In conversation with… James Penn

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki

I spoke to James Penn, who co-directs emerging chamber opera company BK Opera alongside creative partner Kate Millet, about all the things he has learnt over the three years of running the company and mounting productions.

BK Opera’s next show will be La Bohème, staged in a stripped back style in a pub, the Wesley Anne in Northcote.

November 12th, 16th, 21st at 8pm.

Check out the Facebook event here. Tickets from $18-$40, book them here.

[Find BK Opera’s website here, BK Opera’s Facebook page here]

Has it been interesting approaching the practice of conducting singers, as a singer yourself?

It has been a learning experience, as you sometimes encounter this duality, of singers trying to be helpful by wanting to do what you want as a conductor, but it can actually be unhelpful when they don’t tell you if something really works for their voice. So I’m trying to work out what’s comfortable for them, and sometimes they don’t know themselves what’s comfortable for them yet. So it comes down to that idea of an artist knowing themselves. You can find yourself in a situation where the singer directs the question back to you and says ‘Oh, no, what do you want?’ but it’s like, well I don’t want to ask you to do something ridiculous, I’m not going to ask you to sing a top D standing on your head. A reasonable request is one thing for me and another thing for someone else. People have different techniques.

Absolutely. So BK Opera is in its third year now, what prompted you to establish the company?

So BK Opera was established in 2016, by myself and my dear friend Kate Millett. Kate has a background in black box theatre and we met doing a small Gilbert and Sullivan production. We spoke about drama, about opera… I’m an opera snob and she’s a drama snob, and you know, we started talking and we became best friends. So a year after that, we decided, let’s do something. Let’s do a show. It started as let’s do a show, and I personally didn’t expect it to go past one show, which was Georges Bizet’s Carmen. But Carmen was successful and we got a lot of interest. And we’ve been going ever since.

So I guess what prompted us to start, was that I really like French opera, and I really wanted to conduct an opera in French. Basically, I just wanted to do something. And I was done waiting around for people to give me an opportunity.

And really it is a really difficult thing to put together because there are so many things involved. We just finished Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. So many things are involved in that. I think that’s been a difficult thing, how many things are involved behind the scenes. We had an electronic track playing the orchestral music. I engaged one of my friends, Kym Dillon to compose that arrangement. The things involved with liaising with him, and working with the software was like a whole orchestral rehearsal in itself… Working with the Hungarian language coaches, sorting the costumes, the social media and everything else, it became really difficult. But creating our own opportunities was the motivation behind it.

Promotional image for BK Opera’s ‘Adults Only Pirates of Penzance’, 2018

Wow. So the orchestral music was in the form of an electronic track?

So I had this crazy idea last year where I thought, well electronic music is not that different from symphonic music in terms of the textures and the way the textures play together. And with Bartók, the colours are so important, and so dense, and so ridiculous. And what is written on the page is not actually what you’re supposed to play because it’s based on Hungarian music, which you really can’t write down exactly with the notation that we have. So working with Logic and working with all the different layers effectively became the orchestral rehearsals. It was painstaking, but it was certainly rewarding.

So I can imagine the list of things you need to do for each production is exhaustive, from conceiving a show to actually staging it and promoting it. Can you give us a brief idea of how that process looks for you, perhaps using one show as an example?

So at the moment, it’s just my best friend Kate Millet and I that run it. So that becomes very time-intensive, from the conception to the last cut off of the show, and the bump out…

So the way we approach things, is we don’t say, oh we are doing this show, and then have people come out and audition for that particular show. ‘Build it and they will come’ doesn’t work! So we would hold general auditions and base the shows we do on the singers who come to us. We always have ideas floating around, but if we can’t cast it, it’s obviously not going to happen. For example, we wanted to do Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio for a while. We didn’t have the appropriate people audition so we didn’t do it, but we did end up being able to stage it last year.

Promotional images for BK Opera’s production of Abduction from the Seraglio, 2018

In 2017 we did Francis Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine. We’d had a lot of soprani audition for us that year. So I thought okay well, how do we work with that? I’d always loved Poulenc and I came across this opera La Voix Humaine, which is a one-woman opera. And I thought, we could split this role into four parts, because developing singers probably won’t have secure enough technique to be able to stand on stage for an hour and just deliver this really intense French text. So that’s what we did, we had the role shared by three sopranos and a mezzo-soprano. So the role darkened in colour as the opera progressed, and had all these different colours of soprani. So from a musical perspective that was how that started.

