Saffron Opera Group

Posted on July 8, 2020


This week, the team behind Saffron Opera Group give you the inside story on how they produced seven critically acclaimed productions of Wagner operas at Saffron Hall.

The origins of Saffron Opera Group (SOG) were not in Saffron Walden at all; they were in Edinburgh. Twenty years ago our conductor, Michael Thorne, together with a colleague of his, Philip Taylor, founded the Edinburgh Players Opera Group. They believed that musicians and singers, both professional and talented amateur, would jump at the chance of being able to play the music of Richard Wagner – music that only those in the largest of the world’s opera companies get to perform. They were right and a nucleus of top-rate musicians and soloists has been assembled every year since then to rehearse and perform a work over a single weekend.

In November 2013, Mike Thorne was present at the very first concert in Saffron Hall; a performance of the Verdi Requiemby the Saffron Walden Choral Society. He was so impressed by the hall’s acoustic that he vowed to present concert performances of Wagner in it.

The first that Paul Garland and Fran Lambert learned about this was early in 2014 when Janet Wheeler, the Choral Society’s Musical Director, asked for volunteers to sing in the chorus for Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Paul immediately volunteered to manage the whole chorus aspect and Fran was asked if he would mind dealing with some “small administrative matters”.

Shortly thereafter Saffron Opera Group Limited was officially formed with Paul and Fran as directors. We were introduced to international soprano Elaine McKrill who had worked with Mike in Edinburgh and she kindly agreed to find all our soloists for us. Benefitting from her many years of experience of singing opera at the highest level, Elaine’s casting flair has consistently supported the ongoing artistic success of the company and, remarkably, she has even been able to achieve this within budget!

And so we started to put Die Meistersinger together with our chorus coming almost exclusively from SWCS under the expert leadership of Janet Wheeler. The orchestra was to be based on the St Albans Symphony Orchestra, but, halfway through the organisation process, Paul and Fran were advised that twenty top-level professional string players were to be added to the line-up. Apparently it was thought that the informality in Edinburgh would not work in Saffron Hall and the game would have to be upped. This completely shot the budget but we were lucky enough to be supported by the Yellow Car Charitable Trust without which SOG would never have got off the ground. Needless to say, the “small administrative matters” exploded exponentially into what is now virtually a full-time job made much easier by the presence of Jeff Thomson as our unbelievably patient and capable concert manager.

One of the problems of raising a chorus is that choral singers are very busy people and rehearsals for the chorus can only begin when their normal season of concerts has finished. This is why we perform in September, after choral societies’ summer concerts are over and before their rehearsals for the winter concerts begin.

SOG’s orchestra today is comprised of hand-picked musicians, many of whom also play for the Edinburgh Players Opera Group, but all known to Mike Thorne from his long-standing presence in the business. We have reduced the twenty “outside” professionals to about a dozen regulars and are now a pretty tight-knit group.

Scores for Die Meistersinger were distributed to the musicians some two months before the performance date so that they could familiarise themselves with them and iron out any particularly difficult bits. This is something we still do today and is very necessary as we are restricted to but two all day rehearsals with everyone together on the Sunday and Saturday immediately preceding our Sunday performance. To perform Wagner on just two full rehearsals has been described by Mike Thorne as “madness” but that’s what we do. We did admittedly have one extra rehearsal for Götterdämmerung! That we perform to the standard we do is a real tribute to the professionalism of our soloists, musicians and chorus members and the inspirational leadership of our conductor.

From the chorus members’ point of view, singing in an opera is very different from singing in Masses, Oratorios and the standard choral repertoire. There are very few “set pieces” but many interventions quite often of only a few bars each. This was particularly true in Die Meistersinger and in our one departure from Wagner when we did Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress; quite a culture shock for some!

So now we have eight performances under our belt, have employed no less than sixty soloists, have had our largest orchestra at over one hundred strong including all six harps for each part of the Ring Cycle and are now playing to full houses with people coming from as far as Spain and The Netherlands, as well as Manchester and Ebbw Vale! All of our recent performances have received standing ovations.

Sadly, COVID-19 has meant that we have had to postpone out next project, Tannhäuser, until 12 September 2021. Tannhäuser presents us with a new challenge as the chorus has to be our largest yet by a considerable margin. We are enlisting the additional help of the members of two other local choral societies and three London based ones, including James Davey’s Chantage, to make up the numbers. We had already sold a large number of tickets for this before lockdown so early booking is recommended even though it’s over a year away.

This article would not be complete without mentioning that we have made a big hit with the critics, Andrew Clements, for example, giving us a four star review in The Guardian for Siegfried. Wagner News on Götterdämmerung opined that “Theamazing story of the emergence of Saffron Opera as a major Wagnerian force now continues with Parsifal”.  Perhaps the last word, though, should go to The Spectator’s Michael Tanner who ended his review of Tristan und Isolde by saying, “…..but who would want to go to Bayreuth when they can go to Saffron Hall?”

To book tickets for Saffron Opera Group’s production of Tannhäuser in September 2021 click here

Join our newsletter