Transforming Communities

From singing actress to Chekhovian opera director

Alumnus Sally Burgess writes for The Independent on Friday, 30 July 2010

"The transition from opera singer to director has been an emotional rollercoaster – often thrilling and frightening at the same time. A reputation as a singing actress and natural stage animal has stood me in good stead, but nothing can really prepare you to be a director of opera better than actually doing it.

"Having been a committed supporter of Bill Bankes-Jones's Tête à Tête Opera for years, he was the first person I went to see for advice. "Well," he said, "I think you should come and direct something for our Opera Festival." And so I did last summer – baptism by fire ! More learning happened with my production of Cosi for English Chamber Opera last autumn, and now I have what feels like the perfect team for a new opera, Sonya's Story, with Neal Thornton (composer and MD) and Charles Phu (designer). We are all aiming for the same thing. I had the same feeling during rehearsals for that famous Bluebeard's Castle for ENO in the 1990's, directed by David Alden, conducted by Mark Elder – a rare and wonderful thing when all involved pull together.

"Sonya's Story began life as Sonya's Song, written for me by Neal 13 years ago – we performed it often and audiences loved it and were curious. It is now half an opera – the other half, Yelena's Story, is cooking. The process feels good. Every risk we've taken has miraculously/magically worked out. We've found – at very short notice – terrific singers and a dancer, top players for our band conducted by Lionel Friend, and support from generous sponsors, friends and colleagues. And, best of all, an opera with beautiful music. Manifesting an opera – who ever heard of that! – but it seems to be my reality.

"Sonya's Story is an operatic setting of text from Chekhov's heartbreakingly poignant and often witty play Uncle Vanya. It's a new interpretation seen from Sonya's point of view covering what happens during one fateful summer. Sonya's humdrum life is turned upside down when she become infatuated with Doctor Astrov, who now visits their house daily since he has fallen for Sonya's attractive stepmother. Everyone's lives change as a result of this".

Sally Burgess giving a masterclass for current LMN singers in November 2009.

A group of people in a recording studio, singing and clapping hands

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