‘I got sick to death – particularly at university – of being asked to perform nothing but Handel and Bach. And I thought: there is more to music than this’.
I’m in the cafe at the British Library, speaking to Oliver Doyle. He’s a PhD student, harpsichordist and tenor, and in 2016 he co-founded Musica Antica Rotherhithe, a group which specialises in performing rare early repertoire. The previous week, I’d gone to Holy Trinity Church in Rotherhithe to hear their concert of opera excerpts by two 17th-century composers: Stefano Landi and Adriano Banchieri.
Those names would be a tough sell anywhere, you’d think – even more so in a residential part of London many aren’t familiar with. But the church was packed. Clearly this group was doing something right, and I wanted to find out more.
‘A lot of people said oh, it’s hard to get audiences for this’, Oliver says of his desire to break from the Bach-Handel mould. ‘And I thought: look at France, or Germany, Spain, Belgium…look at the audiences that will pack out venues to hear obscure 17th-century Air de cour or Italian opera of the same period. Why can’t we emulate that here?’
The concert certainly provided lessons in how to engage an audience. Before a note was played, Oliver introduced the music with a warm and easy manner, setting a tone of informality that made us feel included (it’s amazing how often this courtesy doesn’t happen, or is done poorly). After a particularly virtuosic trio in the first half by sopranos Camilla Seale and Emily Atkinson and countertenor Tristram Cooke, he turned to the audience from the harpsichord and said ‘feel free to applaud that’.
But this relaxed approach really came into its own for the surtitles, which were projected onto a screen behind the ensemble – only slightly obscured by the wandering head of a long theorbo. They paraphrased the gist of the libretto into modern parlance, and had the audience in fits of laughter. One character’s response to an overly effusive admirer, for example, was rendered as ‘not at all creepy’.
‘The way that I do this was entirely stolen from the Brighton Early Music Festival’, Oliver admits. He saw a low-tech opera production in which cast members held up humorous placards to summarise the libretto. He seems particularly proud that, in one of his translations, he managed to include a couple of quotes from Mean Girls.
But this sense of fun is balanced with a lightly-worn erudition and enthusiasm for the music. Oliver’s skills as historian and Italian speaker were evident in his excellent programme notes. Also impressive was the total lack of hand-wringing apologetics for the unusual repertoire – none of the tiresome ‘it may not be a masterpiece, but it’s still worth listening to…’ – nor overly grand claims for its worth.
I wanted to know what the journey had been like, starting out as an unknown group to selling-out concerts. He’s clear that they’ve had one big advantage: Oliver’s father is the vicar at Rotherhithe. ‘We talk a lot about positions of privilege – a lot of classical musicians have gone to private school. I went to state school in Bermondsey, but my privilege was having a church in the back garden’.
This meant the group didn’t face the ‘crippling’ venue fees that most come up against. Though now, he says, the church makes more on the bar than they would in venue hire anyway. A strong trade in glasses of wine was certainly in evidence at the concert, as were a bewilderingly large selection of flavoured gins to take home.
But you still have to find an audience in the first place. Here, Oliver’s professional experience – marketing for The Sixteen and fundraising for English Touring Opera – put him in good stead. ‘I probably spend more time marketing than I do preparing my own side of the performances’, he admits.
And what does that mean? ‘Immense flier runs of London. Everywhere we possibly can. All the city churches, libraries, supermarkets…’ What’s more, to establish their own brand they moved away from the familiar, tired format: a Carravagisti painting overlaid with text. They took the imaginative step of imitating documents of the period, starting with a mocked-up 17th-century playbill in a historical font.
‘As we went along we realised the more outlandish we could get, the more attention we’d attract’. For a concert of 15th-century repertoire, they reworked an image of the Chanssonier Cordiforme, a beautiful manuscript of love songs in the shape of a heart. ‘The amount of interest we had from people saying ‘I’ve never seen a heart-shaped flier before!’.…’
Gradually, what started out as a group of friends making music – including soprano Jessica Euker, the group’s other co-founder – gained a big enough audience that they could pay proper musician fees. Now, unlike Oliver, the majority of their performers are full-time professionals. But it has not been all smooth sailing, and various factors have affected sales – Covid, performing on the same day as an anti-Brexit march, and a generally lower enthusiasm for religious repertoire.
Performing rare music also comes with its own challenges. The performing edition of Landi’s La Morte d’Orfeo was riddled with errors. And that’s when there is published score at all. Part of the group’s mission is to make their own editions and put them online in the public domain – after his PhD, Oliver plans to do at least one piece a year that requires editing, resulting in a score that others can use. It’s hard work though – a book of Cavalli arias took him months to put together.
What advice can he give other groups starting out? Many, Oliver says, are too reticent in seeking mutual help. ‘Once you’ve worked in mainstream classical music, you realise people are constantly sending emails to each other saying: ‘I’ve got this concert, it’s not selling, can you mention it in your e-news’…that attitude I don’t think has been cottoned on to by smaller groups of young professionals’. When they’ve tried writing to such groups to propose marketing swaps, they ‘rarely if ever get a response’.
Another mistake new ensembles make, he says, is going through the onerous process of setting up as a charity before having trialed staging more than a handful of events. MAR have only recently become registered as one, and even then they ‘ran against numerous problems’ in securing the status.
Oliver sees the future for the group in moving to different venues, with Rotherhithe as ‘a test tube for developing interesting programmes’ that be taken elsewhere. This year they’ll perform a programme of female composers in Sheffield, and bring Nicholas Lanier’s music to the Queen’s House in Greenwich, the same space where he performed for Charles I 400 years ago (made possible by a small syndicate of Greenwich-based supporters).
Oliver recalls his introduction to early music as a 14 year old, when he was taken to hear Cavalli’s La Calisto at the Royal Opera House. He was unsure about going, expecting to hear something like Verdi, which he wasn’t keen on. Suffice it to say he was pleasantly surprised.
‘And from there on I thought, how wonderful is this music? If I, having come from my background, can fall in love with this stuff, who’s to say that lots of other people who aren’t from particular educational or wealth brackets can’t also enjoy this music?’
Visit the Musica Antica Rotherhithe website.