By Joseph Fahim
The Royal Opera House’s highly touted production “Beloved Friend” was the highlight of the 8th Abu Dhabi Festival, which closed on April 7. Based on the letters exchanged between Russian music composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky and his muse/patroness Nadezhda von Meck for 13 years, this beautiful, intimate production was the very first Royal Opera production to show in the Arab world.
Earlier this year, the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (ADMAF) struck a strategic partnership with the Royal Opera House to utilize its expertise in the foundation’s ambitious educational program.
Daily News Egypt spoke to Lady June Chichester, Countess of Chichester and trustee of the Royal Opera House, and Danny Wyler, co-producer of “Beloved Friend,” about the partnership between the two parties, the origins of the play and the future of their cooperation with Abu Dhabi.
Daily News Egypt: Can you discuss how the partnership of the Royal Opera House with the ADMAF came about?
Danny Wyler: Our chief executive, Lord Hall, met Mrs. [Hoda] Kanoo. They’re two inspiring people and both of them inspired each other. They looked at ways with which the Opera House could work together with ADMAF and found a logical link between the Opera House, with its world class talent producing world class opera ballet and many, many other things, and this outreach program which goes deep in community and has education programs.
We want to bring our programs and our productions to a wider audience. This is an objective Lord Hall and the Opera House has always had, and ADMAF has an incredible job of starting something from scratch that has now a truly international appeal and truly world class quality, but needs strategic partnership to build on that. It’s a marriage made in heaven; it’s a very logical partnership and I think both parties intend to last for a very long term and many years to come and bring things to each other. This is just the start.
Lady Chichester: We hope this will inspire people. The Opera House is so rich in talent. There’s so much we can bring, and we feel very privileged to bring it because it gives us an understanding of the [Arab] culture. This is what culture does: We’re mixing and mingling and talking with other musicians and other people and discussing ideas. You don’t get to do that if you’re a tourist, staying in your hotel and minding your own business.
Is this your first partnership with an Arab institute?
LC: Yes, it is.
Were your expectations about the partnership met?
DW: Very much so. You never know what to expect. It’s never easy doing something on a new stage and with new people. When we came in January for our preparatory visit, I think our people were really impressed by how the [Emirates] theater runs. Very high level of professionalism.
I think reaching out to children … the community actually and not just children, is one of the things that inspired us. The Royal Opera does the same; we reach into the community. Much of it is education, but we also target communities, including older people who are maybe isolated or have talents they haven’t used, and to bring culture to any people is a fertile ground to set new traditions, leads to new appreciation, and that leads to growth, new opportunities and expressions.
What is the genesis of “Beloved Friend”?
LC: It all started with a letter. I think a very good way to tell a story is through people’s letters, because they are facts. They communicate what people are thinking and feeling at the time. No amount of fiction can really speak the way letters can. This particular relationship is a fascinating one. It’s a love story. These two people, Tchaikovsky and Nadezhda von Meck, poured their hearts out in their letters, and they were very emotional and quite spiritual. Tchaikovsky lived through his music, Nadezhda understood his music, he felt understood and this led to an extraordinary relationship.
You tell a story, about those people who are dead and buried, but here are their voices, this is really what they said, this is really what they thought. Of course you need some narration to put the story together. And then you turn to someone like Sir Ronald Harwood, who’s an Oscar-winner and an incredible playwright whose plays are about music and musicians, to put the letters together in an entertaining story.
Then we went to John Warrack, a famous musicologist who’s written many books, many biographies on Tchaikovsky. We put together with him the music, so that the music chosen for that hour and a half illustrates and magnifies the feelings and the emotions in the letters, so that everything comes as a beautiful whole.
DW: You have to pay attention to the surtitles. It is incredible to see Tchaikovsky’s songs and how relevant the words are to the story. They really support the story. They carry the story. And it’s a way of telling the story of this incredible story and what it meant.
Apart from Abu Dhabi, the production has not travelled anywhere else outside England. Are you planning to take it somewhere else in the near future?
DW: I think that although it’s easily transportable, but to do it with the talent we bring here is quite difficult. With “Beloved Friend,” you have to have Russian singers. And even among the Russian singers, the very few among the very top level that can perform are very difficult to book. It’s not that easy to bring our top musicians, to bring our top dancers, to bring our top actors. So even if the production as such can travel easily, to bring the top talent together is not at all easy. That was our main challenge in coming here, to get today with our various people, and we feel very proud that we were able to do it with almost totally the same cast that performed at the Buckingham Palace for Prince Charles.
What do you hope to accomplish with the partnership with ADMAF in the future?
LC: Just to see the flowering of cross-culture. I don’t think I would like to see into the future and give a prediction because one of the beauties of this kind of collaborations is who knows where it will lead. Who knows what it’s going to do. But only good, that’s the only thing I can say with certainty. I’ve seen already so often when people get together and talk, the most unexpected things happen. Even this performance happened in the most unexpected way. I was talking to a musician about Tchaikovsky, that idea came, and look what it’s brought to the Opera House in all sorts of extraordinary ways.
DW: You could have something happening in a completely different third country with two people that met here and inspired each other to use an Arabic tale for example, deeply steeped in your culture, added to music and musicians and new collaborations and who knows what comes out. That’s our hope.
Abu Dhabi treated to a Tchaikovsky-inspired masterpiece, ‘Beloved Friend,’ as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival.