Author Archives: Samantha Crawford

Opening Night – Samantha Crawford

Less than 24 hours until we open the 67th Aldeburgh Festival with Owen Wingrave. As we are performing in the same building where this opera had its premiere, the links to its roots makes the experience all the more special.

This week a tour of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pear’s home, The Red House, has only added to the enjoyment of working here. The cast had a look at the original manuscripts of Owen Wingrave, and it was interesting to note that Britten made very few corrections to the score. The house is surrounded by beautiful gardens and Britten’s study is a place of quiet reflection – although he speaks of being distracted by a blackbird building its nest as he composed.

Visit to the Red House with Catherine Backhouse, James Way, Isaiah Bell, Ross Ramgobin, Richard Berkeley - Steele, Janis Kelly, Susan Bullock and Samantha Crawford.

Visit to the Red House with Catherine Backhouse, James Way, Isaiah Bell, Ross Ramgobin, Richard Berkeley – Steele, Janis Kelly, Susan Bullock and Samantha Crawford.

Ross and Isaiah look at the Owen Wingrave manuscript.

Ross and Isaiah look at the Owen Wingrave manuscript.

In the theatre we have continued working hard on combining all elements, including our children’s chorus, to tell the truth of the Wingave’s struggle to accept Owen for who he is, not the soldier they wanted him to be. ‘Owen has scruples.’

He does finally find peace, but at what cost?

The time has come to let the (metaphorical) curtain up, and the show to commence. This glorious weather only adds to wave of excitement as everyone prepares in these last few hours…

There are performances of Owen Wingrave at Snape Maltings Concert Hall as part of the Aldeburgh Festival, on Friday 13, Sunday 15, Monday 16 and Wednesday 18 June. Find out more and book tickets.

Sun, sea, soldiers and stage

It’s theatre time! After four weeks of rehearsing in the Britten Studio, the cast and crew are moving into the beautifully restored Snape Maltings Concert Hall for the final steps of preparation. Last week we worked through the opera with the addition of the male acting chorus, whose haunting presence bring an added dimension to Owen’s turmoil and all that unfolds during the opera. They have been rehearsing under the ever-observant eyes of our Movement Director, Struan Leslie. His guidance on maintaining freedom in the body whilst conveying our character’s tension and repressed emotions has been a great help.

As we begin to work in the theatre, the aim is to systematically run through all the action adding in lighting cues, familiarising ourselves with the set, making timing adjustments for entrances and exits if required, and checking we can be clearly understood when singing in the new acoustic. Kate Golla accompanies all the stage action, playing the piano from the orchestra pit. The final steps are when our orchestra and children’s chorus join us…Then it’s time to welcome the audience.

Sneak peak into the Concert Hall at Snape Maltings during technical rehearsals.

Sneak peak into the Concert Hall at Snape Maltings during technical rehearsals.

By contrast, the sun shines brightly outside as we work on the dark stage

By contrast, the sun shines brightly outside as we work on the dark stage

As we also now work in our full costumes, issues such as the train of your dress catching in your heels, wigs that need pinning more firmly for sudden head movements, gloves that make wine glasses harder to grasp elegantly, or testing the breaks of the 1890’s wheelchair are just a few of the things to use this time for. Another element to work out this week is the ‘quick change.’ Yes, it is what it sounds like. A character finishes a scene, and has to change extremely quickly (often in the wings of the stage) to re enter in time for their next scene. I previously mentioned this opera was originally filmed for television, allowing the luxury of calling ‘cut,’ between takes of the action for a costume change – not so in live theater. It all adds to the excitement of trying to make it back on stage in time, with a few practices you inevitably speed the process up and manage, even if it takes a team of Dressers disrobing you at an unbelievable rate!

Jessica (Wardrobe Assistant and Dresser) working on costumes for Owen Wingrave.

Jessica (Wardrobe Assistant and Dresser) working on costumes for Owen Wingrave.

Speaking of a change of clothes, outside of the rehearsal room some braver members of the cast have been swimming in the sea at Aldeburgh this week. As it would have to be verging on tropical to get me fully submerged, I am perfectly happy to settle for walks on the beach and been spoilt by a sea view from my bedroom.

