic and the comic.

There’s a convention – a bit like in Macbeth with the Porter – where people wonder about the comic scene in the middle of Macbeth but it kind of offsets it. Comic operas work the same, the music is far too serious for the occasion, but that was Donazetti’s life!

Jake: And how did it feel delving into the darker, personal tragedies of Donazetti? Of course, he lost his children and his wife… It must have been a unique experience to learn that as someone who has directed his work previously.

Mike: To speak the truth, I felt a bit guilty. We spent months doing this opera back in the seventies and I just wonder now why I didn’t take the trouble to find out a bit more about him.

There’s an opera called Maria de Rudenz about a dead woman who comes back to life… You think that’s a bit strange. His wife died after his big successes and you wonder how much his mind starts to leak into the music.

There’s been no biography or serious study of Donazetti for about forty years – all of which are out of print. I had to have my copy specially printed! You can buy loads of biographies about other composers, what’s happened to Donazetti? Have we lost interest in him or maybe it’s too grim? We loved the music, we thought we’d take it from there.

Jake: And did you reach a conclusion as to why his life story isn’t as popularised as his contemporaries?

Mike: It’s odd, sometimes it seems random that certain life stories are well known. Did people really know much about Mozart before Amadeus? I don’t know! Wagner was such an egomanic, he wrote all of these fictitious memoirs. Mozart was the sublime musician who died in poverty. Beethoven’s deaf so we pick up from there. Verdi is a national icon, representing Italian unity.

Donazetti was a working musician. He wrote seventy operas, nearly all produced.  Some went completely off the map until they were picked up by festivals in Italian towns where they revive these obscure operas. By the time of his death, he was one of the world’s most famous composers, fifty years later, he was known for three or four works.

Jake: So how are you hoping to introduce Donazetti to people who are unaware of his work or that might be outside of the traditional base of opera fans?

Mike: I hope people will be attracted by the whole idea of a mixture of drama and live operatic singing which is not too common.

When this music is contextualised, you’d have to have a heart of stone to not be moved by some of it, I think.

This is a very accessible play. It’s not a question of the audience sitting through obscure music, it’s all very direct and emotional. The arias are strongly linked back to his life.

For our actors, it’s been a learning experience. Our Opera Singer mostly worked with Puccini’s music and has now learnt nine of Donazetti’s arias which she will perform as a recitalist.

Jake: So you’re doing a bit of praxis as well as performing here too, by adding exposure to Donazetti’s work through recital?

Mike:  It says a lot that people who love opera are still amazed by the fact Donazetti wrote seventy of them. These operas might not be on everyone’s wish list to go and see, but when they hear the arias they think wow, that’s beautiful!

I guess now we will have to wait and see what the audience thinks and what direction the show takes.

The Maestro was written for people to be in close contact with the actors, in a beautiful atmosphere. The venues are part of the pleasure of the experience.

I think that The Maestro is going to be a highly accessible piece of drama. It’s not just for specialists, it’s not even particularly high brow. Operas weren’t written for elite audiences, they were much more like modern musicals. This show is quite vivid, and I guess there’s nothing more to say than book now to avoid disappointment, really!

The Maestro will perform across three venues at Brighton Fringe this year on the 7th, 19th-21st and 28th May respectively. Tickets are available through the Brighton Fringe Box Office.

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