Interview: Flat Pack Music

On Thursday 19 April Flat Pack Music will be making their Liverpool debut with their hilarious production of Cosi Fan Tutte. The production received rave reviews last year and had the audience crying with laughter.

The story starts with an old cynic and philosopher, Don Alfonso, who bets two young men, Ferrando and Gugliemo, that their respective fiancées would not stay faithful if put to the test. The two young men accept the bet, and so the test begins…

Flat Pack Music perform in English so even if you haven’t seen opera before this is a perfect opportunity to check it out and fall in love with it.

I caught up with Heather and Joe from Flat Pack Music to learn a little bit more about what they do and their upcoming performance.

Flat Pack Music aims to promote opera to the wider public. Is accessibility important to you?  Where did the idea to do this come from? 

Heather: Yes it’s the most important thing.  We went to watch something by a professional opera company and the tickets were really expensive.

Joe: The quality wasn’t very good to be honest so it made us disappointed in the fact that all these people there were paying all this money to see something that they were under the impression was a professional opera, which of course they are, and that it wasn’t what it could have been.  It wasn’t to the standard that you would expect for that amount of money and so we were saying that if people were experiencing opera for the first time and they were spending all this money and that was what they were getting, if that was their once stab in the dark of seeing opera then they may never go again.  We want it to be good and affordable.

Heather: So many people say “Oh I’m not really into opera because they sing in a foreign language and I don’t really know what’s going on and they just stand there and it’s boring”.  We want to show that it’s not boring and it can be fun and there’s nothing wrong with singing it in English.  There’s nothing wrong with it at all.

Joe: Just like you would get dubbed films or anything else, doing it in your own language is far better for making sense of it.

Can you tell me a little bit about your upcoming performance?

Heather: So we’re doing Cosi Fan Tutte by Mozart which we have done twice before so it’s our third performance of it; it was our first opera as Flat Pack.  The translation is by a gentleman called Chris Gill and it is hilarious.  It is such a good translation, so we’re really lucky to have it.  It’s set in an Essex coffee bar in the present day and it’s really funny.  It’s about two sisters whose fiancés are tricked into doing a bet.

Joe: Because they believe their partners to be to be thoroughly faithful and that they will never ever betray them, whereas their friend Don Alfonso doesn’t think so and bets them that he can prove that they won’t be forever faithful and true.  They go ahead with the bet, pretend to go off to war and come back as two different men and do a little fiancée swap and then wackiness ensues really.

Heather: Lots of dressing up as people.

Joe: There’s drama as well as comedy.

Heather: It’s got a bit of everything in it.

Is the translator a professional translator of opera or are you connected with him?

Heather: He started a company called Heritage Opera, who are a professional touring company. I think him and his wife started it when they were similar ages to us and were at similar places in their career.  Chris is a conductor, Serenna’s a singer.  They live in Oxford now and he teaches but he has got these translations.  He’s done Figaro as well; we’re using his Figaro.

Joe: I think he dabbles in translation.

Heather: Yes he does bits of everything.

So is the language the same or the melody preserved and what do you think is more important in terms of preserving the language or the melody?

Joe: The melody is preserved with the exception of the odd occasion where the recit changes.  The language I think for the most part is pretty straight translation but then there there’s obviously some stuff that’s modernised because it’s a modern setting so there has been some changes, but the overall spirit of what was there is definitely preserved.  For me the most important thing would be not to change the music.  You can change the words to a certain extent as long as you keep the intent that was there.

Heather: So changing the word sword to knife because we wouldn’t walk around with swords, well you wouldn’t walk around with knives either, but people definitely don’t have swords anymore.

Joe: At the beginning Don Alfonso is challenged to a sword fight, so that becomes a fist fight.

Heather: So it doesn’t change the story.  Who they come dressed up as when they come back has changed, but it’s still the same, they’re still in fancy dress

Joe: I think it was Arabs originally.

Heather: Yes and they change that even if they’re singing it in Italian.

Joe: A lot of the time.

Heather: The way that Mozart writes is so clever, the lines and the text go so well together.

Joe: Chris has been very good at translating it and still keeping the translation to the flow of the music which I think is one of the key things with any translation.  If you had to constantly change the rhythm of everything because the words wouldn’t fit it wouldn’t work.

Heather: Yes, like where the stresses are.  And English is hard because when you sing it there’s so many diphthongs.  It’s not as beautiful to sing in so we just have to work harder to make the lines sound beautiful when you’re singing.

