For The Public Good
2004 saw my second collaboration with Orlando Gough for English National Opera, when we were asked to write a piece to mark the centenary of the refurbished London Coliseum. ‘Pro Bono Publico’ (‘For the Public Good’) was the motto of the theatre when it first opened, and that mission statement was used as the starting point for this ambitious choral project.
500 amateur singers, half coming from established London choirs and half making up an ad hoc ‘Un-Choir’, joined 9 professional ENO soloists to chart the story of the theatre building, from its original incarnation as a Variety Palace through to its current role as a leading international opera house. The piece was presented as a Variety Bill and characters appearing included music hall star Vesta Tilly, Winston Churchill, the Italian surrealist Marinetti, the first black jazz band to play in the UK, Logie Baird and King Kong. There was also a salute to the live horse races which were run on the famous revolving stage, a ‘tap dance’ in the stalls and a nod to ENO’s notorious 1984 ‘chain saw’ production of Tchaikowsky’s opera ‘Mazeppa’.
‘For the Public Good’ was a remarkable production, with the dual purpose of commemorating the building’s centenary and giving a large number of amateur singers the chance to perform in a flagship international Arts venue. The scratch choir formed for the project was such a success that it inspired a series of ENO’s hugely popular ‘Sing the Show’ events, running for many years.
“Hundreds of amateur singers filled the stalls with bustling energy and raucous good humour, which a few professionals extended to the stage. Tamsin Collison’s libretto and Orlando Gough’s music were both nicely irreverent, and Stephen Langridge’s production made full use of the Coli’s inbuilt theatricality. There are those who will tell you that English National Opera has lost its way. ‘For the Public Good’ suggests otherwise”.London Evening Standard, 11th Oct 2004
Comments from participants
“I can’t emphasis enough what a positive experience this has been for me – a chance to really grow musically, whilst being asked for nothing more than my willingness and commitment to the project. The best use of public funding I have come across.”
“Everyone would benefit from participating in a project like this once in their life!”
“A fantastic, unmissable opportunity to enjoy choral singing with the guidance of some of our nation’s best teachers. Fun, discipline, physical and psychological therapy.”
“Exhilarating and very rewarding, excellent teaching and the most interesting music. And the chance to sing in the Coliseum. Who could ask for more?”
“The performance was truly magical – we were involved in something extraordinary.”
“Live theatre is thrilling and it was very good for an ordinary member of the public to be part of the thrill. I’m sure Oswald Stoll would have approved.”
“Wonderful, inspiring, magical. Thank you very much for a fantastic experience.”
“Being in the Coliseum as a performer is spine-tingling.”