Coloratura soprano April Foster, who shared the leading lady role in La Voix Humaine, 2017

Also, the text was really difficult for that show. As a French speaker, I decided well, during the last weeks of the previous show, let’s just work through the text and really get it second nature. It’s not standard French lyric diction. It’s very much boozy and slang. It’s abbreviated and it’s quick and for it to be effective, it has to sound like the singer is fluent in the language. So it was about getting that text second nature. And because it was a very dramatic piece, getting the drama in their bodies. So that started before we did formal rehearsals.

Adelaide Soccio Greenaway, who shared the leading lady role in La Voix Humaine, 2017

[You can watch the full production on La Voix Humaine on YouTube, Part 1 is linked here, Part 2 linked here]

Lara Vocisano, who shared the leading lady role in La Voix Humaine, 2017

In terms of logistics, my best friend Kate books the venues, which usually happens quite early on. So we’ll decide on the shows, and then book the venues about six months in advance. Things do change, because as Terry Pratchett said, opera exists on a catastrophe curve; everything that can go wrong will go wrong. So you have to make sure things can’t go wrong. Getting those things really solidly in place early. I guess when singers have issues and can’t do the shows anymore and stuff like that, we deal with those situations as they come. Some things you can’t plan for, like someone dropping out of a show or not turning up to a Sitzprobe without any explanation.

Bethany Elosie, who shared the leading lady role in La Voix Humaine, 2017

But running BK Opera has really taught me how valuable preparation is, and how valuable practise is. Even being in situations where I haven’t been as prepared with projects for the company, and having to go oh, okay, I need to go home and look at this. As they say, preparation prevents piss-poor performance!

And it’s helped even my practice as a singer, having a different view on the music as a conductor and as a singer. It’s also taught me that having a good voice is not enough. Because there are so many incredible singers out there! And from singers coming to me as the conductor, it has forced me to go, oh, actually the singers I want to work with are the ones who put the work in, not necessarily the ones with the best voices.

You mentioned to me earlier that you have some thoughts on the importance of young classically-trained singers gaining an understanding of themselves as artists. It can be so hard for young singers because as you said, there is so much repertoire we aren’t ready to sing. How do you advise young singers get to know themselves and their abilities?

I was asked this recently. Because I always say this to people, and it’s a tragic thing that I have to say this, but you have to be discerning.  Because not everyone has your best interest at heart. This is something I wish I knew before I got out of uni, before I finished my postgraduate degree. At uni they were kind of saying, oh you’ll go and you’ll get this huge job after you get out of uni at the age of 22… I mean no. They’re selling a fantasy.

But yeah, not everyone has your best interests. And it’s not necessarily in a malicious sense. People just you know don’t know. You mentioned people learn by trial and error and I was asked recently, how do I practice discernment? How do I become discerning with people and how I say no to stuff? And I answered well, I’m still trying to find the answer to that.

Because I learnt it the hard way. Through going through things that weren’t the best thing for me. Having to then go back and go, all right, what is the best thing for me? I had to bring it back and just do my scales. Practice the tedious, seemingly rudimentary stuff. But doing that has really had a profound effect on my voice.

I think a lot of it is going through the stuff that isn’t good for you and just learning what that looks like, so in the future you can say no. I’ve been offered things before, where I’ve had to be like, nope, that’s too much for me. There was one thing when I was 24 years old. And I’m lucky I had that discernment but because some people just say, oh any opportunity is good. And then a singer says no and is called a diva. But once you know yourself and what you’re capable of, you can with confidence say no.

Promotional image for BK Opera’s ‘Adults Only Pirates of Penzance’, 2018

So why did you start the company BK Opera? What do you try to offer as an organisation, and what do you think makes you guys unique in this artistic space in Melbourne?

So over the three years that we’ve been in existence, we have offered bare-bones operas, mostly interpretations of French grand operas, that are socially responsible.

There are clearly some texts out there that have different views on things, like the place of women in society, how people get to treat each other, problematic views on race, etc. So what we try to do is be conscious of that. So for example with Carmen, it’s clearly about someone who falls in love with a woman and because she doesn’t love him back, he murders her. What we offered was a framing of that issue as ‘this is a bad thing’. This is rape culture. This is someone who murders a woman because she doesn’t love him. We try to be socially responsible.

