Phoebe Briggs on the pleasures and challenges of conducting Respighi’s rarely heard marionette opera for Victorian Opera.

What can audiences expect from this rarely heard opera?

It’s a traditional setting of the classic fairy tale, enhanced by Respighi’s theatrical vision and incorporating puppetry into the musical world.

Respighi specifically composed The Sleeping Beauty for a young audience. Is this something that a child today could attend?

Yes, absolutely. Each character is clearly defined musically and children will certainly be able to follow the story very easily, and will be swept along by the storytelling of the puppets and singers. As in any fairy tale there are dark elements to the story, but I do believe it’s an opera that’s suitable for both children and adults. The puppetry, shadow puppetry, singing and music will appeal to audiences of any age.

 Victorian Opera’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photo © Charlie Kinross

Many audience members are only really familiar with Respighi through his tone poems. What might surprise them about the composer of this opera?

I think what will surprise the audience is Respighi’s ability to jump effortlessly from style to style and from mood to mood. He inserts a Cakewalk or Foxtrot in amongst the neoclassical Marches and Minuets to keep the audience on their toes and this really shows Respighi’s sense of humour shining through. The tone poems are large expansive works whereas his writing here is more compact. He uses styles that are familiar but inserts unexpected harmonies and syncopations to give a modern feel to the work.

With subject matter like this, and a score full of lyrical, delicate music, how do you avoid slipping into the saccharine to emphasise the opera’s real dramatic stakes?

I think it’s important to play each moment genuinely. Respighi’s melodies for characters such as the Blue Fairy and the Princess (both sopranos) are sublime and the orchestrations that accompany them beautiful. The piece provides enough contrast between all the characters and their soundscapes to never let the potentially overly sweet moments take over!

Respighi notably had a real sense of humour when composing The Sleeping Beauty. There are plenty of musical allusions and parodic elements in the score – what has it been like discovering them with the orchestra?

I’ve had a few laugh-out-loud and ‘oooh’ moments when I realised what Respighi was quoting, as well as the slow recognition of more subtle moments that he has borrowed from other works. I feel that rather than being direct parodies they are compliments to other composers and intended to trigger memories and emotions for the audience.

How do you balance the more outré moments (for example, the inclusion of the American tourists) with the more delicate, toy-like music of the score?

These scenes will surprise the audience as they really do come out of nowhere. I love that Respighi takes us into the modern “real” world and then takes us to another emotional level as the Prince seeks out the mysterious sleeping Princess. Rather than being outrageous, I feel that these diversions add another dimension rather than keeping the audience just in the fairy tale world.

The opera calls for a modestly sized orchestra – what are the joys and challenges of working with a smaller group of players?

With a smaller orchestra every player is extremely important and quite exposed. Respighi was a wonderful orchestrator and had the ability to make a small orchestra sound like a larger one and also to create a wide variety of colours with the instruments available. We have decided to use a moderately sized string section so that the variety of solo and sectional writing for the strings can shine through. I think the players will really enjoy being part of a smaller ensemble, and part of the work as a whole as it is such an ensemble piece!

As you said, The Sleeping Beauty is very much an ensemble piece. How do you work with singers to achieve a true sense of the ensemble?

Each singer has multiple roles and also sings as part of the ensemble to create each scene. Respighi’s score calls for particular combinations of voices in each ensemble. I have varied the size of these ensembles to create particular colours. Using smaller numbers for some scenes adds a vulnerability and intimacy to the moment. I’ve also encouraged the singers to use character voices for particular scenes such as the Frog scene or the Cat in the Spinning scene.

The piece is relatively short at 90 minutes, and it’s interval free. What does that sustained dramatic experience mean for the audience, and how do you approach this task as a conductor?

Performing the work without an interval means that the audience comes with us on an uninterrupted journey. Respighi has written the piece in such a way that each scene is a clear dramatic shift so the story doesn’t get bogged down in any one particular moment. As the conductor I also need to make these shifts clear and give each moment time to read and not rush these pivotal moments. It’s important to pinpoint the dramatic heights of the piece too so that you can work towards these and build the momentum so that they read well.

Puppets will be used in this production as a nod to original performance. What has that been like?

When the work was first performed the singers were in the pit and the puppets acted out the story on stage. For our production the singers are onstage as well. I’ve been delighted to see the singers and puppeteers working together to create the characters of this opera. The development from the first days of improvisation and workshopping of ideas by the puppeteers, to the fine tuning of each movement of a puppet’s face or body as they respond to the music, the singers’ voices, and the meaning of the text has been fascinating to witness. The sheer joy, humour and pathos that Joe Blanck’s extraordinary puppets bring to the production heighten each moment of the music and add to the depth of the emotional journey of the characters. The challenge for me is to remember to cue the singers, not the puppets!

Victorian Opera’s The Sleeping Beauty is at Arts Centre Melbourne March 11 – 18