The Devil’s Den: I chat to composer Isabella Gellis & conductor Finnegan Downie Dear about the new opera Shadwell Opera is presenting at the Nevill Holt Festival

The Devil’s Den: I chat to composer Isabella Gellis & conductor Finnegan Downie Dear about the new opera Shadwell Opera is presenting at the Nevill Holt Festival
Ben Edge: Devil's Den
Ben Edge: Devil’s Den

Shadwell Opera, artistic director Jack Furness, music director Finnegan Downie Dear, is presenting its first full-length commissioned opera on Saturday 15 June when the company performs Isabella GellisThe Devil’s Den at the Nevill Holt Festival as part of a ‘History and Music’ day that includes Michael Morpurgo’s Warhorse, Professor Alice Roberts, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall with music by Debbie Wiseman and much more. I recently sat down with conductor Finnegan Downie Dear and composer Isabella Gellis to chat about The Devil’s Den.

Isabella Gellis
Isabella Gellis

Shadwell Opera’s production of The Devil’s Den was already in the pipeline when Finnegan was invited by Nevill Holt’s guest artistic director James Dacre to conduct Melly Still‘s new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Finnegan suggested The Devil’s Den to the festival and they said yes. 

This was particularly gratifying as given the cultural resonances of Isabella’s opera, Shadwell were keen to perform it as part of a wider cultural offering, and Finnegan points to the way the festival has scheduled it alongside Michael Morpurgo, Alice Roberts and more. Finnegan is excited that they are able to present the first performance of a new opera not as a one-off event but alongside lots of different events full of wider cultural references.

Also at the festival, the artist Ben Edge will be talking about the folklore inspirations for his work. Finnegan describes Edge as bringing modern insights into folklore and his presence at the festival is particularly exciting because it was one of his paintings that was Isabella’s inspiration for the opera in the first place. The painting (and the opera) concern a dolmen in Wiltshire about which there is a superstition that if a good child runs around the dolmen seven times, nothing will happen, but if a bad child does so then the white rabbit that lives in the dolmen will turn into a fire-breathing toad (which is all very Wagnerian). Isabella, in fact, has no particular connection to English folklore, she was born in London to a Canadian Jewish mother, but something in Edge’s work resonates with her.

The first performance of The Devil’s Den will be semi-staged, the orchestra will be on stage but there were but some movement and it will be lightly dramatised, perhaps most importantly the work’s dance element will be present in the form of Morris dancers from Mendip Morris. The Morris dancers act as a Greek chorus, punctuating the drama. Having the Morris dancers will help present the essential flavour of the piece Finnegan feels and it is apt that the company comes from near to where the story originates.

Isabella explains that the Morris dancers were a key element to the genesis of the opera. She was at a Morris dancing workshop at Kings Place and realised she wanted to use them in a work. Looking at Ben Edge’s work, she found The Devil’s Den to be the most theatrically striking of his pictures. Another folk element in the opera is the charivari (or rough justice) whereby a public parade is used to humiliate perceived wrong doers featuring noise, humiliation and such. 

Finnegan points out that it might be no coincidence that one of Isabella’s earlier works was called Lady Skimmington – gentle rough music for orchestra. He describes the opera as an extraordinary tapestry of music, often melodic though there is only one real folk tune in it, full of folk elements, ritual and excitement, punchy but with bravura writing for the singers and a rich variety of sounds, some familiar, some new. The company hopes to be able to create a fully staged production, and Finnegan comments that it is important that pieces are able to be heard a second time. 

A lot of Shadwell’s work has been focused on pieces that have been seldom heard and deserve to be heard again. Previous productions have included Philip Glass’ In the Penal ColonySpeech Acts, a double bill of George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill and Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale presented on tour at community centres in 2015 before the General Electiona double bill of Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Mark Anthony Turnage’s Twice through the heart;  Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse [see our review]; a double bill of Edward Nesbit Antigone’s Grief and Janacek’s Diary of One who Vanished [see my review]; Oliver Knussen’s Where the Wild Things Are, and previously at Nevill Holt they presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in 2021 [see my interview with the production’s director, Jack Furness]. 

The company has also recently launched its ambitious Future Classics project, where it is looking back at the history of opera to inspire people to help them commission the classics of the future, aiming to commission three new operas over the next three years.

Presenting The Devil’s Den at Nevill Holt Festival is a real opportunity, and Finnegan hopes that the work spreads its wings and has a life afterwards. He and the company are proud to give it its first steps. The music is strong and so works well in a semi staging, and the festival’s Arcadian setting will surely make a big impact too, given the subject matter.

Isabella studied at the Royal Academy of Music, graduating with a Bicentenary Prize for all-round excellence, the Postgraduate Composition Prize, and the Musicians’ Company Priaulx Rainier Prize. Other recent and upcoming works also include a piano quintet, a piece for the LSO (as a participant of the Panufnik scheme), and a new orchestral work (Aspen Music Festival commission). She previously wrote a short piece for Shadwell’s digital series, an opera about a haircut, and her first opera was a 15-minute chamber opera for Tête à Tête in 2019, For Peace and Country. The Devil’s Den is her first opera on this scale. Her chamber opera took its text from a transcription of a video that her sister had made, so with The Devil’s Den, Isabella was working with a new libretto for the first time also. 

As ever with new opera, there is the challenge of being able to write the piece you, circumnavigating the funding issues. Shadwell wants to commission pieces that they love and then find the right way to frame them, providing a context so that people can enjoy the new work. Hence their ambitious Future Classics fundraising drive.

The Devil’s Den is being conducted by Finnegan Downie Dear and directed by Alex Gotch with a team of singers who are friends and regular collaborators with the company, Patricia Auchterlonie as the child, Lotte Betts-Dean as the Devil, Nicholas Morris as the Rabbit and Andy Tipple as the Druid, plus of course Mendip Morris. They have already done the piece in workshop, and Finnegan commends the energy the company has contributed during rehearsals, their willingness to get into the music, the way the singers take the challenge and do something with it. This is an aspect of music making in the UK that Finnegan sees as something powerful and special and we should celebrate it.

  • Find out more about Shadwell Opera’s Future Classics project at their website
  • Shadwell Opera present Isabella Gellis’ The Devil’s Den is at the Nevill Holt Festival on 15 June 2024 – further information

Never miss out on future posts by following us

The blog is free, but I’d be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog

  • Engaging, with an imaginative twist: Rossini’s The Barber of Seville at Opera Holland Park – opera review
  • A very modern sort of magic: Handel’s Alcina at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama – opera review
  • Sensitive solo performances, youth choirs and with a rediscovery of the original orchestral sound: Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius from Gabrieli, Paul McCreesh, Nicky Spence – record review
  • Taking the woman’s side: Poulenc’s La voix humaine and Fiançailles pour rire from Paula Sides and Sergey Rybin – record review
  • An Evening of Don JuanSongEasel’s imaginative programme certainly brings song to South East London in vivid performances from Ella Taylor and Jocelyn Freeman – concert review
  • Back to the 1960s: Opera Holland Park returns to its 2008 production of Tosca and creates a satisfying evening in the theatre – opera review
  • Telling a story: Solomon’s Knot in stylishly vivid form for the Canon’s version of Handel’s Esther – concert review
  • Doing Vivaldi proud: his Olympic opera performed with verve & imagination by Irish National Opera – opera review
  • Creating something remarkable: Fatma Said & Joseph Middleton in Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, de Falla, Obradors & Hankash – concert review
  • Thomas Roseingrave: Eight Harpsichord Suites and other keyboard works – record review
  • Home

Go to Source article