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The dangerous legacy of Monty Python

Axe-wielding energy and fun - but also darkness - as portrayed by the English Touring Opera

There is a whole generation in Britain for whom any mention of lumberjacks inevitably brings to mind that Python ditty “I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK...” This possibility certainly didn’t occur to WH Auden and Benjamin Britten when they wrote Paul Bunyan in 1941, but it certainly did to your correspondent when a small party from the Company visited rehearsals of the English Touring Opera in January as guests of Noorzaman Rashid.

Paul Bunyan is a lumberjack figure in American folklore and the opera is part of ETO’s programme in this centenary of Britten’s birth. It has a large cast and we entered a rehearsal space with not only 20 on stage, but also a director, musical director, répétiteur (who plays the piano during rehearsals), and assorted others. The director then spent about 20 minutes giving instructions for various stage moves, unintelligible to me but all the cast seemed to understand what was expected of them. And then a run through, with plenty of axe swinging and I’m sure homage to Monty Python. (Perhaps they need a large cast to allow for possible axe-swinging fatalities during their tour.) But it all went well; and based on this short excerpt, the opera will be great fun to see.

Then onto something a lot darker: King Priam where the music and libretto is by Michael Tippett. Here there were only three singers, répétiteur, musical director and the director, James Conway. James is artistic director and chief executive of ETO and he turned what could have been for me a difficult experience (sorry, I’m no fan of Tippett!) into a fascinating one. He told us what we were seeing and then put the whole opera into context. He definitely sold it to me!

Management consultants are by nature stimulus junkies; we love to explore new organisations and sectors. So what struck me about this experience? Firstly, it’s the logistical challenge to make this all happen. Look at the programme and you’ll see what I mean. And there’s the talent of those involved – some singers are performing in more than one of the operas.

The rehearsal space is in a warehouse to the east of Borough station. Different areas have been soundproofed with mattresses and blankets and it does have an improvised air. Rehearsals stopped at 5.30! I thought the artistic process knows no time limits, but opera is also a job of work. The heroes and heroines we see on stage are also like us: they commute, they have families.

But put them on stage with the English Touring Opera and magic is created. Click here for the King Priam Libretto

Calvert Markham