Framing things like Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio. We completely changed the setting, as it was originally quite racist in nature. So we completely changed the setting and focused on a different theme that was in the text. The ideas of claustrophobia and being stuck and being emotionally abused by someone…

Promotional images for BK Opera’s production of Abduction from the Seraglio, 2018

So that’s dramatically what we offer. As a small company we wanted to add to and enrich the cultural landscape. I think my favourite show that we’ve done was in our second year of existence, Jules Massenet’s Werther. And instead of it being about dying for love, we explored the issue of mental illness.  

Additionally, the environment I’ve tried to create is a safe space for emerging artists. I mean, whatever your age. It’s not as if you have to be 19 to 26, and as soon as you’re 27 it’s like, goodbye! But a safe space to explore repertoire, knowing that it’s okay to make mistakes.

How do you find approaching the very valid process of not only refreshing or repositioning a text, but finding the parts in the text that you want to focus on? Basically working out how you want to represent something to a modern audience.

It’s about how you frame the issues in my view.

So for example, there’s an opera by Christoph Willibald Gluck called Armide. And it’s about how there’s a sorceress who wants to fall in love with a crusader. She gives him a love potion and basically drugs him. It’s very awkward but my opinion is, it shouldn’t be that you don’t present something… You should frame that event as an issue of assault and present it that way. It’s about finding stuff in the text that you can present that is valid. And I suppose, not contriving it or transforming it into something random or shocking.

Because these are still valid issues. I mean Werther, there’s a valid issue of depression and in La Traviata there’s a valid issue of how people demonize sex workers and in La Voix Humaine, she kills herself with sleeping pills. It’s a still contemporary issue.

So not shying away or downplaying the problematic aspects of the text, but challenging them, and very openly framing the issue for what it is.

So in your opinion, who are some composers who are overlooked in the staging of opera in Australia? Even perhaps some composers who you think are overrated…

Oh yes, I have lots!

So there’s this French composer who changed his name to Ernest Reyer, who wrote an opera which has the same story as Wagner’s Siegfried, but sung in French and called Sigurd.  A lot of singers when they approached the Paris Opera say, oh I sing both Brünhildes! I think that opera has had not enough attention. [A YouTube clip of the opera can be found here]

I think La Juive by Fromental Halévy doesn’t get a lot of attention. It’s actually being done by Opera Australia next year. A Jewish composer writing during quite an anti-Semitic time…

I think Mozart gets too much attention. I really don’t get it. When Mozart was writing Così fan tutte, ‘All women are like that’, and during the same era, Gluck was writing something about the issues of sexual assault… I don’t get it. I don’t understand it.

There was an opera that I think was only performed once, by Josef Canteloube. Canteloube transcribed a lot of French folk music and he wrote an opera about Vercingetorix, a Gallic war chief…. I think it was only ever performed once in the 1930s. There’s a clip of it on YouTube with Georges Thill singing it in the presence of the composer.

There was a church composer around the same time as Pietro Mascagni and Giacomo Puccini, Lorenzo Perosi. The three of them were actually great friends. He was part of the giovane scuola school of composers, with figures such as Puccini, Mascagni, Umberto Giordano….

The verismo school of opera. They all composed opera, but Perosi didn’t, because he was the conductor of the Sistine Choir in Rome and he composed almost exclusively Roman Catholic Church music. He was also severely mentally unwell. He suffered severe psychosis and was in and out of institutions. Puccini and Mascagni actually said “There is more music in his head than all of us combined”. His last oratorio was about judgment day and it was very dark. I don’t know if it’s out of copyright yet, and it’s not really done outside of the church, to be honest no one really knows him even in the church. Now people do Giovanni Palestrina. People tend to see Perosi as old-fashioned.

He was like an operatic composer who didn’t compose opera. He was mental, but fascinating. On YouTube there is a full performance with him at the podium conducting, and the person singing Jesus is Beniamino Gigli, the famous tenor, and they were really great friends. So this really famous, great singer was premiering the works in Rome. So I think that’s really great we have that on record. I show it to people and they go, oh that’s so old-fashioned and over the top!

Ah but what isn’t in opera, after all!

Exactly. So yeah, I think Mozart is overrated, Gluck is underdone… It’s just interesting that in Così there are all these caricatures of women and then in Iphigénie en Aulide (by Gluck) there’s a tormented Greek princess who has to kill her brother. Nothing to do with sex or love in that.



BK Opera’s next show will be La Bohème, staged in a stripped back style in a pub, the Wesley Anne in Northcote.

November 12th, 16th, 21st at 8pm.

Check out the Facebook event here. Tickets from $18-$40, book them here.



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