There are performances of Owen Wingrave at Snape Maltings Concert Hall as part of the Aldeburgh Festival, on Friday 13, Sunday 15, Monday 16 and Wednesday 18 June. Find out more and book tickets.

Work, rest and play

Faint sounds of the piano waft across the boating lake from the restaurant, intermingled with families enjoying picnics, swans gliding through the water, and birdsong. So much varied, delightful, calming birdsong. In case you haven’t guessed I am relaxing during my day off, having taken the walk along the coast to the neighbouring village of Thorpeness. Upon my return to Aldeburgh I was surprised to find myself in the centre of the ‘Samantha,’ Morris dance and being lifted into the air above the crowd – all in a day here! Travelling and seeing local beauty where you work is a highlight of working in opera, Aldeburgh and Suffolk being no exception.

Blissful day walking the Suffolk coast

Blissful day walking the Suffolk coast

This moment of stillness is a far cry from the committed work happening in rehearsals this week. As relationships develop, on stage and off, all involved have found new depths to understanding their characters in Owen Wingrave. I have been fortunate enough to work in detail with Janis Kelly (playing Mrs. Julian) helping me develop the natural speech rhythms in Britten’s score. His attention to detail in setting words means much of the work is done for me. However, Mrs. Coyle has several moments where there is very little orchestra playing when she sings, further emphasising the need for total clarity in thought, from which comes good diction.

Janis and I soaking up the sun during a break

Janis and I soaking up the sun during a break

With the opera originally being devised for close up television viewing, it has been fascinating translating these more intimate moments to the stage. Neil has successfully found ways to focus the action drawing the eye exactly where it needs to be. Mark, our conductor, is also excellent at finding the right musical pulse to match the conversations on stage. Working with a wonderful team of collegues has made me feel how fortunate I am to learn from their years of experience. They show a passion for excellence in their art, with a healthy dose of fun when work is finished.

The cast gathered for a fun filled evening, as we return the hospitality at dinner!

The cast gathered for a fun filled evening, as we return the hospitality at dinner!

The start of week four hails the arrival of our male acting chorus, making our rehearsals busier still, that’s not even including the children’s chorus joining us soon. Excitement is mounting, but I cannot say too much without revealing juicy details, so I’ll just say if you miss the show, you’ll miss out! This week also sees the arrival of the ladies’ corsets for rehearsals – time to reconsider the delicious homemade cakes we are offered every day? Possibly…

There are performances of Owen Wingrave at Snape Maltings Concert Hall as part of the Aldeburgh Festival, on Friday 13, Sunday 15, Monday 16 and Wednesday 18 June. Find out more and book tickets.

Who’s the best cook of the cast?

It’s nearly always a positive sign when time has rushed by, and hard to believe we are close to the end of the second week. We have already worked through most of the opera. After our director, Neil, revealed his spine-chilling rendition of events for Owen Wingrave on the first day of rehearsals, the cast and production team understand the collaborative vision we are heading towards for the opera. The rehearsal process is the chance to experiment, play and discuss ideas, taking what is written on the page and bringing those characters to life to tell the story.

We are fortunate enough to be rehearsing at Snape Maltings, bought by Britten in 1967, and lovingly transformed into a permanent home for the Aldeburgh Festival. During the first few weeks here we are rehearsing in the Britten Studio, marked out with any significant parts of the set and the use of some props to familiarise ourselves with what it will be like in the concert hall. As each week goes by new elements (such as set, costume, hair & make-up, lighting and finally the orchestra) are added into the process. It helps to continually focus the drama whilst ‘our world’ is coming into place around us. It’s an exhilarating process; I am being kept on my toes and am able to wonder how the family battle will develop each day.

There is much that is harsh and unforgiving between the family members, and we have had the chance to work one to one with Neil to find our individual journeys surrounding Owen’s decision to leave the military. All the characters take different steps to cope with their grief.
I consider myself very fortunate to be working in an area of such wild natural beauty. Even on a quick tea break I can pop outside and inhale a little tranquility before entering the ever-mounting tension of the Wingraves.

