Mary's Hand

Guest #ForArtists Blog: Clare McCaldin: From Plain Jane to Queen Mary

Tuesday, 09th March 2021

As part of our #ForArtists offering, we’re inviting past Festival artists to share their experiences, and tell you how their opera became a reality. In today’s blog, Clare McCaldin reflects on how performing at the Festival enhanced her agency as an artist.


From Plain Jane to Queen Mary 


I had been attending performances at the Tête à Tête festival for a few years before I did mt own show. It occurred to me that I was always waiting to be invited into someone else’s show. It seems pretty obvious now, but I hadn’t previously considered my own creative possibilities, only what I could offer by interpreting someone else’s work.



Taking the plunge: A Voice of One Delight


I gave the premiere of Stephen McNeff’s A Voice of One Delight, about the real-life events surrounding the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley, in concert at the 2010 Presteigne Festival. The composer and I discussed a staged presentation over a post-show drink. Reimagining a work I had already performed in concert seemed like a safe way to explore being the only character on-stage, as well as the behind-the-scenes role as the show’s producer. Having reassured Tête à Tête that the piece already existed and was therefore a dead cert for its 2012 Opera Festival, I called on a trusted ally, Joe Austin, who had directed me in Hary Janos and The Cunning Little Vixen. Not only did he bring a strong creative game of his own, he also brought a whole group of other creatives including production designer Simon Kenny and lighting designer Kit Nairne. Employing people with whom you already have a working relationship isn’t just about saving time. As a first-time producer who was also the performer, the most reassuring thing for me was knowing that they were already a functional team. Aware of my own inexperience, I wanted to know that someone else in the room had probably encountered any issues that could arise.


Stephen McNeff and I had taken the decision to slim down the musical forces from the original trio (flute, viola and harp) to piano, for pragmatic reasons of cost and simplicity. We therefore needed a soloist who could draw a new palette of sounds from the single instrument. Enter Libby Burgess, a rising star and gifted accompanist, whose creative approach not only helped me to bring Jane to life in A Voice of One Delight, but was essential to Vivienne, our next project.


Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2012 was held at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, a wonderful venue for the large number of small events, linked by a central bar in which audience and artists mingled between performances to review and reminisce. The practicalities of the Festival were a giant jigsaw, with some shows performing over several days but having to clear “their” space each night to allow others to rehearse there during the day. Somewhere there was a monstrous spreadsheet coordinating the Tête à Tête crew, management and volunteers, whose contribution supported simultaneous performances in black-box studios, foyers and outdoor areas. 


That first year I defined my success as managing to pay everyone a small fee (thanks to an Arts Council grant) and not falling over or forgetting my lines during my own performance. If I had never produced or performed another solo show, the experience would have been worth it for everything it taught me about my capabilities.



Fine tuning: Vivienne


By that point, however, Stephen McNeff had come to me with another idea for a show, based around the life of TS Eliot’s much-maligned first wife Vivienne. This would be a new piece, not a revival. It had been kicking around in Stephen’s imagination for a while. Once commissioned the six linked songs seemed (at least to me) to spring onto the page remarkably easily. Stephen knew the ideal librettist – Andy Rashleigh, with whom he had worked before on a version of Eliot’s The Waste Land – and my pre-production creative involvement was largely limited to feedback on the vocal part. Vivienne is a much more virtuosic character than the woman in A Voice of One Delight, with a more ambiguous relationship to the audience, and a proper mad scene at the end. The detailed process of developing her for the stage was just what I wanted from the project and pushed me to ask more of myself as a performer.


As a producer there were key learnings from A Voice of One Delight that I wanted to apply to Vivienne. First, was to deepen the relationships forged through our previous success, namely Libby at the piano and Joe and his team creating the production. Second, was to make a show that could potentially tour, and was therefore quick to build and strike. The white furniture and floor-cloth defining the performing area were elegant solutions to these practical issues as well as implying the madhouse in which Vivienne may have found herself. In some locations we might have a lighting rig on offer, but in others we would only have ambient lighting with little control, so the set needed to work under all conditions. 


I realised that I would feel short-changed by a run of only two shows (for which all thanks, Tête à Tête 2013), given the cost and effort involved in making the show. The character of Vivienne offered a lot of ways to develop my own performing skills so I sought out other dates later in the year at The Forge in Camden (alas, closed in 2017), the Bloomsbury Festival, and the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House. A five-star review for the Tête à Tête premiere in the Evening Standard was the icing on the cake. 


