Intern on the inside: the story of a lighthouse

Friday 24 August 2012

Having just graduated from Bristol and feeling somewhat bereaved at the loss of my student days, ETO has thrown me a lifeline and welcomed me right into the heart of their opera-making process. I am going to spend the next couple of months observing rehearsals and cornering the creatives behind ETO’s autumn season to try and work out exactly what makes their productions tick. Artistic Director James Conway has opted for a season of daring modern opera and this week’s rehearsals of The Lighthouse are getting into full swing.

One of the most exciting things about The Lighthouse is the real life mystery that hangs over the action. The suspicious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers in the winter of 1900 remains an unsolved mystery. Peter Maxwell Davies’s score is a response to this enigma. Here, Max discusses this extra-ordinary occurrence.

At its core, the opera is a thriller. The darkly twisted premise is matched only by the intensity of the music. The main act of the opera shows Davies’s dramatic reconstruction of what could have occurred on that winter night. Today, however, I saw rehearsals for the prologue. The libretto for this section has been taken verbatim from the sailors who discovered the lighthouse – the table laid up for dinner, yet the keepers had vanished without a trace. But it is not as simple as that. It soon becomes apparent that something is amiss and the lies of the sailors get woven into the secrets of the keepers. This ambiguity between truth and falsehood, remarks director Ted Huffman, is the driving force of the opera. Jumping between different times, places and tones, the prologue must be a daunting scene for any director, and I was excited to see what Ted would make of it.

It was, therefore, unsurprising that the atmosphere in Huffman’s rehearsal room is one of absolute focus as he prised apart this musical montage. He led the cast through the complex score, revealing an alarmingly human dialogue at the core of the opera. Ted muses that whilst the form of Davies’s score is abstract, the narrative remains clear and defined. It is this approach that really shows Huffman as a dramaturge – a director concerned with theatrics, storytelling and movement whilst being guided by the music. It was a joy to watch him bring out the story in Davies’s deeply unsettling score and even in the sunny tranquillity of Toynbee Studios, the show is already starting to make me feel nervous.

I am desperate to know what he has in store for us tomorrow as the second act starts to take shape. A sly glint in Ted’s eye suggests that he has big plans, but you will just have to wait until opening night to find out what happens…

Rebecca is an aspiring director, recent graduate of Bristol University, and an intern at ETO.

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