ETO’s opera for families and young people, Laika the Spacedog, is performed at Avignon’s Grand Opera in France this Wednesday after winning two Best Production awards last month at the Armel Opera Festival in Szeged, Hungary. Director Tim Yealland wrote a blog at the time about the challenges of taking Laika to Szeged. His post is below.
Imagine arriving with a single half-full transit van at the beautiful theatre in Szeged and parking it next to the enormous trucks of Istanbul Opera. Imagine the sizeable and hefty crew of the theatre hanging about to help unload the van, and seeing one of them peer inside it in disbelief. He gesticulates to his colleagues, who are smoking on the corner, and there is a collective Hungarian version of a guffaw. This is the intimidating beginning of the 36 hours we have to get in, light and rehearse an opera designed for primary school halls, and about to be performed in one of Hungary’s most famous opera houses, and streamed live across Europe by ARTE TV. Luckily there is no knowledge at the moment of how many seats have been sold – we assume that the house will be maybe a third full. Imagine also discovering that day that the piece is in competition for awards with other opera companies from Poland, Serbia and Hungary, as well as from Turkey – and that we are up against the collective might of Stravinsky, Britten and Verdi.
To heighten our sense of paranoia there is the constant presence of the distinguished international judges, not to mention the other juries, and also a seemingly inexhaustible traffic of TV sound, lighting and camera engineers. Our spare moments are spent being interviewed for Hungarian and French TV and radio; there is never a moment without a cameraman or a photographer training a lens in your face. A few months ago the only real pressure on the show was getting large boxes into small school halls, and the only competition was the clatter of dinner ladies clearing up lunch in an adjoining room.
So it’s now the evening of the show. 30 minutes before curtain up I go front-of-house, and see about half-a-dozen people, which confirms my suspicions about audience numbers. 5 minutes to go and I am back to join them. The house is packed. It’s full of smartly-dressed and clearly knowledgeable grown-ups rather than kids. A young couple are fighting over the last remaining seats in the stalls. Have they got a clue about what they are going to see? The show goes well though and the audience clearly enjoy it. The front left leg of the main Laika puppet falls off just at the beginning of the curtain call, noticed only by me and Maciek the puppeteer, but timed – considering the anguishing story – in the most astonishing way.
Cut to the following evening. It’s the awards gala – the nine competition singers, most of whom we have heard warming up every day in the hotel, are each singing tonight, and two will get prizes, for best male and female vocalist. The singers have all performed in earlier rounds, as well as in the productions of the Festival. Two excellent French singers took lead roles in Laika. The 100 piece Szeged Symphony Orchestra is onstage and looking dashing. Giant candelabra are already dripping hot wax onto the thin TV cables running underneath them. The competition juries and judges are in their boxes and suited, and live transmission begins in 5 minutes.
Russell and I are seated in the two stalls seats nearest to the steps onto the stage and we sense something is up. Betti, our delightful interpreter, whispers that if it is announced that we have won the main prize we should use those very steps. Ah. Ambitious and greedy thoughts speed through one’s head, and indeed after the first set of arias the local University Jury give us their best production award, and a long speech in Hungarian leaves us publicly flummoxed. Thinking this is a pat-on-the-head prize for good pedagogical intentions we relax, until the impressive International Jury step onto the stage, and things also turn our way. In the after–show party one judge, effusive and genuine, mentions that he originally thought the idea of presenting Laika the Spacedog in this context was totally daft – a thought entirely echoed by me.