Jennifer Condon Records Sappho

by Dr Richard Letts. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 19 Issue 1 (November 2012)

Richard Letts: Were you able to make the recording and if so, when and where and with what orchestra?

Jennifer Condon: Absolutely! Our small but dedicated team flew into Lisbon in the first few days of July. Australian soprano and language coach Eilene Hannan, currently based in the UK and France, set immediately to work with the singers as they arrived – working to achieve homogenous sung English from an a array of accents. Hamburg based repetiteur Moshe Landsberg willingly chained himself to the piano when not in the sound box. Australian composer Paul Castles, acting as our orchestral librarian, didn’t leave the sound box at all and PA extraordinaire Ellen Ehrhardt made sure everyone was in the right place at the right time.

July 1 – 9 was spent rehearsing with the singers before recording started on July 10. By lunchtime on Saturday July 21, we had finished the recording. Of that time, there were 10 three hour rehearsal sessions and 10 three hour recording sessions with the Orquestra Gulbenkian. The Coro Gulbenkian joined us for 5 sessions.

RL: And who were the singers and did you conduct?

JC: There were some last minute cast changes, as is very often the case with opera productions, but an incredible cast of 10 singers flew into Lisbon to undertake the recording. Deborah Polaski, Martin Homrich, Scott MacAllister, Roman Trekel, Wolfgang Koch and John Tomlinson sang the 6 major roles, with smaller roles taken by Jacquelyn Wagner, Bettina Jensen, Maria Markina and Laurence Meikle. Many of the cast had other engagements during the three week period of rehearsals and recording, so the scheduling was extremely complicated. The final recording schedule took about 9 days to organise. In comparison to the years of preparation for the recording, simply conducting it was an almost relaxing experience. Well, maybe not quite relaxing, but I certainly had a lot of fun.

Jennifer Condon conducting the recording of SapphoRL: So at last, you have heard in reality what had up till then been sounds that were only in your mind. What was that like? Were there any surprises?

JC: I had heard the orchestral score twelve months earlier during the trial day with the orchestra, but the addition of the voices was incredibly exciting. The characters I had lived with on the page for the past decade suddenly came to life and the drama developed. Sappho’s maids (Jacquelyn, Bettina and Maria) instantly began to vie for status – the playful rivalry comes across clearly on the recording (and continued off-stage at times...) Diomedes shame and subsequent suicide is exquisitely coloured by Roman and John’s expression of horror is utterly convincing as Kreon realises he may have married his lost daughter. The orchestral textures support the drama perfectly.

RL: And what did other people think? The singers? The orchestra?

JC: I was thrilled with the feedback from the musicians. One double bass player had picked out all the character motives by the end of the first week. This is particularly interesting, because the double bass section rarely plays these motives – she was taking in the whole opera whilst playing. The solo woodwind parts are especially challenging and their appreciation of the score is evident in the beautiful work of these players.

Paul Castles claims to have learnt a lot about orchestration from working on the scores – elements that didn’t look impressive on the page were remarkably effective when played. As they were only in Lisbon for the recording of their one scene, the ‘Maids’ are still convinced that the entire piece is a comedy. But the comment I most appreciated came from John Tomlinson on the first day with the orchestra. He recalled that I had begged him not to judge the work just by looking at the piano score, which is hopelessly inadequate to convey the colours of the opera, and said how glad he was to have had such a warning. This was particularly gratifying, as I have long been convinced that the lack of colour in the piano score is the reason Sappho has been neglected for so many years.

RL: What is your plan for the recording?

JC: The recording will be released by Toccata Classics (a UK label) in November this year, well ahead of the December 29 deadline I have been so determined to meet. (December 29 would have been Peggy’s 100th birthday.) It will be available internationally in shops and online, and we are all hoping that this wonderful opera will finally have the recognition it deserves. I personally plan to send the recording to opera houses, to further the future of the work, and to agents, in the hope that someone has room on their books for a young and very determined opera conductor!

Other than that, I think Sappho might have appeal beyond the usual opera audience. It is not long (just over 2 hours) and the drama is well paced. The music is modern, yet easy to listen to. The text is beautiful and the issues relevant to all societies. The characters are well drawn human portraits and easy to relate to.

I am vehemently against the dumbing down of opera (or any classical art form) to appeal to the masses. I believe that the product should remain in its original form musically and the marketing and directorial strategies updated to attract audiences. Perhaps Sappho is a piece that can prove to have popular appeal in an unadulterated form, even though this form calls for middle-aged singers who are not required to be any particular size or shape. If Sappho can counter ‘current fashion’ in this respect, I’ll be overjoyed.

RL: You had visions of live productions in a few countries around the world. I imagine having the recording may be helping to clinch some deals. What prospects can you talk about right now?

JC: I’m not yet able to name names, but several companies and directors have requested scores and CDs as soon as the recording has been released. Some are opportunities I have actively pursued, but others have simply expressed interest via the website email address. Quite a number of singers have asked to be considered for stage performances, some even facilitating introductions to opera company managers. I have sent scores to nearly all of my dream Australian cast and all would like to participate in an Australian premiere, schedules permitting. There has been so much interest even prior to the recording, that I am confident that Sappho will reach the stage in several countries in the next few years.

Richard Letts is the Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia