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Q&A with the Cast of Manon Lescaut and The Rake's Progress

10 Apr 2024

News Story

Cast members Amy J Payne and Edward Hawkins share their thoughts on our spring productions and why these operas are relevant today.

Amy J Payne image
Amy J Payne

Mother Goose, The Rake's Progress

Naval Captain, Manon Lescaut

Edward Hawkins

Geronte, Manon Lescaut

What is your favourite thing about being a part of this season?

Amy J Payne: Working with such talented colleagues. It is so thrilling to witness your friends give such committed and skilled performances and I have never gotten over the excitement of singing with a professional orchestra. I hope I never do!

Edward Hawkins: I would have to say the cast - they’re such a great bunch of people to be around and we’re all very supportive of each other. Being onstage with colleagues who are all rooting for each other is a very unique and special feeling.

What makes Manon Lescaut important for today?

Amy J Payne: Manon Lescaut is unable to live as she truly desires, because she lives in a world controlled by men. Even the men who should have her best interests at heart (her father, her brother, her lover) either deliberately or unwittingly drive her to destruction. Even though the original novel was written in the 18h century and the opera in the 19th, unfortunately there is still much that rings true for women around the world today. Many women still experience this impossibility of choice and suffer the consequences of railing against their situation.

Edward Hawkins: I think the director Jude really tried to highlight some of the contradictory expectations opera heroines have placed upon them - be free, but not in charge of your destiny; be strong, but also be at the mercy of men. In other words, plenty of resonance with Barbie!

What makes The Rake's Progress important for today?

Amy J Payne: The Rake’s Progress is a morality tale, again originating in the 18th century, but one which still holds relevant warnings in our society today. I have recently been into secondary schools to work with teenagers on this piece and we found several parallels with current social phenomena and particularly with online dangers such as catfishing and email scams. Ultimately Tom Rakewell is brought down by greed and by denying his true self and I think there is an important message there too about valuing the right things in life to ensure your own happiness and mental well-being.

What three words would you use to describe The Rake’s Progress/Manon Lescaut?

Amy J Payne: Manon Lescaut: Cage, desire, control

The Rake's Progress: Temptation, regret, love

Edward Hawkins: I would describe Manon Lescaut as hallucinatory, lush and moving.

Production shot from Manon Lescaut

How did you find your way into opera?

Amy J Payne: Although I didn’t know it at the time, I think the die was cast when I was taken to seeThe Phantom of the Opera by Andrew Lloyd-Webber in London’s West End when I was about 8 years-old. I was absolutely blown away by the stage production and the whole experience of being in a large, commercial theatre. Whilst it became musicals that I loved as a child, that show and others like it introduced me to a classical style of composition and singing. Then, when I started having singing lessons at my state school, aged 15, this earlier experience meant I never once thought, “this is not for me”. Through my singing teacher I did my ABRSM singing exams and decided when choosing my A-Levels that I wanted ultimately to try for music college. I am happy to say I was successful and I trained at The Guildhall School in London, graduating from the Opera Studies course in 2011.

Edward Hawkins: I trained as a trumpeter at university, and worked as a brass player and peripatetic teacher until my mid 30s. A dear singing teacher friend of mine had commented on my speaking voice in the pub one day and said I should give singing a go. I had private lessons for a few years, then auditioned for the Glyndebourne Chorus (having been diagnosed with testicular cancer two days before, but that’s another story!). On my first day at Glyndebourne, I had never been backstage at a theatre before. I spent four years learning the ropes there amongst amazing people, then decided to try and work as a soloist.

Why do you think opera is relevant today?

Amy J Payne: Opera is difficult. It is difficult to master as a practitioner and it requires much of the audience too. It is important precisely because of this. It has driven some of the greatest musical talent in the world to the peak of their craft and provides the audience with an opportunity for awe and transportation like few other art forms can. I think the word ‘elite’ has come also to mean ‘inaccessible’, which has not been my own experience. I found my way to opera simply through a love of singing and music and a desire to be the best artist I could be. Opera challenges us all to be better and that is why it is important.

Edward Hawkins: I’m extremely passionate about the importance of opera as an unamplified medium. It might sound trivial, but opera is one of the few places where you are hearing the singing (and orchestra) come from its true point of origin, and I genuinely believe it provokes a primal and profound response in the listener. Also, all good opera seeks to simultaneously provoke a response to visual, musical and physical stimuli. It’s the ultimate storytelling medium, in my opinion.

How can we expose the next generation to opera?

Amy J Payne: I think wherever possible performances should be offered to schools and youth groups, either as free or subsidized tickets to theatres or opera companies should be bringing opera into schools etc. I am pleased to say ETO do both of these things and I believe this really helps to dispel the myth that opera is ‘not for me’.

Edward Hawkins: It’s a very good question. Some operas aren’t intended to be immediately accessible to young people, in the same way that some films or books aren’t, but that doesn’t mean that books and films aren’t an accessible medium. I think a lot of people are tripping over themselves to show that opera isn’t elitist, and in the process they underestimate their audience. The trick for the next generation, in my opinion, is never compromise on quality and accessibility. Strive to make every aspect of your show unmissable, and ensure tickets are never unobtainable. Both of these, of course, require the assumption that one cannot take a bulldozer to music education and arts funding and expect the next generation of artists and enthusiasts to spring magically from the ground fully-formed.

Manon Lescaut and The Rake's Progress are on tour across England through May 2024.

Learn more and book tickets here.