A new version of an Italian opera about the momentous relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots is to open in Hackney on Monday in London’s only surviving Elizabethan church.
Donizetti wrote three operas about Tudor England, with Mary being known as one of “Three Donizetti Queens” along with her cousin Elizabeth 1 and Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn. The original libretto for Maria Stuarda was based on the play Mary Stuart, by German playwright Friedrich Schiller.
The opera will open at The Old Church arts centre in Stoke Newington on Monday, the first in a series of venues that have some historical significance for the two Queens.
OperaUpClose is a company who aim to bring opera to new audiences. They do this by touring all over the country, bringing affordable fully-staged productions to people who might otherwise never consider attending.
The title role in their latest work will be taken by Flora McIntosh, a London-born mezzo and favourite of the company. She has starred in previous OperaUpClose productions such as Ulla’s Odyssey, Carmen, and Bluebeard’s Castle.
“She’s such an iconic character and its great to play her.” McIntosh marvels at the enduring fascination in Mary as a character, especially her relationship with Elizabeth. “From a performance point of view it’s a bit of a gift.”
Her enthusiasm extends beyond the role, though. Being a regular performer with OperaUpClose, she talks a lot about the importance of making opera a normal pass time. In her opinion, it should become something anyone would go and watch like a musical or gig.
“I continue to absolutely believe in the work that we do. Allowing people to discover that opera is not accessible only to those that know about it already.”
Rather than letting the smaller venues limit the experience, instead they’re used to heighten the performance. “By doing it up close, in English, with a small orchestration, people can feel very connected to it.”
McIntosh talks passionately about the importance of audience engagement in her performances. It’s a conversation between the performers and the audience, and being physically closer to them creates a more intimate and intense viewer experience.
The language barrier is also tackled by this staging, which will be performed entirely in English. Norton-Hale worked to ensure the translation improved the audience’s experience rather than taking anything away, staying true to the story being told.
“That in itself is allowing access, its giving a much, much greater possibility for people to come and see it.”
English is a challenging language to sing in, but McIntosh enjoys being able to engage so directly with her audience. “It’s nice feeling like they know what’s going on.“
Although McIntosh believes audiences should be able to experience opera as a spectacle, just enjoying the scale and music without the need of understanding, she recognises that this can be intimidating. For people who find the idea of sitting through two hours of nonsensical Italian or French unappealing, she is adamant this performance will allow those new to opera to experience the spectacle whilst still understanding the story.
Although no longer a place of worship, today The Old Church is an important arts and community space.
“It [the church] creates atmosphere itself. History weighs heavily on places.” The church is a very small, intimate space. McIntosh promises a very intense performance where character and story are distilled to their most essential parts. The presence of these people, now characters, is constantly evident.
“There’s an amazing stained glass window in there of Elizabeth, she’s sort of staring down at you all the time.”
“Singing has a very visceral effect on us. Music makes us respond quite physically, and that’s a very powerful thing for the audience.”
The reigning Queen Elizabeth I was challenged for the English thrown by the Catholic Mary, who ruled over Scotland. The latter was eventually captured, imprison and ultimately beheaded.
The story has been retold again and again, most recently in the television series Reign in 2013, Schiller’s Mary Stuart was recently performed at the Almedia Theatre in London with Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson alternating the title roles, while the film Mary Queen of Scots was released last year with Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie as the Mary and Elizabeth respectively.
“Its amazing how there’s a kind of enduring fascination with [Mary]. I think there’s something specifically about her and Elizabeth together.”
Unlike the real women, Donizetti’s Mary and Elizabeth have a dramatic meeting, with the powerful voices of the two leads going head to head for the first time.
“There’s that feeling that this is something that should have happened and never did. It’s enduringly fascinating. “
The opera will be in Hackney April 1-13 before touring the country.