I have also spent time enjoying discovering Britten’s world by walking in his footsteps through Aldeburgh. The Jubilee Hall, Moot Hall, Scallop, his house by the sea, his grave, the fisherman’s fresh catch, and of course, the pebble beach catching the crashing waves all play their part in understanding a fuller picture of the man and his music. It has been fascinating and has enhanced my enjoyment of working on Owen Wingrave.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t take time to enjoy a good Sunday roast together on our day off! Susan Bullock and Richard Berkeley-Steele are not just showing their talent on the stage, but the kitchen too…

 Lunch as a team! Richard Berkeley-Steele, Susan Bullock, Samantha Crawford, Catherine Backhouse, Isaiah Bell and Ross Ramgobin.


Lunch as a team! Richard Berkeley-Steele, Susan Bullock, Samantha Crawford, Catherine Backhouse, Isaiah Bell and Ross Ramgobin.

There are performances of Owen Wingrave at Snape Maltings Concert Hall as part of the Aldeburgh Festival, on Friday 13, Sunday 15, Monday 16 and Wednesday 18 June. Find out more and book tickets.

Preparing for Owen Wingrave – Samantha Crawford

Welcome! It’s only a few days until the whole cast gather in Aldeburgh ready to bring this year’s new production of Owen Wingrave to the stage. I can think of no better place than Benjamin Britten’s own hometown to study, sing and perform his opera. As a Britten-Pears Young Artist I am thrilled to be playing the role of Mrs. Coyle (and was fortunate to perform it as part of the Britten Centenary celebrations last year on the Guildhall’s Opera Course). With the Wingrave family spanning four generations in this opera it will be wonderful for the BPYA’s to work alongside the leading professionals in the cast; Susan Bullock, Janis Kelly, Richard Berkeley-Steele and Jonathan Summers. Having read the Henry James novella that inspired Britten to compose Owen Wingrave for the BBC2 broadcast in 1971, I am struck by how many intimate conversations form the frame of the piece. I particularly enjoy the dinner table scene, where opinions escalate fast!

Owen’s family comes from a long line of serving in the military, yet he does not see the glory in war. It will be really interesting to work out a family dynamic where the issues of status, loyalty, duty, family expectations and pacifism are passionately discussed. What does it mean to fight? As this year marks the centenary of the start of World War One we are also preparing to take this production to the Culture and Conflict themed Edinburgh Festival, in August. It will be fantastic to absorb all that both festivals have to offer on this opinion-dividing subject, whilst bringing our own contribution to it. After a bit of research I found this quote from James’ notebook in 1892 to understanding Owen’s thoughts on becoming an army officer.

He determines to reject it for himself – to break with it and cast it off, and this in the face of every sort of coercion of opinion (on the part of others), of such pressure not to let the family honour breakdown.

Something I love about Mrs. Coyle is that she brings some much needed warmth in a fairly fraught time. She has a maternal love for Owen and watches with pride the journey the young men take at Mr. Coyle’s training establishment. Described by James as a ‘fair fresh woman,’ I look forward to bringing this out in her voice with guidance from Mark Wigglesworth and Neil Bartlett, our conductor and director respectively. However, as I’ve just been laced into my 1890s corseted dress at first my costume fitting, I suddenly feel my plans for the famous Aldeburgh fish & chips changing fast…

I’ll be sharing my top tip bits as the action unfolds through this blog, Facebook & Twitter. In the meantime, a little snap of Britten’s original Owen Wingrave, the wonderfully warm Benjamin Luxon, coaching me for last year’s Guildhall production.

Benjamin Luxon and Samantha Crawford working on Owen Wingrave  in 2013.

Benjamin Luxon and Samantha Crawford working on Owen Wingrave in 2013.

There are performances of Owen Wingrave at Snape Maltings Concert Hall as part of the Aldeburgh Festival, on Friday 13, Sunday 15, Monday 16 and Wednesday 18 June. Find out more and book tickets.