Sestina's King Arthur

The singing group set Purcell's semi-opera in First World War territory for two performances in Belfast and Derry~Londonderry

In 2013, a fledgling group of young Northern Irish singers under the collective banner Sestina played a part in one of the musical highlights of the season – a production of English baroque composer Henry Purcell’s masque The Fairy Queen.

A year later, they are at it again, as the group’s director Mark Chambers explains. ‘The reception we got from The Fairy Queen was encouraging, to say the least. The collaboration with the dance in particular, with Bridget Madden, really added an extra element, and showed that we were pushing the boundaries with the performance aspect of early music.’

Now Chambers, himself an acclaimed classical counter-tenor, wants to push those boundaries further. Unsurprisingly, more Purcell has been chosen – King Arthur, another of the composer’s so-called ‘semi-operas’, where elements of music and dance are integrated with the spoken text of a drama.

The original scenario of King Arthur, by the poet John Dryden, focuses on battles between the Britons and Saxons in Arthurian legend, a period far distant from the present, and a subject hardly guaranteed to set the pulses of contemporary audiences racing.

That is why, as Chambers puts it, Sestina’s new staging will ‘really rip up the hymn sheet', in an effort to wrench the dramatic potential of the piece back into the present, and highlight the effectiveness of Purcell’s wonderfully evocative music.

‘The Dryden play was in its time a great success, with its political, allegorical story,’ notes Chambers. ‘But the language is a bit dry for modern audiences, so we are taking Purcell’s incidental music for that and basically writing our own story.’

The new story-line Chambers refers to retains a strong military focus, in this centenary year marking the outbreak of First World War hostilities. It is based on a book recommended to Chambers by his friend Thomas Guthrie, who will direct the Sestina King Arthur.

‘The script is based on a book called In Parenthesis, written in retrospect in 1937 by David Jones, talking about his experiences in the trenches. And one of the characters that he talks about is King Arthur, and the identity of the Celts, and the sense of tribal belonging of the men at the front.

‘So Tom took this idea and carved a few characters out from it. We’ve got a Major and his wife, and a young nurse and a young soldier who get married in the middle of the piece. We hope the audience will really feel for their story and their journey through the narrative.’

The process of specifically locating King Arthur firmly in Great War territory goes further. ‘We’ve been put in touch with an incredible guy called Davey McCallion from Ballyclare,’ explains Chambers. ‘He has this astonishing private collection of war memorabilia, with original uniforms and a lot of equipment and guns. So we’re going to use that to illustrate a lot of the action.’

McCallion’s extensive knowledge of the period will also be utilised in another key strand of the King Arthur project. ‘In the week leading up to the performance, we’ll invite schoolchildren in to the Ulster Museum to meet Davey, and talk about the items. We’re going to have our actor, Nicky Harley, wandering around in character, talking about her side of the war as part of the educational element.’

Arts & Business Northern Ireland have, it turns out, also had an input. ‘Our sponsor, Mark Allport, runs this amazing engineering company down in Newry,’ comments Chambers. ‘And we’ve been given a grant so that some of his engineers and craftsmen can build a World War One officers’ dug-out.

‘This is obviously for our production, but the idea is also to give Davey McCallion something for the legacy of his collection, so he’ll be able to set it up himself in schools, using lightweight materials, and instantly you’re in a dug-out.’

At the heart of the Sestina King Arthur will be the team of young Northern Irish singers responsible for setting the ensemble up in the first place. Some, including two 14-year-olds, are new members – others are continuing their involvement from last year’s inaugural project.

‘We’ve got 15 singers this time,’ says Chambers, ‘which is a big leap for us. There’s a lot of solo work, which the more experienced singers currently studying at colleges will bear the brunt of. But in the choruses we can really work on the style of delivering that with the younger singers, and pass on that experience.’

Chambers has no doubts whatsoever about the quality of the local singers he is working with. ‘The truth is I just believe that the singers are good enough,’ he says. ‘And I know that their passion for the music is as strong as mine. If it wasn’t I wouldn’t do it, to be honest. I’d go off and do something for myself.’

Expert coaching for the King Arthur soloists has already been provided by Sestina’s patron Paul McCreesh (‘a huge support’, says Chambers), the world-renowned conductor of the Gabrieli Consort, which has just won this year’s BBC Music Magazine Choral Award for its recording of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

Some Sestina members participated in that recording, through the Gabrieli Young Singers' Scheme, and McCreesh feels groups such as Sestina have a crucial role to play if they are to blossom into mature vocal artists. ‘It's vitally important to encourage singers to sing in consort, and to help bridge the gap between talented students and young professionals,’ he comments.

‘This group has come together as a result of Greg Beardsell's excellent work with the Ulster Youth Choir, and our own Gabrieli scheme. That they are coached by Mark Chambers, an outstanding Gabrieli singer and acclaimed soloist and teacher, augurs very well for an exciting future.’

That future continues to unravel at the Ulster Museum, Belfast, on Friday, April 25, and the following evening at Christ Church, Northland Road, Derry~Londonderry, when the singers of Sestina will be accompanied in King Arthur by an orchestra of seasoned international specialists on instruments of the baroque period.

These players are collectively, says Chambers, far more than merely a bunch of hired hands randomly recruited for the King Arthur performances. ‘They’re absolutely fundamental, and at the heart of what Sestina wants to do,’ he argues.

‘We want to collaborate with world-class musicians, the best players of these instruments in the world, and let young singers from Ireland be exposed to that expertise. When I put the beat down, the music just runs, the style is there. They just understand this extraordinary music, they’ve lived with it, it flows. It’s a really exciting collaboration.’