THERE is nothing like getting lost in a good book.
So says Joanna Harries, one of Opera Prelude’s Young Artists, who will be giving a lecture recital on the subject of books and opera in Henley next week.
The mezzo-soprano was born in New Zealand and raised in South Wales and has been a bookworm as far back as she can remember.
She recalls: “I was the kid who was trying to read under the bed covers and not show that my light was on, reading way past my bedtime.
“I used to go to the library and I would try to read the books on the way home. My mum would be like, ‘Pay attention to where you’re going, look at the road!’
“I briefly studied English at university, before switching to music, so I have a long-held interest in books and words. Sometimes the world of a book is just much better than real life.”
Joanna, a recent graduate of the National Opera Studio, is making her debut in the 2022/2023 season with Opera Rara and the London Philharmonic Orchestra as Finocchini in Offenbach’s La Princesse de Trébizonde, Contessa Ceprano in Rigoletto for Opera Holland Park and Lucinda in La forza dell’amor paterno for the Barber Opera.
So how do you turn a novel into an opera? “It’s quite a big task to undertake but I think it’s really interesting to do,” she says. “They’re two quite different types of art. Opera is a collective, communal experience, whereas reading is a solitary, personal experience.
“They’re quite different but it’s interesting seeing how one story transmutes across. How do you keep the same feel even though it’s a completely different format? Inevitably there’s change. You’ve got to cut things and decide what to focus on.
“One of the big questions which I think is really interesting is if you’re turning a character from a novel into a character from an opera, what does that character sound like in song? Do they have a high or low voice? When we’re reading, we have such strong visual images of characters.” Joanna will be talking about adaptations of tales such as Little Women, Mansfield Park, Great Expectations, Alice in Wonderland and Robinson Crusoe.
She particularly enjoyed Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel.
“One of my favourite childhood books was Little Women, partly because there’s a character called Jo, who is a bookworm and doesn’t want to marry, or at least didn’t initially.
“She’s very forthright in her opinions and I was like, ‘oh, it’s me!’ There’s something about recognising yourself in a book.”
Joanna says her lecture recital will be a relaxing and uplifting event.
“There will be live music as I’ll be singing in-between things and I do some nice colourful slides. And did I mention that there’s tea and cake during the coffee break?
“The last one I did, I had several people come up to me afterwards saying they were new to opera. If you get the chance, anyone who hasn’t been to an opera should just go.”
• From bookshelf to opera stage — the classic novels transformed into operas with Joanna Harries is at Christ Church, Reading Road, Henley, next Friday (September 30) from 11am to 1pm. Tickets cost £30. For more information and to buy tickets, see operaprelude.org