Did you consider performing an English language opera, or is it important for you to stick to the classics?

Joe: I think for me part of making it accessible is picking things that people might know, that they might have heard of.  Cosi Fan Tutte is probably one of the most famous operas, our second opera La Bohème definitely is, but if it was an English opera people wouldn’t have heard of it as there isn’t a lot of well known English operas.

Heather: Well there’s Britten really isn’t there?

Joe: Yes and that’s about it and a lot of Britten is really hard to perform, especially when you’re starting out.  Most of the stuff we do is just with piano at the moment.  It’s a small team.

Heather: Your best bet would be Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Joe: Yes but more people know the Shakespeare play than the opera.

Heather: Yes and that’s probably be something for the future.  We’re getting a pretty good audience already but we’re doing famous things.  Maybe we can branch out and people might come and watch it because they’ve heard of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Joe: Yes it’s all about finding something famous that people will know and recognise in order to get them to give it a go.

Is that why you stick with the Italian title?

Joe: Yes.

Heather: Figaro we haven’t though.  We’re doing Marriage of Figaro in August and that’s Le nozze di Figaro and we say The Marriage of Figaro but people do that with Figaro.  I don’t know why.

Joe: But again with La Bohème we haven’t changed the title.

Heather: People also change The Magic Flute.  Nobody calls it Die Zauberflöte.

Joe: No just The Magic Flute.

Heather: I don’t know why that is.

Joe: I suppose with Cosi Fan Tutte the translation is tricky, in that’s it’s Well Women Are Like That.  It’s an awkward thing, especially nowadays.  Some people would be put off just by the title.

As well as performing in English you keep ticket prices affordable. Are your singers and musicians classically trained or do you also work with people from different backgrounds?

Heather: Most of our singers are young professionals who are just emerging.  So they have just finished at music college and they’re looking for roles and things.  But then we’ve got people like Serenna who was in our original Cossi cast.  She’s not in this performance though.  She was kind enough to do the performances for free so I think we’ve got a lot of people who find it as important as we do to get opera out there because otherwise there will be no audience to buy tickets in the future anyway.  I guess because we’re all doing other work as well, people are willing to spend the time.  Then we have people who are really good on the amateur circuit who just didn’t take that path but they would have been good enough, like the guy who’s playing our Don Alfonso he’s great.

Joe: Great on stage.

Heather: So funny, so professional.  He stood in in our original production with five days’ notice and he was amazing.  He learnt it all and he was incredible.  So that’s really good because we’ve got kind of bridge between the gap.

Joe: Yes and that’s what’s fed into our community chorus.  For our Bohème tour we’ve got a community chorus which is built up of different people.  People who haven’t even sung before, to try and get more people involved in opera as well as watching.  They’ve all sung in church choirs and things like that.  They were quite apprehensive at first but once they did it they absolutely loved it.

Heather: The second night we were in a theatre in Rhyl and some of them, the minute we were in the theatre it was like they’d been on stage for years.  They were absolutely loving it.  It was so great.  We always make sure our soloists are professional and they’re very kind to perform for free for us because it’s an important thing to most opera singers to try and get it out there.

Joe: As well as getting it out there and making it accessible, it can also be quite hard when leaving music college to get experience.

Heather: You want to get roles on your CV.

Joe: You want to go and audition to do the lead role in Magic Flute or something but you’ve never done it, or you did it once a long time ago and for an amateur society, and the company you audition for say you don’t have enough experience.  So you’ve got to get the roles and the performance experience before they’ll even consider you a lot of the time.  We were finding that there wasn’t much experience available.  There’s a lot down south but not so much up north.  So as well performance opportunities for ourselves it also gives the opportunity for people who are either just finishing conservatoires or had finished them and were just lost with where to go with it.

Do you think Liverpool and the north are good locations to promote the classical arts?

Heather: Definitely.  Where we are on the Wirral there’s not a lot of opera really so that was why it was so important to do it there.  In Liverpool you get the touring companies and you’ve got Opera North up here as well, but while they’re amazing, they are quite expensive.  They do offers sometimes, and they’re totally worth the money, but for people who’ve never seen it before they’re probably not going to spend all that money on a ticket.  After we did La Bohème somebody who’d never seen opera before went to the Royal Opera to watch theirs and they loved it.

