INTERVIEW: Composer Philip Hagemann on Pegasus Opera & the challenge of adapting George Bernard Shaw as opera

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Next week, Pegasus Opera Company presents the UK premiere of a double bill of two new one-act operas showcasing women in lead roles, Ruth and The Dark Lady of the Sonnets. Their American composer Philip Hagemann has flown in specially to conduct the production running for four performances only at the Actors Church (St Paul’s) in Covent Garden. He took a break from preparations to tell us more. Read our interview – and then get booking!

The double bill runs for four performances only

The double bill’s first opera, Ruth, is based on the biblical story, one of only two books in the Bible named after a woman. This adaptation is a tale of acceptance, sacrifice and loyalty with Ruth, a Moabite marrying the Israeli, Boaz. It’s performed by soprano, and Pegasus’ new artistic director, Alison Buchanan, with Byron Jackson as Boaz and Kamilla Dunstan as Naomi.

The second opera, The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, is based on the 1910 short comedy by George Bernard Shaw which reimagines the first meeting between William Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth. Shakespeare is in a secret relationship with a lady of the royal court, but he’s enamoured with the Queen. As the Bard juggles both women’s tempers and desires, he finds himself inspired to write new material. Sarah Champion plays Queen Elizabeth, with Annabelle Williams as The Dark Lady and Oliver Brignal as William Shakespeare.

American composer and conductor Philip Hagemann is only the second composer to transform a Shaw play into an opera. To date, he has published 75 choral compositions including Christmas novelty, Fruitcake, written with Penny Leka Knapp, which has sold over 200,000 copies and was featured in the US television series Nip/Tuck. He has also composed ten one-act and two full-length operas, two of which have won competitions from the National Opera Association in the US.

How familiar were you with the work of Pegasus Opera? Why did you want to work with them on these productions?

I have been friends with Alison Buchanan (now Artistic Director) since I met her at the Wexford Festival in October 2000. When she became the artistic director of Pegasus last year, I wanted to support her and Pegasus and it also provided me with an opportunity to have my operas presented in London. Since meeting Alison, I have followed Pegasus and have been impressed with its productions and educational outreach.

George Bernard Shaw

Why do you think these two one-act operas work well together as a double bill?

The two operas provide an excellent contrast in both their stories and their musical styles. Ruth is more traditional with set arias and The Dark Lady of the Sonnets is witty with plot twists and with complex musical rhythms. Also, given the current discussions of women in organisations and society, having two operas featuring women who are empowered fits the times.

These operas showcase women in leading roles. Do you think enough operatic work does this? 

There are many operas featuring women, probably more than men. Audiences love those high C’s and troubled women. Three of the most popular operas feature women: Aida, Madam Butterfly and Carmen.

Actors Church, Covent Garden

What is your inspiration for each piece?

For Ruth, I wanted a biblical story that featured a woman. Ruth’s story fits the bill. In the other main biblical story featuring a woman, about Esther, Esther plays a more passive role. Ruth is her own person mentored by Naomi. The Dark Lady of the Sonnets is my fifth opera based on a George Bernard Shaw play. His wit and human insights fit in well with my musical style.

You are only the second composer to adapt Shaw’s work as opera. Why do you think this is so rare?

Shaw’s plays are wordy and often academic, making it difficult for a music translation. For The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, I took out much of the talk of the National Theatre and created a happier ending. I have always loved Shaw’s plays. When I first used Shaw as a basis for an opera, with his one-act The Music Cure, I was hooked.The Music Cure has been done in colleges all over the United States.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Having the productions at the Actors Church (St Paul’s) has made this more special for me. Imagine my operas are performed with an audience of the past great English artista all noted over the church walls. What an honour! Please join us. I know you and your friends and colleagues will have a most enjoyable evening.

Ruth and The Dark Lady of the Sonnets run for four performances only at The Actors Church Covent Garden, Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ED. Performances are Wednesday 28 February, Thursday 1 March and Friday 2 March 2018 at 7.30pm and Sunday 4 March 2018 at 2.30pm. Tickets are priced £15-£35. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!

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Press Releases on Twitter
Press Releases
MyTheatreMates publishes a selection of daily press releases sent to us by publicists of the relevant show or theatre. We are not responsible for any inaccuracies contained within these materials.

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