Director Polly Graham on Longborough and further afield

Award-winning opera and theatre director Polly Graham is Artistic Director of Longborough Opera and is bringing the Cotswolds company out of Covid lockdown with ambitious plays for the both the festival and work with associated artists.

A recipient of the Independent Opera Director Fellowship 2016, Graham’s productions have won Best Opera Production in the Wales Theatre Awards in both 2017 & 2018; she was nominated in the Newcomer category of the 2017 International Opera Awards and for the Royal Philharmonic Society Young Artist Award 2017.

She made her Vienna State Opera début in 2019 directing the world première of Olga Neuwirth Orlando. Her diverse staging repertoire has included the world première of Dani Howard Robin Hood for The Opera Story, The Gondoliers for the Royal Welsh School of Music and Drama, Dido & Aeneas for Blackheath Halls Community Opera as well as The Emperor of Atlantis with Loud Crowd at Bold Tendencies, London.

Graham’s main-stage début for Welsh National Opera with Frank Martin Le Vin Herbé attracted critical acclaim and followed two years with the company as a Genesis Assistant where she also directed the UK premiere of Iain Bell’s A Christmas Carol as well as Maxwell Davies Kommilitonen! Elsewhere she has directed the UK première of Karl Amadeus Hartmann Simplicius Simplicissimus for Independent Opera at Sadler’s Wells; A Christmas Carol in Trento, Le Vin Herbé (Der Zaubertrank) for Theater St Gallen and Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria for Longborough Festival Opera.

Mike Smith: What are your ambitions for the festival?

Polly Graham: My ambition artistically has been to elevate all four of our summer productions to the same artistic standard – previously there was a bit of a weird hierarchy between our productions of Richard Wagner and the other shows. I feel we’ve really started to crack this – every single show on offer last year and this year is now a very exciting proposition.
I am so proud we are presenting Korngold’s Die tote Stadt – it’s a late romantic masterpiece that was doomed to obscurity when the Nazi’s labelled Korngold’s music “degenerate” and has never had a proper bounce back in the UK – although in Europe it’s done fairly often. Two leading UK based singers making their role débuts as the two leads: Peter Auty and Rachel Nicholls.
In terms of our development of singers, we are incredibly proud that our Ring cycle is giving some of the most exciting UK based singers opportunities to make role débuts – Paul Carey Jones as Wotan, Lee Bissett as Brünhilde, Mark Stone as Alberich, Adrian Dwyer as Mime, Madeleine Shaw as Fricka…
We also run an Emerging Artists program, which gives 12 developing singers a main-stage show. This year they are tackling a very exciting double bill of the oldest surviving opera written by a woman, Francesca Caccini, and contemporary songs on female power by Freya Waley Cohen. This will be the first time we’ve presented contemporary composition at Longborough – it’s an exciting moment.
Our Emerging Artists program now also encompasses conductors – and Harry Sever, who is assisting Anthony Negus on Siegfried, will conduct one performance this summer! We are so lucky to have Anthony as our Music Director – and we are carefully building more and more opportunities for younger artists to come and work with him and learn from him.

Mike Smith: How did your time at WNO contribute to what you are doing now at Longborough?

Polly Graham: I learnt so much through my time at WNO from everyone who was part of that company. The programming which David Pountney did was so brilliantly audacious. I will never forget Moses und Aaron being presented in Cardiff. The bold internationalism and the high bar of intellectual rigour which David brought to his work and to Wales was an inspiration. The amazing company spirit of WNO was also something special which I carry with me, and many of the artists who came to work for the company were also a big influence. It was such a great experience for me!

Mike Smith: Do you have any relationships or hope to have with any other companies as a director and also as AD of Longborough?

Polly Graham: I’m directing a new piece at La Scala in the autumn, which is a great challenge, and I’m thrilled to be returning to Ireland to direct Così fan Tutte for Irish National Opera next year. (Polly will be directing the first new opera that La Scala has commissioned a entirely for children, based on a sale by Saint-Exupéry, composed by Pierangelo Valtinoni with a libretto by Paolo Madron. On stage from 15 October for 40 performances)

Mike Smith: How is Longborough coming out of lockdown?

Polly Graham: We’re extremely grateful to our supporters and audience, many of whom generously donated the value of their tickets in 2020. This fund enabled us to help the freelance artists affected by the cancelled 2020 festival, but also helped us to sustain the festival’s work as a whole. Thanks to this remarkable show of support from our audience, we were able to come back emboldened and stronger. We are listening to our audiences and communities more – we had the space to really interrogate why we were doing anything, and it has focused us.

Mike Smith: How essential, pivotal is the festival’s Wagner work to the Festival?

Polly Graham: It was a statement of intent to present the Ring cycle in our homemade theatre back in 2013. Having that kind of artistic ambition as part of our history shapes who we are. Now, I hope we can draw Wagner fans towards other repertoire. As an artist Wagner was such a disrupter and an innovator – it’s this which we all want to be our standard at Longborough. So the program will continue to look at other works which were influenced by Wagner as well as other projects which break new ground – this 2022 Waley Cohen/ Caccini double bill is a case in point. We also are planning how to approach Wagnerian titles we’ve yet to tackle as a company.

Mike Smith: Do you have any wish list productions for the future as Longborough and as a director more generally?

Polly Graham: YES! – it’s pretty long.

Images: Matthew Williams-Ellis

For full details of Longborough Festival Opera’s 2022 season:

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