Chances are if you like the social banter, Maggie Smith wit and social dramas of Downton Abbey… You will like the tale of Albert Herring! Albert Herring is Benjamin Britten‘s much loved rollicking comedy about the only virgin left in a tiny English town, a meek mama’s boy who has a night he’ll never forget. Performed by the classical students at WAAPA from October 10th – 15th, this is one not to miss.

We spoke to the creative team about the show to give some insight into the show. First we talked to the design team, Sallyanne Facer (Costume Designer), about the process of creating the world of Albert Herring.

Can you walk us through the design process for Albert Herring? What have you drawn inspiration from?
SF: The design process for Albert Herring started around April when Tyler and I had our first meeting with Thomas. He encouraged us to start off very broad with our research for the opera so I spent quite a bit of time researching the time period in which it’s set and all the social and political things that were happening during the 1900’s. I also did research into Benjamin Britten and his life and the period when he wrote the opera to try and gain more background information about the ideas in the piece. I then went through the script several times so that I could extract all the important information that related to characters and their costumes; number of scenes, locations, times of day, characters personalities and relationships with each other.
After a few more meetings we decided that we wanted to set the piece specifically in 1914 so that we could play with the tension in Britain during that time. So I drew my inspiration largely from research into England between 1900 and 1915 with a focus on country towns, particularly in the Suffolk area. It was also important that the costumes were more realistic to balance with the slightly more abstract set, but we were more focused on communicating information about the characters than being 100% period correct. I really liked the look of all the old black and white photographs I was coming across in the my research and this gave me the idea to restrict the colour palette of the costumes to shades of grey, with occasional pops of colour for emphasis when needed, to reinforce the major themes of the opera, particularly the oppression felt by all the characters to varying degrees.
What should the audience look forward to?
SF: The audience should look forward to a great show with lots of beautiful costumes and great performances! In particular I love Albert’s May Day look and Miss Wordsworth coat, which were both made from scratch for the show!

We then sat down with director Thomas De Mallet Burgess and music director David Wickham and discussed the show.

What can we expect from the town of Loxford? Who are these characters and what is the world?

TDMB: The town of Loxford is an imaginary town, taking inspiration from the real town of Yoxford. It’s set in Suffolk, a county in the east of England that is batted by cold winds coming in off the north sea and a really unfriendly coast part which is fast disappearing. Further in land there are beautiful villages in the middle of the country suffering under the oppression of layers of cloud and are landlocked and isolated from the other villages. Within these places there are the little communities that develop that have really defined hierarchy and a set of rules and regulations that have grown up, some of which are tradition but others of which are being enforcing the importance of hierarchy and obtaining it.

One can look at these little towns and think “Oh it’s so cosy, there’s community!” but if you dig deeper there is seething jealousies and rivalries and prejudices just bubbling beneath the surface. What Britten does so brilliantly is let us into that world and undermine it. Undermine it first of all by exposing it and then secondly by creating this anti-hero in Albert Herring, who is everything one doesn’t anticipate a hero to be. He may be physically strong but he’s dominated by his mother, hasn’t quite figured out where his character lies and he has very little interest in seeing and exploring the world… There couldn’t be a less likely candidate to turn the village on it’s head! He does it by a combination of hard-witting desire and accident.

DW: It’s the preference for the underdog. The sympathy for the little guy against the tall poppies. England still has it – whilst the class system is largely ironed out in most places, it still exists in places such as Aldeburgh. Accent and how you speak, where you lived and where you went to school played an enormous part.

What makes Albert Herring musically and theatrically exciting for audiences and perfomers?

DW: It’s so precise. All of the character decisions, the inflections, grand sweep and all the detail… It’s all in the score if you look for it! I find myself agreeing with Thomas with everything he says coming from the complete opposite direction. I grew up in these towns and one of the things I’m pleased to see in Albert Herring is that this comedic world of Loxford does speak to the 20-something year old cast members. 100 years on, these stories shouldn’t speak to young audiences… Except that they really do! You know who these characters are, and they’re not just stereotypes.

Britten’s genius is casting it in really quite friendly music: He’s really clear with what he wants all the time, it’s beautifully written for everyone and everything’s been thought of. He’s used a lot of, what was then, popular music for the characters to set the scene.  There are echoes of church music and psalms, music hall concerts, popular dance music, brass band and military music – it’s all in there! What makes it so exciting is just how precise it is! Britten has got the most vivid theatrical imagination of any English-speaking composer.

TDMB: In the 21st century it seems like we are all incredibly busy and we are all chasing success. We are taking success and celebrating it in the workplace, achieving goals, realising our dreams and… It’s really refreshing to have a piece that just celebrates amateurism, which the British do very well. When I grew up, you didn’t expect any English sports team to do anything well. In the Olympics, there was usually a British team that did relatively well, but mainly we celebrated not coming last! That’s all changed now… Sport has become this hyper-specialization with the pressure to take drugs and shortcuts and succeed. This opera celebrates what it is to be completely amateur and to celebrate completely stuffing things up. In the opera, at one point or another, every character stuffs something up and it’s so wonderfully liberating to watch that.

Why should people come and see Albert Herring?

DW: You’ll laugh. It’s super intelligent. It doesn’t preach, it doesn’t explain, it’s just alive.

TDMB: If you’re interested in opera, you won’t get another chance to see this work in Perth any time soon. It’s in English, so you should understand what’s going on without the need for surtitles. It’s a comedy, it’s funny, so it’s actually a great evening out. If you’ve NEVER been to an opera before, these are also great reasons as to why you should see the show. The music is witty and in moments it challenges… but it’s very easy to relate to.

Albert Herring is on from the 10th to the 15th of October at the Geoff Gibbs Theatre, WAAPA. There are two casts presenting shows. The Shiraz Cast will be performing on the 10th, 12th and 14th and the Merlot Cast on the 11th, 13th and 15th. Buy tickets here.