I wanted to be more on the front foot in publicising the show with a considered communications plan. As is often the case, this required a publicity image before we had production photos. With a midnight deadline for the Camden Festival brochure looming, we took some photos in my kitchen and photoshopped the results into a strong image of Vivienne in profile, wearing a red hat. Later, as the production took shape, we wanted to include the red hat in the action and had to scour London for a real hat that would pass for the photoshopped one. Returning to the Festival I was also more alert to the support offered to its artists by Tête à Tête, whether to learn about our audience by adding our own questions to the exit questionnaire for patrons, or simply feeling free to ring up and ask for specific advice about who or how.


Interestingly, Vivienne followed a reverse musical trajectory to its predecessor, developing from a solo piano original to a chamber ensemble evoking the Palm Court sound Vivienne loved so much. This was premiered in 2018 as a concert work with the Berkeley Ensemble. The piece remains richly satisfying to perform both as a dramatic stage work and as a song-cycle in concert.



Getting ambitious: Mary’s Hand


My appetite as a producer had been properly whetted. Various projects were hatched and died before my third show emerged in conversation with composer Martin Bussey. I had already performed some of his songs and he mentioned that he now wanted to write something for the stage, probably around the character of Catherine of Aragon. I brought him together with a writer who had himself played Henry VIII for the small-screen thinking that this would be ideal, as the librettist already knew the terrain intimately. 


But somehow it didn’t quite work. In the course of many conversations around previous shows I had developed a better sense of what I wanted and now, for the first time, I was in at the very start of the process when even the subject was still being finalised – I found I had strong opinions about the character we were creating and what I wanted the piece to say. It was my first experience as producer of disagreeing with the direction the work was taking and having to do something about it. I believe most people know when something isn’t working and the librettist and I parted on good terms, but that first moment of imposing myself felt important. Happily, I was already working with writer-director Di Sherlock on another project and turned to her for advice as she had form with the Tudors. Introducing her into my conversation with Martin initiated a collaboration which was to prove immensely fruitful and instructive for us all.


The show that came of thisMary’s Hand – eventually took shape around the personality of Mary 1st, daughter of Catherine of Aragon by Henry VIII. Like Vivienne, Mary 1st was a real-life character and worthy of reputational review. It quickly became clear that Mary’s Hand was a piece on a rather different scale from its McCaldin Arts predecessors. Piano was replaced by a trio comprising trumpet, oboe/cor anglais and cello, and a plan emerged to harness the historic atmosphere and architecture of churches. This necessitated carrying our own lighting with us which increased the scale and complexity of touring, Andie Scott’s skillful and compact production design notwithstanding. We crowd-funded the cost of the famous Mary’s Hand dress, an object that functioned as set, prop and costume, dismantled as the singer strips herself of queenly finery during the the performance to reveal the woman beneath the crown. 


We also took the protagonist into a much more direct relationship with the audience than we explored in Vivienne. Mary’s deck of cards represents royal characters around her and each card has an associated musical section – cards are chosen blind by audience members during the show, shuffling the order in which the music is performed. For the first time a try-out became not just desirable but really necessary, to test the structure of the work. We presented this to an invited audience at St Paul’s Church, Wilton Place in April 2018. This helped us to make some critical technical decisions but also inspired us to incorporate the architecture of the host venue into the performance. The challenge of fulfilling this ambition was immediately apparent when we premiered the finished work in August 2018. Since its move in 2014 to the King’s Cross area of London, Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival has presented performances in a variety of different venues, but not often ecclesiastical ones. Luckily for us, the Church of the Holy Cross was happy to host two performances of Mary’s Hand but the internal geography of the church required a lot of re-blocking to make the most of the dramatic possibilities offered by the space. We continued to re-block the show in each subsequent performance.


As Mary’s Hand has gone on to tour around the UK we have adapted to it to all kinds of churches and at least one traditional theatrical space. With the added variety created by shuffling the movements, this has made the show feel very different in each venue. I’ll never forget the look on the faces of our three instrumentalists when we first explained that the order of the music would change from show to show and that they would only know what was coming next when I (in character, mid-performance) told them. It’s just the sort of crazy idea that Tête à Tête encourages and I wouldn’t have had the nerve to try it had I not developed my courage over two previous shows. It paid off, too, with another 5-star review in a national broadsheet and shout-outs in The Stage and Opera magazine.


Alas COVID has brought the tour of Mary’s Hand to a screeching halt and we have yet to discover whether we will be able to reschedule lost dates. To keep up to date with our future plans to perform Mary’s Hand, please check our webpage and in the meantime, you can see the very first performance on Tête à Tête’s website.