Conducting Acis and Galatea

Isabel Tuffin-Donnevert as Galatea

Lucy Grant (year 2) tells us about the her experience as Musical Director of the university’s Chamber Opera Society production last weekend: Acis and Galatea is an opera composed by Handel, based upon a text by the author John Gay. The opera was first performed in 1718 as a single act piece; however, Handel later devised a two-act opera, first performed in 1739, and it was this version we performed. The story of Acis and Galatea is of love, with Acis (performed by Jamie Milburn) and Galatea (performed by Isabel Tuffin-Donnevert) being in an atmosphere of exultant love. However, in act two, Polythemus, the angry cyclops (performed by Elliott Titcombe), is also in love with Galatea, and is furious that she has chosen a mere mortal over himself.

Polythemus kills Acis, and Galatea is left heartbroken. However, the chorus remind her that although she was unable to save him, she can use her powers to bring him back. In the original story, Polythemus kills Acis with a boulder and Galatea brings him back as a fountain; however, we found to be incredibly hard to do at St Michael’s Church where we staged the performance. We therefore changed the lyrics slightly, with Galatea bringing Acis back to life with her magical powers instead.

Lucy on the podium

During the process, I led rehearsals, with the assistance of our accompanist Liam Chan, teaching the repertoire as well as conducting. Our group was formed of students from all backgrounds and subjects, who came together on a Thursday evening to sing. The three leads,  are all music students at the University, and are also Choral Scholars with Cantores Michaelis, the university’s specialist vocal group at St Michaels. The production was directed by Grace Curtis, a second-year Music student here at the University, who is also a member of Cantores as well as being incredibly talented in the dramatic and artistic departments.

Elliott Titcombe as Polyphemus

During the process, we faced many challenges. Unfortunately, we lost a lead part very late, and were unable to fill it so close to the production, meaning that we had to cut the character in its entirety. The character, named Damon, is Acis’s closest friend, acting as a counsel to the lovers as they pursue each other. He also warns Acis that he is unable to defeat the cyclops. We were therefore lucky in some respects, as he only added to the storyline but was not completely necessary. However, although cutting the character it didn’t cause too much stress dramatically, there was of course the issue of musical key changes when cutting arias. However, with the help of the university’s Head of Early Music Elizabeth Kenny and our accompanist Liam, we were able to overcome this.  We also had few male singers , which made it idifficult to form a chorus of great balance and sound.

However, although yes, there were bumps in the road, there were definitely many high points too. Musically, each and every chorus member grew vocally over the process; they became more confident in themselves and their own abilities.  The last week of the performance was where it all came together, with the orchestra – who were formed of members of the Southampton University Symphony Orchestra, with help from Liz Kenny – adding such a great and complimentary sound to all that the chorus had achieved. The sheer buzz as we were on stage made the long and roller-coaster-like process worth it.


Jamie Milburn as Acis

In June, the society are putting on their second production of the year, Orfeo ed Euridice by Gluck. This again, will be conducted by myself; however, this time directed by Rhys Sparey, a third-year music student here at the University.

Having the opportunity to take on such a project has opened up the possibility of a career in Musical Directing and/or Conducting that I had not though about in any serious way beforehand. Although I have conducted choirs in the past, and having taken Robin Browning’s conducting module at the university, I had not thought of it ever as a genuine possible career choice until the final stages of Acis and Galatea. I am excited as to what the next production has to bring, in hope that we will perform at even more of an exceptional standard! Onwards and upwards!