BBC Proms at Printworks London
BBC Proms, the original music for the masses, came to Printworks this year with an operatic spectacular conceived by countertenor Anthony Roth Constanzo. He combined baroque masterpieces by Handel with a series of works by Philip Glass, inviting international artists of all forms to collaborate in this unique event.
The BBC Proms are known for their illustrious history and dedication to promoting the accessibility of orchestra music. Conceived in 1895 with the aim to bring music to a wider audience, in 2007 the event was described by the Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek as ‘the world’s largest and most democratic musical festival’. The name comes from Victorian England, when audiences would stroll or ‘promenade’ around parks and pleasure gardens as they listened to music. Robert Newman, who was to launch the proms as we know it today, wanted to capitalise on this popularity to fill the newly built Queen’s Hall in London. He brought in a large and varied audience by providing cheaper standing-only tickets, and by allowing them to eat, drink and smoke throughout recitals.
The spirit of openness and experimentation that inspired the series remains to this day. The BBC took over the running of the proms in 1927 and moved into the Royal Albert Hall following the Second World War. There are standing tickets available at low prices every day of the proms, and the series is increasingly using alternative venues and partnerships to explore more avant-garde productions.
Costanzo took an adventurous, multidisciplinary approach to the show, in which he paired the baroque masterpieces of Handel with new works by the father of American minimalism, Philip Glass. The production found a perfect home at Printworks London, a venue that combines the grandeur of a cathedral and the pared-down aesthetic of a New York loft. A central stage housed the English National Opera Orchestra, around which processed dancers choreographed by Justin Peck, accompanied by live-action painting by the artist Glenn Brown. Lights and multimedia installation brought the audience’s attention into the rafters of the space: onto the balcony where the beatboxing ‘nature beatboxer’ Jason Singh performed growling special effects and towards two vast screens showing films by nine visual artists.
Films included a brightly coloured surrealist montage by Maurizio Cattelan, and an animated collage by the American painter Mickalene Thomas. But the most memorable film was one by Tilda Swinton, of spaniels splashing and bounding across beaches to a tune from Handel’sFlavio. The eccentricity and generosity of Swinton’s film – all floppy ears and seascapes – was the perfect accompaniment to the stagecraft. Constanzo has a famously emotive performance style, which was matched by bright red costumes designed by Raf Simons: red lapels for the orchestra, smart red turtlenecks for the ushers and a satin gown for the countertenor, tied at the neck with a great big bow.
Costanza wanted to reflect the original meaning of the ‘proms’ in his production with Printworks. The performance was therefore designed to encourage movement, with both Costanzo and the audience ‘promenading’ the length of the Press Halls during the programme. Costanza himself led the processions, guided by ‘ushers’ holding fluorescent light sticks overhead to cut a path through the audience. One of the most powerful moments in the show is all in motion, as the singer performs from Tolomeo as he walks through the crowded audience. The show ended with ‘Hymn to the sun’ from Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, an opera based on the life of the Egyptian pharaoh. Often described as the composer’s most ‘conventional’ opera, it was electrified here by the culmination of Peck’s choreography. With the help of his collaborators, Costanza held nothing back in reimagining these masterpieces of opera for the post-industrial age at Printworks.