thu 13/06/2024

First Person(s): soprano Susan Bullock and baritone William Dazeley on filming Britten’s Owen Wingrave | reviews, news & interviews

First Person(s): soprano Susan Bullock and baritone William Dazeley on filming Britten’s Owen Wingrave

First Person(s): soprano Susan Bullock and baritone William Dazeley on filming Britten’s Owen Wingrave

Grange Park Opera makes the most of Covid restrictions by producing a TV opera

Susan Bullock as Miss Wingrave and William Dazeley as Spencer CoyleGrange Park Opera

Two of the singers in an ambitious project to film Britten’s opera based on a Henry James story – part timeless tale of repressive tradition which chimed with the composer's pacifist beliefs, part ghost story – which was originally “made for television” and premiered on the BBC, give their impressions close to the time of fil


William Dazeley

It began with an email under the heading “another crap job!” It involved traipsing around town, trawling through charity shop clothes rails in search of a slightly shabby, well-loved jacket. Then came two highly unusual costume fittings, one in a car park in Lewes with executive director Bernard Davies, who lives close to me – nothing fitted, dammit – and one at the side of the road with the director, Stephen Medcalf, at a point roughly equidistant from our respective homes – we weren’t allowed in the car park of Nymans as we hadn’t booked our visit. Luckily, Stephen’s 1990s Paul Smith navy suit fitted perfectly ... and no police cars came by whilst my trousers were round my ankles.

Twenty-five years after playing Owen Wingrave on stage at Glyndebourne I had been asked to play Mr Coyle, Owen’s teacher, in a new film of Britten’s opera, produced by the ever adventurous Grange Park Opera. I was initially hesitant. But Wasfi Kani sold it to me by promising a scene with Janis Kelly in the bath. Little did I know that this particular scene would turn out to be a bubble bath nightmare; how on earth to maintain sufficient bubbliness to preserve Janis’ dignity and keep the continuity police happy during a long, soggy, late night shoot? [pictured below: Kelly and Dazeley as the Coyles and Kitty Whately as Kate Julian] Kelly, Dazeley and Whately in 'Owen Wingrave'This was very definitely a voyage of discovery for all of us and the challenges were many.

I’m told that under normal circumstances you’d be lucky to get five minutes of final product from a single day’s shoot. We were attempting to achieve around 25 minutes’ worth, all the time dealing with various hounds wandering onto set, problems with camera equipment, keeping the director out of the shot and trying to master the art of lip syncing.

Nobody teaches you how to lip sync at music college. It’s a lot harder than it seems. To begin with, we filmed some scenes singing “live” (to the pre-recorded "orchestral" accompaniment). But inevitably, when reshooting scenes from different camera angles, lip syncing is required. Endeavouring to mouth the words with precisely the right timing, energy and commitment to be convincing, whilst trying to replicate exactly the performance from the previous take, which had in any case been improvised – was my jacket unbuttoned? did I have my left hand in my pocket? – was enough to make my head spin. As weariness took hold on day four my ventriloquist talents came to the fore as I miraculously sang much of my part without even moving my lips. No time for retakes by then!

Then there is the vexed issue of “free” bars, where the orchestra – in this case piano with percussion – either sustains a chord or plays a repeated motif for as long as needed while the singer sings a sometimes quite extended phrase in their own tempo.

The evolving process stumbled, stuttered and, every so often purred, along during the four days we spent at incredible locations provided by extraordinarily generous hosts with glorious gardens in wonderful weather. I was given the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and colleagues and make new ones in a time when such precious things have rarely been possible...and we were able to create something special, I hope.

This was an insanely ambitious project. The editing is yet to begin at th time of writing. This cinematic adventure was a frustrating, infuriating, terrifying, thrilling, exhausting and emotional experience, requiring enormous levels of patience and professionalism, qualities displayed in abundance by this this superbly talented team. I feel very lucky indeed to have been a part of it.

Not such a crap job after all.

Ross Rambgobin as Owen WingraveRoss Ramgobin as Owen Wingrave

Susan Bullock

The past week has been an exciting learning curve for a group of British based opera singers as we have been filming Britten’s Owen Wingrave on location in Surrey and Highgate for Grange Park Opera.

For us singers, the process of filming an opera in small chunks has been really challenging as we are not used to this way of working. The combination of singing live and lip syncing to pre recorded sections such as the famous “Scruples” ensemble which closes Act One at first proved a little tricky, but the huge benefit in recording the audio first and then lip syncing meant that we could repeat a section endlessly without getting vocally exhausted.

We don’t have an orchestra but instead a pre-recorded piano, percussion and trumpet track which was recorded in a studio after we had all discussed our tempi with the conductor James Henshaw. It was important to plan in advance where we needed time to breathe or where we were going to be allowed to take time over a particular phrase because once the track was recorded, we had no room for manoeuvre.

When we arrived on set, we did numerous takes of each scene so that different camera angles could be employed and we have all had a taste of hanging about on set “waiting for our close-up “which required considerable patience as sometimes there could be hours between takes. Unlike a rehearsal period for an opera which can take up to eight weeks with lots of time to explore our characters, on this project we have had to produce instant drama without much time for discussion, and at all times we have had to ensure we are always in the same spot on the set whenever a scene has been repeated in order to make sure that continuity is correct.

A new way of working, for sure, and perhaps in these Covid times it may be a way forward until we can get back to business as usual.

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