Reimagining Wonderland

If Opera’s 2023 programme – which runs from 24 August to 16 September – brings opera back to the entrancing natural surroundings of Belcombe Court as well as to Wiltshire Music Centre in Bradford on Avon. Emma Clegg talks to Lysanne van Overbeek who is directing two productions – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Iolanta – and discovers there are connections between these two out-of-this-world tales

You’ll find fantastical tales, stories of intrigue and tragedy, talking animals and a high executioner in If Opera’s summer programme this year. Lysanne van Overbeek, who is directing two of the productions – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with music by Will Todd and Iolanta by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – has two very different pieces on her hands. One is an amalgamation of Lewis Carroll’s two endlessly reinvented Victorian nonsense stories, recently produced as an opera (2013), and one is a lyric opera sung in Russian in an established classical canon.

Lysanne, however, does see similarities between the two:
“In a way, Iolanta is quite similar to Alice in that both of the main characters need to gather the strength within themselves to move on in their own lives.”

Female empowerment is indeed a strong theme in both works. We know Alice from Lewis Carroll’s books as self-possessed and as a character on a challenging journey, but the narrative in Opera Holland Park’s specially commissioned version – which If Opera are using – is adapted to give a sense of Alice, rather than just her reactions to her surroundings and those she meets. “With Alice’s character it’s highlighted from the very beginning that she wants to travel; she wants to go to Honolulu and to Timbuktu. Halfway through the opera, Alice sings I Flew High in My Dreams, which leads her to find the courage to save her friends. We wanted to use this image and empowerment within that for the design and concept”, says Lysanne.

Reinventing established tropes in creative works can change the pace, emphasis and impact of a story, and is the pivotal energy behind restaging existing productions. With Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland this is perhaps especially necessary because we all take for granted the familiar image of a girl in a blue dress who meets a white rabbit and goes down a rabbit hole, and a creative reimagining provides news ways of engaging with the Wonderland story.

Lysanne explains, “The beginning of Alice is set up a little bit differently in this version. Alice arrives with her family in a pet shop and becomes entranced by a rabbit – she ends up in her own dream world and the rabbit starts talking to her. She helps the rabbit get out and then they fall down the rabbit hole.”

The characters Alice encounters form a smaller cast than are in the books, but there are all the big characters we know and love: the White Rabbit, the March Hare, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, the Caterpillar (who sings the rumbling Wonderland blues), the Dormouse, the White Knight and the pantomime dame Queen of Hearts. “Each character has their own scene to guide Alice on her journey. The White Rabbit has an eery but exciting aria trying to explain what is actually happening in Wonderland.

“At this point the Queen of Hearts has arrived and it’s causing turmoil. This is one of my favourite moments in the opera where we also see four characters called The Victorians who are the chorus within this piece. The Victorians help us go from one scene to the next, change the set and they sing with the rabbit in this aria. It is a beautiful piece – haunting and full of expectation and it sets up the story really well.”

It’s not a surprise to discover that this production has got something for everyone, especially a younger audience. Lysanne says, “It’s going to be colourful and the story will be easy to follow. The orchestra is central – I always notice how children love watching the orchestra as well as what’s happening on stage, so I want to involve the music and get children the opportunity to look at the music as well as the action.”

That is the beauty of fairy tales – they allow you to connect to any time period and have got a moral that we ­­­­can learn from

Lysanne’s approach to If Opera’s Iolanta – and all her operas, including Alice – is to connect with the narrative and focus on the story that she wants to tell. “Iolanta is about a princess who is blind but doesn’t know it and she is homed in this beautiful paradise garden where she is looked after and protected by her father until he can find a way of helping her and healing her.”
In true fairy-tale style a prince and a count arrive, the second of whom Iolanta falls in love with, and he then accidentally reveals to her what sight is. “Despite the revelatory and life-changing news, Iolanta absorbs it all and explains that she sees the world in a different way to him. She opens up his world explaining that you can be in touch with nature without seeing it. The piece has a strong ending about coming to terms with your own strength and your own life whilst connecting to nature, to the world that we live in. Kindness and care is really important in this piece and I love that.

“My favourite section is when Count Vaudemont and Iolanta have their duet together. He tries to explain about what colour is and she opens up his world by showing him how to see without seeing. It’s so beautiful because it’s not just about ‘let’s fix you’ but about how everyone’s way of viewing the world is valid, and how can we learn from each other.

“That is the beauty of fairy tales – they allow you to connect to any time period and have got a moral that we can learn from.”
Lysanne studied musical theatre but quickly shifted her career towards opera. “Ever since I was a child I knew I wanted to work in the theatre and I was particularly keen on music and musical theatre, especially linked to old Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, the style I loved, and this period represents the transition period from opera to musical theatre.
“I worked on one production as an actor where I was captivated by the company mindset of working with everyone together to create a piece and I realised that that was the bit that I loved, working with people and creating something together, not the standing on stage myself. So that’s when I looked at directing.”

Lysanne’s experience at If Opera has certainly captivated this thrill. “If Opera is such a lovely company to work for and it is incredibly empowering. Michael Volpe (Executive Director) and Oliver Gooch (Artistic Director) are so trusting of the people they work with and they want to help you make your creative vision happen and will support you with your ideas – and even if something is not possible they help you to find a different way.

“What I love about the experience at If Opera is working with one­­ company for a whole summer, on a variety of productions. What’s special about this is that you get to know and trust each other so well that you get a different dynamic and spark of magic.”

These sparks of magic, which also include Umberto Giordano’s Fedora, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado and a Picnic Prom, are being performed at Belcombe Court in Bradford on Avon within its special saddlespan marquee with dates in late August and early September (“The grounds of Belcombe are just stunning – it’s part of the experience,” says Lysanne.) This is with the exception of Iolanta which is at the Wiltshire Music Centre in Bradford on Avon. See the If Opera website for the full programme details.

Bath Box Office: 01225 463362;
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: 27 August at 1.30pm and 5pm; Iolanta: 13, 15 and 16 September at 7pm. 

The gardens at Belcombe Court are open for exploring and picnics before each performance of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland