Q & A: Gerald Finley & Susan Bullock on Theatre of Sound’s ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Sim Canetty Clarke/ Christina Raphaelle)

Gerald Finley and Susan Bullock are two world-class artists who have performed at all the major opera stages the world over.

Collectively, they have appeared at The Metropolitan Opera, the English National Opera, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Wiener Staatsoper, Canadian Opera Company, Carnegie Hall, Opera North, La Scala, Sydney Opera, La Monnaie, Berlin Staatsoper, and the Teatro Colón, to name but a few.

But they are also champions of unique new initiatives in the opera world and that brings us to their latest project – a production of “Bluebeard’s Castle” with brand new company Theatre of Sound.

The organization is founded by Daisy Evans and Stephen Higgins and is set to launch on Nov. 4 with the Bartók opera. The work, which will be presented in co-production with Opera Ventures, will tell the story of the opera through the lens of a family living with dementia.

OperaWire had an opportunity to speak with Finley and Bullock about taking on this famed opera with this new company.

OperaWire:  What does it feel like to be the first to perform with Theatre of Sound?

Gerald Finley: It is really exciting to be part of the birth of a new performing company. The challenge we all have is to bring our ideas and commitment to excellence and produce a type of musical experience that can be identified as powerful, innovative and accessible.

Susan Bullock: It is a privilege to be involved with the birth of a new company, and especially to be working with such good friends. It is always exciting to be part of something new and innovative, never more so than now, following on from such a difficult two years for our profession

OW: How is this company different from others with which you have performed?

GF: Theatre of Sound offers a chance to be part of a streamlined operation, using the best talent in every area, but where individual inspiration is valued above all. The small scale allows ideas to flow and be implemented easily. It is the real meaning of a small hard-working group producing important and high-standard events.

SB: Theatre of Sound was born out of the desire for everyone involved to make exciting new work and to look at a piece with new eyes, to use smaller, more intimate forces, and to retell a story in interesting venues. It is a very collaborative experience.

OW: Tell me about working on this new production of “Bluebeard’s Castle” and reimagining it through the eyes of a family living with dementia, as opposed to a more fantastical story?

GF: I am dazzled by the ideas involved in this version. It speaks so directly to the current search for compassion and understanding how dementia cuts through people’s lives with devastating effects. It affects the expectations of everyone, demands that we seek assistance as we experience the loss of the character of those we love. Bartok’s music and libretto reveal a huge source of emotion and the grasp of the confusion of the circumstances. The view is angled so that the ‘nightmare fairytale’ is actually being experienced by the characters in their real life. I am astounded by its relevance and accuracy and Bartok’s music becomes re-ignited in this context.

SB: This version of Bluebeard certainly brings us into the present day with quite a jolt. Dementia is very present in our lives and many of the people who will see this production will have some experience of family members or friends who have had dementia and what caring for them entails. The story really lends itself to this concept and I think it will be incredibly moving.

OW: This will be an intimate chamber reading. How does it differ from singing the work in a bigger and more grand setting?

GF: The chamber arrangement by Stephen Higgins (Theatre of Sound co-founder) captures the power and breadth of the sound world as might be experienced by someone living with dementia. All of Bartok’s notes remain, but the “voice” of the ensemble although muted still maintains the color palate. This score in its original form is a vast palate of color, but Stephen has skillfully maintained the highlights and shades of the music, whilst allowing the intimacy to be believable and powerful.

SB: This is my first Judith so I have no experience of singing it with the full power of a huge orchestra behind me. We did a workshop in the spring using the smaller orchestral forces that our version employs, and it was surprising that even with so few instruments, the range and colors that are available to us are huge. It doesn’t lose impact or power and the intimacy works well with the dramatic ideas.

OW: As you reinterpret the opera, what are some elements of the character of Bluebeard/Judith you are discovering and what are some elements that you have brought over from past productions you have done?

GF: My role of Bluebeard is very elusive. In the first part, he speaks very seldom, and this has been seen in large-scale productions as showing his character of subterfuge and deception. In this version, the single words and hesitancy show it is a struggle for him to ask the correct questions to enable even a simple conversation. Later in the opera, he sings passionately of his love. This is the same whether in this or other versions. It is impressive in the original version, but it is heartbreaking in this version.

SB: I can’t really answer this regarding previous productions as it is my first time in the role, but what I have found in preparing it is that Judith is a strong, complex person, she needs to know what has happened and is happening at the castle and she is persistent in her quest to discover this information. She has a wide dramatic and vocal range, from gentle lyricism to becoming almost hysterical and very dramatic.

OW: What are the biggest challenges of Bartok’s music?

GF: The music is difficult only in that there is occasionally no audible beat, so you need to count in your head. It is a rich soundscape, and it is easy to get carried away. That is remedied completely by performing in a chamber version!

SB: I find his constant changes of rhythm and time signatures a challenge. His harmonies are complex and intense and that means that occasionally plucking the pitches out of these colors is tricky! It is a bit like doing maths at first as far as the rhythm goes, but in time it becomes more natural.

OW: Theatre of Sound is also collaborating with Live Music Now and London Sinfonietta in a complementary creative participation program called “Judith’s Castle.” What does it mean to you both to be involved with a company that is doing work like this?

GF: It means so much to be involved in actively connecting with groups that need support and
exposure. It’s a privilege to be part of raising awareness and supporting outreach.

SB: It is wonderful that we are able to collaborate with these organizations and that we will highlight their work and they will highlight ours, and hopefully in that way we will bring the subject of dementia and the challenges it presents to as wide an audience as possible.

OW: The opera world has changed since the pandemic. What do you think this company can do to differentiate itself but also bring a new audience?

GF: It has already broken the bond of a large performance space. Now it can proceed to make great opera relevant to those who might least expect its power to heal and touch the soul.

SB: We will be performing in a very up close and personal way which is of course a complete contrast to being in a big theatre. The audience will feel very near to us and will hopefully get a much more direct experience. The space we are using is again unconventional. I think that post-pandemic, we all need to reassess what we do and how we present it, and not be tempted to fall back into old habits which do not necessarily always work. Reinvention is the name of the game!

OW: What are you looking forward to most when this production opens later this week?

GF: The simple task of sharing this extraordinary music and allowing the audience an experience that may reflect circumstances that are real and in everyday lives.

SB: I am looking forward to exploring a new composer, a new role, a new concept a new space and to seeing what the reaction of the audience will be!


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