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Interview with Alison Buchanan, Artistic Director Pegasus Opera

It’s always a comforting pleasure to enter a rehearsal room and observe a devoted team of performers and creatives setting up their artistic endeavours. In this particular case, the endeavour is cutting and collecting maize as Pegasus Opera Company prepares for its double bill of The Six of Calais and Ruth – both written and composed by Philip Hagemann who has a long-standing association with Pegasus. The company is a particularly friendly and welcoming bunch with a noticeably diverse composition coupled with an undercurrent of affable intensity that immediately suggests these operas are going to be good.

Alison Buchanan (Artistic Director, Pegasus Opera Company and playing Ruth) with Philip Hagemann (Libretto and music)(photo credit Dominique Nok)
Alison Buchanan (Artistic Director, Pegasus Opera Company and playing Ruth) with Philip Hagemann (Libretto and music)
(photo credit Dominique Nok)

These days it’s not so unusual to stumble across diverse theatre companies but, to be honest, it’s less common in the world of opera and traditionally opera has been performed by companies that were – how best to put this – staunchly non-diverse. Pegasus is the exception. Founded thirty-one years ago by Lloyd Newton as a genuinely diverse company it was – and continues to be – ground-breaking in its mission to be totally inclusive. And that goes for the whole creative team as well as the singers. Lloyd, whose watchword was ‘harmony in diversity’, sadly passed away a couple of years ago but he bequeathed the company into the more than capable hands of Alison Buchanan who is now the Artistic Director and, as a top-notch and world-renowned soprano, sings the titular role in Ruth.

Lloyd and Alison were long-time friends who met at Glyndebourne in a production of Porgy and Bess which gives us a clue into the other diversity -that of singing talent – which sees Alison regularly switching from high opera to songs from musicals to recitals and cabaret. Alison is British with Jamaican heritage – a country that has boasted many fine singers – opera and other styles – over the years. Having trained at Guildhall and the Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia, she now divides her time between New York and her English base in Bedford where her family is settled. (See Farewell Leicester Square for another Bedford/West Indian connection) A winner of many awards and competitions she has sung with the world’s best conductors, and performed in the finest venues with many of the top orchestras. She is passionate about Pegasus, its cultural roots and its mission to bring diversity to every aspect of opera and, as well as carrying Lloyd Newton’s illuminating torch, her calm but ardent inspiration pervades this extraordinary company, a company that provides an opportunity for performers and creatives who might struggle otherwise. In the pipeline is a possible opera based on Windrush which will be particularly intriguing.

Alison admits that she has had to work doubly hard to make it in her chosen world, fighting soft discrimination (which is, after all, everyday racism) from her student years and in competitions. She tells the story of how, early on, her agent was told “she’s short and black: what am I going to give her?” But that kind of experience made her stronger and more determined so that we now see the accomplished and sought-after soprano that is putting all her experience into making Pegasus a beacon of diversity in a sometimes sceptical creative industry.

Both The Six of Calais and Ruth are directed by Cassiopeia Berkeley-Agyepong and the conductor is Avishka Edirisinghe, who is acting chorus master at English National Opera and répétiteur at Opera Holland Park. The Six of Calais is based on the George Bernard Shaw play which itself was inspired by Auguste Rodin’s sculpture The Burghers of Calais which depicts an incident in the Hundred Years War. Ruth sees Naomi and her husband Elimelech flee famine in Judah. Daughter-in-law Ruth returns to try and sort out the complications of property ownership.

Both exciting adaptations will be staged in a modern-day setting and look at themes of female power, migration and loyalty, as well as the rebirth of nature. Which, I surmise, is where the maize gathering comes in.

By Peter Yates

The Six of Calais & Ruth will be staged at Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, Marylebone Road, London NW1 5HT on Friday 21 April 7.30pm, Saturday 22 April 7.30pm, Sunday 23 April 2.30pm. Tickets are £35, £25 concessions £15.

To find out what’s on and to book tickets visit https://pegasusoperacompany.org/whats-on/

Author

  • Peter Yates

    Peter has a long involvement in the theatrical world as playwright, producer, director and designer. His theatre company Random Cactus has taken many shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, the London Fringe and elsewhere and he has been associated with the Wireless Theatre Company since its inception where his short play Lie Detector can be heard: Wireless Theatre Company.

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