Joe: One of the things that I loved, when they went to watch they said because they’d seen it in English they knew what was happening when they watched it in Italian.  They didn’t need to read the surtitles at the top of the stage, they could actually watch the drama unfold and enjoy it because they knew everything that was going on and that for me is a massive part of it.  80% of our audiences have been people who’ve never been to opera before and then they’ve come back which is always good.

Heather: We were really keen to get into Liverpool.

Joe: Liverpool’s known for its music.

Heather: It’s such a fast changing city.  Everybody’s always up for trying everything and we really wanted to find somewhere that we could get into.

Joe: In some cities, even the smaller ones, it can be really hard to find a venue in the first place.  Whereas around here it’s been  nothing but accepting really.

Heather: And the Casa’s perfect because they’ve got the same ideas as we have about promoting things and keeping the ticket prices low and giving people an affordable good night out so it was the perfect fit.

Do you have any other performances in the pipeline? What lies in the future for you and Flat Pack Music?

Heather: We’ve got the tour of La Bohème this summer.  We have another two performances of Cosi on 5 and 6 May as part of the Sound City Festival.  It’s a free event.  There’s lots of art going on, life drawing and things and poetry.  We are on at 3pm on those two days.  It should be fun and totally different.  We have performed outside ourselves but not as a company yet.

Joe: Everyone will be intermixed.  It won’t be quite so removed.

Heather: So hopefully people walking past will think oh that’s good.

Joe: Even if they pop in and out.

Heather: The tour of La Bohème we’re doing as an outreach tour as well.  We’re working with choral societies in each area to get them to come in to sing the chorus to try and get more people singing.  And we’re going into schools, hospitals and care homes in each of the areas that we’re touring to do workshops.

Joe: Basically people who can’t possibly come to see the opera.

Heather: We’ve got Marriage of Figaro in August and our first performance with an orchestra in September when we’re doing Figaro and then the last date of our La Bohème tour in October will be with an orchestra as well.

Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to get involved in opera?

Heather: I guess it depends what you’re doing.  Research your local amateur societies.  Especially in this area there’s quite a few that are really good to get involved in.  It depends if you’re wanting to sing chorus or solo.

Joe: Yes it depends what you’re aiming for.  If you’re wanting to do chorus there’s a lot of amateur companies that you can pop into, have a go and get some experience of the music and what it’s like.  Equally we can’t be the only company that’s set up a community chorus.

Heather: There’s lots of choirs like the Wirral Community Choir.

Joe: If you’ve never sung before that’s always a good start and then take that into one of your local operatic societies.

Heather: Or email us and join our community chorus.  Watch as much as you can.  It’s all on YouTube so you can watch most things.  Although it’s never the same as watching it live, it’s a good place to start to hear the stories.

Joe: And never forget that it’s as much theatre as singing.  One of the big things I think a lot of people think is it’s just about standing there singing and that’s it.  Then when they come and watch they see that it’s as much plays as anything else.  So anyone wanting to get involved, go and see theatre as well or do theatre.

Heather: And if you want to be professional get a good teacher.  There’s loads around here.  There’s so many good singing teachers.

Joe: Don’t be afraid to try different people.

Heather: And it’s important that it’s fun because it’s such a hard industry to get into.  I think most performing arts things are.  It’s so hard and it’s really easy to forget that you love it and enjoy it.  We try and make everything as fun as possible.  In our rehearsals we make lunch for everybody.  We normally do ten days of rehearsals and we all eat lunch together every day and it’s fun.  It’s important to try and enjoy it and not get too bogged down in thinking I need to go this college because I want to be a famous singer or whatever.  You’ve got to enjoy it.

Joe: Yes anyone coming into it needs to take it seriously and respect the art form as it is but if you take it too seriously then you can get real bogged down in it and it becomes a chore to do more than anything.

Heather: You have to think sometimes how lucky you are to actually be working and doing what you love.

Joe: It’s the greatest feeling in the world to actually go out and perform.  Sometimes just before you go out on stage you’re not quite ready but the minute you do you know that was why.

Heather: Just enjoy it.  Singing’s so much fun and it’s so good for you.

You can find out more about Flat Pack Music on their website or by following them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

You can buy tickets for Cosi Fan Tutte on the Theatre at the Casa website.

Please let me know if you see the show on Thursday and what you think of it.

In bocca al lupo Heather, Joe and everyone else at Flat Pack Music!

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