We catch up with Martin Lloyd- Evans and enter Brooks’s, the neo-classic building across the street from Whites and Boodles, the other two venerable gentleman’s clubs in St James’s Street.
Brooks’s club was founded in 1764 but members moved here in 1778, eight years before the world premiere of Figaro in Vienna. Today Robert and Christopher have arranged a unique evening where Martin is giving a talk on Figaro to members of Brooks’s and their guests – 90 people in all
‘It was,’ said lovely Frances Kemball, ‘an evening that changed my life’. Other members of the audience told me afterwards that Martin has inspired them too, totally changing the way they understood opera. Ellie Laugharne (Susanna) and Toby Girling (The Count) were key to all this, demonstrating what Martin had to say by singing Figaro arias accompanied by Tony Kraus on the keyboard.
I meet them rehearsing in The Great Subscription Room where the talk is being held and where, in the 18th century, my ancestor, Sir John St Aubyn, gambled away land in just one night that later became Putney.
Michael Chance – immaculate in an eye-catching Kingfisher blue suit -introduces Martin, who he has asked to direct Figaro. Martin kicks off:’ The opera was put together’, he says, by three dodgy operators:
Beaumarchais, a gun runner and spy who wrote the trilogy on which Figaro is based.
Mozart – a womaniser who counted his sister- in -law among his lovers.
Da Ponte, the librettist, who was also a womaniser and banned from Venice for ‘concubining’
Mozart, Martin said, would have revelled in the irony that the aristocracy loved going to see Figaro, not realising it was taking a swipe at them. It’s been called the ‘first rock to be thrown at the French Revolution’ as it was written at a time of simmering tension towards the nobility, three years before the storming of the Bastille.
I have a lightbulb moment when Martin describes what the sung word is all about. ‘Thought informs voice’ he says, ‘voice magnifies the inner dance of a character.’ ‘You can’t work with a singer unless they know the opera inside out. They must be immersed in their part so they can interpret it’. He explains.
Ellie tells us you can really get into Mozart’s music and Da Ponte’s libretto, whereas contemporary composers are much harder to interpret. So it was interesting to learn that Mozart and Da Ponte give their singers tremendous leeway to interpret the score the way they want to, so that no two performances need be the same. To illustrate this flexibility, Ellie and Toby perform the scene in Act I when the Count lusts after Susanna after Cherubino leaves her chamber. They are terrific actors and completely engage with their part. First of all, Toby, as the Count, is all over Susanna, and Ellie, as Susanna, is cowed by him. Next, the scene is reversed, and we see a timid Count and dismissive Susanna, yet each time the score works with them.
I always thought opera singers were reasonably fluent in the language they sing in. But it turns out this isn’t true. Neither Ellie nor Toby speak Italian and they sing in other languages they don’t know that well, if at all. But they can only do this if they are totally at one with the part they’re singing. They learn it in English first as they have to give meaning to every word, every inflection. It takes them about six to seven months to study the piece in a new language, and then a coach will teach them cadence depending on which language they’re singing in.
Martin talks about the contemporary ‘Me Too’ message in Figaro, the rich texture of human relationships running through it and the overarching theme being forgiveness. His talk lasts about an hour, leaving us longing to find out more. Then we have dinner – Brooks’s special crème brûlée is a delicious finale to a fascinating Figaro evening.