Rehearsals for our new production of Swanhunter have started here at Opera North this week, a co-production with The Wrong Crowd. In the run up, we asked Director Hannah Mulder and Designer/Puppet Director Rachael Canning what audiences can expect from this inventive fusion of opera, puppetry and live action.
What’s the story of this opera?
Hannah Mulder: 'The story of Swanhunter is part of a Finnish epic poem called the Kalavala which was written in the mid 19th century. But the stories in the Kalevala were most likely taken from indigenous folk stories that already existed, so it's probably a lot older!
'Swanhunter tells the story of Lemminkäinen, a young man who fancies himself as a bit of a hunter and a bit of a ladies man. He decides to go to the North, against the wishes of his mother, to fetch himself a bride. But when he gets there he meets a witch named Louhi, who is not going to give up her daughters without a fight, and she sets him a series of almost impossible tasks.'
The Wrong Crowd's previous shows have also been based on folk tales. What is it about fairy tales and myths that appeals to you as theatre makers?
Hannah: 'In their essence, fairy tales are incredibly powerful stories that speak to people of all ages, especially in the darker versions before they were sanitised by the Victorians. They speak to all of us, adults and children, on a very deep level, about the experience of being alive. We want to make work that allows young people to kind of explore difficult stories, and folk tales allow you to do that without being too explicit or too personal.'
Rachael Canning: 'Folk stories are a gift to a designer, because there are so many different types of character that you can create and visually interpret in your own way. Swanhunter also takes place in some amazing and quite alien landscapes, and the lighting and design choices in this production are influenced by the far north. In places such as Iceland, there are so many phenomena that you can't quite explain, like the Northern Lights, that the idea of North holds quite a powerful influence. There's a certain kind of mystery and power which resonates with us, even if we've never been there.'
Music has featured strongly in The Wrong Crowd's previous shows, is it a natural progression to work on an opera?
Hannah: 'Yes definitely. It's amazing to have the opportunity to work with music all the way through and such evocative and powerful music and libretto at that. It's a different process of course and brings its own gifts and challenges. In a sense the atmosphere, tone and the key moments, are already set down for us and our job is more to interpret them and to bring them to life, than to create them from scratch, which is what we have done in the past.'
What role does puppetry play in this show?
Rachael: 'Opera is brilliant for puppetry because every bit of music has a certain sort of quality which then feeds into everything that you are doing, all of the movement of the puppets. We can create some really fantastic moments.'
Hannah: 'I think there's something really amazing and magical about puppets. It's very intrinsic in our human nature to really enjoy seeing something animated, and it heightens the magical aspects of the story. Puppetry does theatrically what we're most excited about, firing the imagination and inviting audiences to play with us. There’s a sort of wonder and engagement to that process.'
Jonathan Dove wrote Swanhunter especially for younger audiences. How do you approach making work for younger people?
Hannah: 'The key thing is not to patronise young people. We trust them and their imaginations and their sophistication, and their ability to come with us and be engaged. On the other hand we want to make something that's really accessible and that will take audiences by the hand and lead them into a world that we can all play in together. It's for the kid in all of us and the adult in all of us on an equal level, so that adults aren't just going to take the children. They are both going to really engage with it and come away wanting to talk about it together.'
As we speak, it’s Research and Development week - what have you been working on so far?
Rachael: 'So far we've been mainly working on the physical aspects and the big moments that we'll create, things we need to test out - key visual things, such as how we create water for the swan, and how the different beasts are created. We've been looking at the swan and how it will swim, and thinking about how and when our singer will be getting up to some pretty stratospheric high notes at the same time as puppeteering!'
Swanhunter is performed at venues throughout England between 2 April and 3 May, including the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House and the Howard Assembly Room at Opera North. Visit the Swanhunter page to see a full list of venues and dates and to book tickets.