Image above: Wild Arts poster featuring Jesus Messiah, artist Jorge Cocco Santángelo
A version of the Messiah like you’ve never seen it before
Well, you may have. I have only seen the Messiah performed by a huge choir. My impression of Handel’s 1741 oratorio, which has become a Christmas staple and one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works, is chiefly one of mass and volume, with many voices belting out ‘Hallelujah’ in glorious chorus.
When I talked to Orlando Jopling, the founder of Wild Arts, the company performing Messiah at St Michael & All Angels Church in Chiswick on Saturday 9 December, he confounded my preconceptions by explaining the Messiah works perfectly well with a small group of musicians, and as for mass and volume, if you have the right combination of very experienced and professional musicians, you don’t need a crowd.
Performing it with just eight singers as Chamber music “brings it alive in a fresh way” he told me.
Image above: Orlando Jopling; photograph Lucy J Toms
Orlando is known as a conductor, cellist, artistic director, an organiser of festivals and serial founder of opera companies. He has worked with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the English Chamber Orchestra, the London Mozart Players and the Irish Chamber Orchestra among many others, both on the concert platform and in the recording studio.
He was principal conductor and artistic advisor of the Royal Orchestral Society for ten years and works as guest at the Royal Opera House and Royal Ballet. Productions include Tosca, Cavalleria Rusticana, I Pagliacci, Giselle, Mayerling and Coppélia. So it is fair to say he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to orchestral and operatic music. For the performance of the Messiah in Chiswick he will be playing the organ.
Orlando grew up with classical music. Both his sisters are professional musicians too. The three of them were immersed in the production of live music as their mother set up the Roman River Festival in Colchester, where they lived.
The festival, which Orlando now directs, puts world-class performers in unexpected venues including nightclubs, sailing ships under full sail, disused bus depots, care homes, derelict Victorian halls behind pubs, multi-storey carparks, supermarkets, offices, churches, schools, in pitch black darkness, and on the street.
Images above: Ben Hancox and Cara Berridge of the Sacconi Quartet in rehearsals for the Roman River festival; photographs Lucy J Toms
Classical music that is ‘fresh, enjoyable, and available to everyone’
It was during the enforced career break created by the Covid pandemic that he came up with the idea of Wild Arts: ‘sustainable, world-class music and opera for everyone’. Now in its second year, the company aim to make music ‘fresh, enjoyable, and available to everyone, while spearheading positive environmental change’.
What started out as a small group of musicians playing in people’s gardens has become a charity on a mission to bring live classical music with world-class performers to new places and people who have not had the opportunity to experience that kind of live music before; working intimate settings, in places which have not had a tradition of classical music festivals.
They set up a new opera festival in Essex and toured summer festivals with productions of Così fan tutte in 2022 and The Elixir of Love by Donizetti in 2023.
Wild Arts’ opera evenings prompted theatre critic Libby Purves to write:
“Wild Arts’ opera evenings are of a breathtakingly high, ROH-level musical standard – a gorgeous quintet of musicians and a most cunning choice of excerpts, mischievously well acted. I’d follow them anywhere.”
Now they are turning to their winter tour in venues where they know there is a ready-made audience for classical music.
St Michael & All Angels Church, Chiswick, is the first stop on a tour which will take them to Chichester, Bloomsbury and Cheltenham, finishing at the Tudor country house which is their base, Layer Marney Tower in Essex.
Image above: Essex Summer Opera Festival
Seeing children becoming involved in classical music is “one of the most fulfilling things we do”
Wherever they work they have a particular focus on working with schools, making a point of involving children, to give them the opportunity of experiencing music which otherwise they may not.
They invited 324 primary school aged children to the dress rehearsal of The Elixir of Love this summer, having prepared them with six sessions in their schools prior to the performance.
“It is one of the most fulfilling things we do” Orlando told me, “seeing a change in young people when they are introduced to classical music. They see it as something ‘over there’, something ‘nothing to do with me’ and it becomes ‘something that I am a part of’.
“Music in schools is in crisis. Anything we can do to get kids involved, we will. It is good for their confidence, for team-work, improving their brain development, their maths skills. I have had such joy and inspiration in my life from classical music I want to share it.”
Images above: The Elixir of Love, Left to right: Tom, Galina Averina as Adina, and Alex Jones as Dr Dulcamara; children in the audience; photographs Lucy J Toms
“London is new territory for us”
Wild Arts is in touch with a couple of schools in Chiswick, exploring ways in which they might work together.
They make the music accessible by telling opera stories in such a way that it’s “fun”, he says, making the story the focus, with the music as an “emotional underlay”. They sing in English, in small enough venues that the audience can hear every word, and they do not make the performances too long.
“People loved the immediate fizz. Even the cognoscenti. One opera goer who had seen Così fan tutte four or five times saw our production and told me it was the first time they’d understood it.
“London is new territory for us” he said. “I wanted to increase our profile”.
The performance of the Messiah in Chiswick will have no conductor, the focus will be on the individual musicians, who will be playing period instruments. Orlando will be playing a Chamber organ rather than the church’s organ, a small organ with a small keyboard which produces the right volume for a Chamber group.
Image above: St Michael & All Angels Church
Handel’s Messiah, performance details
Saturday 9 December at 7.30pm, St Michael & All Angels Church, Bath Rd, W4 1LW
Joanna Songi and Sofia Kirwan-Baez soprano
Martha Jones and Cath Backhouse mezzo-soprano
Richard Dowling and Harry Jacques tenor
Tim Nelson and Ed Hawkins bass
Sijie Chen and Will McGahon violins
Kay Stephen viola
Reinoud Ford cello
Carina Cosgrave double bass
Joel Raymond and Oonagh Lee oboes
Chris Rawley bassoon
Sam Lewis and Ruth Ross trumpets
Tom Lee timpani
Orlando Jopling organ
Tickets £35 – £45 (£15 for under 25s)
Tickets available here: tickettailor.com
Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar