Van Gogh

OSO Arts Centre (London) & St John's Auditorium (Oxford), October 2021

Director/Technical Design - Jonny Danciger

Conductor - Hannah von Wiehler

Set Design - Emma Turner

My close friend & collaborator Hannah von Wiehler has synaesthesia. It’s different for every individual, but Hannah can ‘see’ music, and ‘hear’ paintings. The concept for this show emerged when I asked her which piece of music creates the most beautiful visual experience. The answer was Michael Gordon’s Van Gogh.


Whilst there is not enough information to know that Van Gogh himself was a synaesthete, his letters certainly reveal an extra-sensory dimension to his experience. He describes his contrasts of colour as ‘the mysterious vibrations of relation tones’, seeks in his paintings the ‘abstraction’ afforded to musicians, and describes his episodes in the asylum of St. Remy as ‘confusions of sight and sound’. His artworks encapsulate this intense sensory experience.


Studying Van Gogh's letters, the concept became clear: to present Van Gogh’s psyche on stage, using Hannah’s synaesthesia to inform the design and unlock an extra-sensory narrative. The audience is invited to experience Van Gogh’s states of mind charted through five locations, from his frantic search for purpose in London to his admission to the asylum in St. Remy. The musical score does not feature an actor, but it was clear with a project of this ambition that we needed a physical ‘Van Gogh’ on stage to lead the action. So an actor was cast, and spoken excerpts the letters were included to anchor the piece in the story of the artist.


Early support came from T.O.R.C.H and the Ashmolean Museum, who facilitated research into the letters, synaesthesia, and multi-sensory technologies. Discussions followed with the composer himself, and a public webinar was held in February 2021 between the team, Michael Gordon and curator Dr Lena Fritsch.


Meanwhile, an exciting design process was underway. Amongst other things, a bespoke artificial intelligence was trained on curated datasets of Van Gogh’s works, creating a sort of ‘digital psyche’. This was developed and used to create video materials for the piece.

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Jonny Danciger's production of Michael Gordon's Van Gogh will live in my memory for a long time to come, largely because of its compelling visual imagery. [...] The stage is filled with blazing colour, Van-Gogh-style, doubtless inspired by conductor Hannah Schneider, whose synaesthetic interpretation of the music pervades the scene.
At the front of the set, meanwhile, Vincent's prolific painting is evoked when the translucent screens, that were initially part of the monoliths, are detached and moved downstage, becoming canvases for projections that suggest the dazzling, increasingly psychotic imagination of the celebrated painter.
For me, this is the pinnacle of Danciger's
inspired direction. Van Gogh, having freed himself from the materialistic confines of the empty picture frame, now finds himself the prisoner of his own imagination. In the final, most compelling image of the piece, narrow strips of cloth are attached to Vincent's head, becoming conduits with the various translucent screens. The effect is to lock him into a position from which he cannot move. It is as if his work, having begun life as an extension of himself, has now subsumed him entirely.

Paddy Gormley, former reviewer for ‘Music & Musicians’


Ground-breaking, trail-blazing, breathtaking and beyond innovative. It made me very happy to see a production of this quality on my doorstep.
Yvonne Evans, Seven Star Arts

La Voix Humaine

OSO Arts Centre, September 2021

Director/Design - Jonny Danciger

Soprano - Sofia Kirwan-Baez

Piano - Alex Norton

With the audience only privy to one side of a telephone conversation, the subtleties of language become paramount: just how much power can a word have when it hangs, disembodied, on the other end of a telephone line?

In this production, I sought to make the language a character in itself through the projection mapping of surtitles across a blank, institutional set. These would follow the soprano around the stage, grouping or dispersing with her swells of anxiety. This stylisation also helped frame her emotions as heightened, avoiding a false label of 'hysteria'.

 

These projections also presented a solution to something that has always irked me about foreign language opera: the disconnection of the surtitle screen. Too often, audiences are forced to make a choice between either watching the action or reading the translation, making it difficult to follow the natural flow of drama. By always bringing the surtitle into the natural eyeline, the subtleties of the soprano's dramatic performance were easier to absorb.

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"As for the staging provided by Jonny Danciger, also designer, it serves the opera remarkably well. Cocteau's text scrolls with formidable precision over the decorative elements with well-chosen plays of light. The spectator is completely enveloped by the words sung and those which parade, and the loneliness of the woman on stage is all the more poignant.
Here are three talented young people who have already had a remarkable career and who are called upon to go very far.
A huge bravo!"

Association Culturelle Excit'oeil

"It was a privilege to hear Poulenc's operatic monologue in the intimate surroundings of the OSO. Accomplished performances by Sofia Kirwan-Baez and her pianist, and the unusual displaying of surtitles on the white stage props made this an impressive production." 4/5

"The OSO at Barnes Green is an oasis of pleasure and the production of Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine was a supremely artful tonic in times of covid." 5/5

Audience Club Reviews

A Hand Of Bridge

Cumbria Opera Festival - September 2021

Director - Jonny Danciger

Conductor - Joe Davies

Set Design - Emma Turner

A Hand of Bridge offers a view into the inner monologues of two unhappily married couples − or rather, four distracted individuals. As well as being caught up in their own fantasies, each character is also second guessing the intentions of those around them. This constructs a complex psychological tension, where the pressures of social expectation enhance each of their fixations.

Barber’s miniature work is an exercise in how the smallest of outward gestures can reveal the most significant inner voices. This production aimed to explore this relationship between appearance and reality, drawing from expressionist aesthetics to heighten every action and place the intricacies of social interaction under an inescapable microscope.

 

Central to the staging was the idea that the game of bridge doesn't really matter to any of them, and is simply a superficial distraction from their raging insecurities. Playing with perspective, we constructed a bridge table on a sharp angle to the audience. The extra-large, defaced playing cards could be thrown onto the table and would slide down, dropping dejectedly to the floor.

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Trouble in Tahiti

Cumbria Opera Festival, September 2021

Director - Jonny Danciger

Conductor - Joe Davies

Set Design - Emma Turner

Known as one of the darkest pieces in Bernstein's oeuvre, Trouble in Tahiti charts a day in the life of married couple Sam and Dinah as they attempt to plaster over the monotonous and passionless cracks in their 'perfect' suburban life. They both yearn for the love they once had, but are too blinded by the American dream - represented by the 'bought and paid for magic' of Hollywood - to address their own shortcomings.

This production aimed to heighten the tension between realism and idealism through a clash of two distinct stylisations. Sam & Dinah remained naturalistic, whereas the jazz trio - conduits of the Hollywood myth - were always bound by repetitive and oppressively cheery movement sequences.

The trio were ever present; in the background taking robotic pleasure in repetitive everyday tasks, empty husks as silent supporting characters, and actively entering the realm of Hollywood fantasy with their vocal entries. Their only absence came in the the central scene, where Sam & Dinah meet alone in a street and have a rare - though untaken - chance at honesty.

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Cumbria Opera Group pulled two more performances out of the hat with sparkling performances of Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti (1951) and Samuel Barber’s A Hand of Bridge (1958). Both jazz operas were strongly supported by the orchestra, led by their inspiring artistic director, Joe Davies.

The cast in Trouble in Tahiti included a vocal trio, Kerran Cotterell, Alexander Joseph and Jemimah Taylor, functioning as a contemporary Greek chorus. Dinah and Sam were played fantastically by Helsa Townsend and Chris Murphy respectively. The trio blended the close harmonies beautifully as they evoked radio commercials of the era. Their slick choreography, spot-on jazz rhythms and spirited acting were the perfect foil to the uneasy realism of Sam and Dinah’s troubled marriage. The two protagonists delivered their melodic lines with clarity and emotion. Sam’s rich baritone voice was perfect for the part. Dinah’s aria in ‘There is a Garden’ was heartfelt, melodic and colourful.

A Hand of Bridge, another jazz influenced opera, was equally entertaining as it explored the four card players’ deepest and darkest emotions in individual monologues. Helsa Townsend (Geraldine), Jack Dolan (Bill), Holly Teague (Geraldine) and Chris Murphy (David) gave convincing performances impressing the audience with the undoubted quality of their singing

The sets in both operas worked superbly. The former evoking the perfect picture of 1950’s suburbia; the latter reflecting the dark emotions of each card player. The authentic costumes gave a 1950’s flavour and the lighting effects were excellent. Director Jonny Danciger created a special production.

Jane Bagot, Seen and Head International

Seven and a Half Years

Bread & Roses (London), Nicholson Square (Edinburgh), August 2021

Director/Design - Jonny Danciger

Composer/Performer - Mark Glentworth

RUNNER UP - Best Musical at the 2021 Edinburgh Fringe (Musical Theatre Review)

Mark Glentworth was leading an extraordinary career as an established composer and close collaborator of Steven Berkoff. As pressures beyond his control became insurmountable he withdrew from society, isolating himself in his house for 7.5 years, away from friends and family. 

Mark's incredible story has seen him not only fully rebuild his life, but return to music and theatre as a way of processing and sharing his experience. I had the unique privilege of working with Mark and his son to create this one man show, written and performed by Mark himself.

It was a beautiful rehearsal process like no other, delving into Mark's experience to find the healthiest and clearest methods of presenting it on stage.

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This is a biographical work like nothing else I have ever seen. Mark Glentworth was a successful musician, working as an associate of Steven Berkoff for many years, creating the scores for some of his most celebrated work such as Metamorphosis and Coriolanus. A master craftsman of a truly high pedigree, fulfilling his potential.

Then he simply stopped.  For 7½ years.

This one-man show probably boasts the most loaded sound cue sheets of any show in the Fringe this year. In an intricate, interlaced soundscape of recorded and live music and effects, Mark strives to understand how it was that he became so broken that answering the phone was impossible and he couldn’t even bring himself to open up his laptop.

Mark's sincerity and musicianship are luminous. There are several very well-crafted songs in the show: songs not only from the heart but touching the heart of the listeners.

It may be in the strength of these songs, Mark unlocked the strength he was looking for.

Fiona Orr - Musical Theatre Review

The Soldier's Tale

Barnes Music Festival, May 2021

Director/Design - Jonny Danciger

Conductor - James Day

Narrator - Peter Snow

This semi-staged performance sought to enhance the Devil's influence on the Soldier by bringing the musicians into the staging, leaning into the ultimate nihilism of Stravinsky's curious drama.

Placed around the fringes of the stage, the musicians could easily become part of the image as their music was drawn in and out of the narrative. They were both an active and reactive force, flinching in pain at the Devil's music and turning their back on the Soldier in distress.

It was a privilege to direct veteran presenter Peter Snow as the Narrator, and to work with an ex-military serviceman in the role of the Soldier.

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Don Giovanni

St John's Auditorium, January 2020

Company - Oxford Alternative Orchestra

Director/Technical Design - Jonny Danciger

Conductor - Hannah von Wiehler

Producer - Emilia Clark

Set Design - Christina Hill

 

Staging Don Giovanni presents two major challenges: how to explain a living statue within a narrative that otherwise operates in relative realism, and how to avoid the female characters becoming accessories to tired gags about sexual assault. In this production, I aimed to address these issues through embracing the dark heart of Mozart's opera, drawing inspiration from Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Don Juan Comes Back From The War and Blackadder Goes Fourth.

I decided to set the production in a Southern-Italian town occupied by allied forces in the latter stages of World War II. The female characters - alongside a crippled and embittered Masetto - are framed as residents of this war-torn community. On one hand desperate to clutch onto whatever morsels of joy and companionship they can find, and on another at a global turning point in women's liberty. They capture the real emotional grit. Giovanni, Leporello and Ottavio all belong to an allied battalion stationed in the town, and are characterised by a much more self-aware and absurd comedic style. They view themselves as righteous liberators, their arrogance grating with the dark emotional context embodied by the townsfolk. 

With death an unavoidable presence, the graveyard and statue is replaced by a pile of rotting corpses on a battlefield, with the Commendatore's body lying on top. Embracing the macabre enabled an ending which engaged more with the harsh consequences of human suffering than with religious notions of punishment. From laughing in the face of death to screaming in it.

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"Something dark, tragic, and queasily hilarious that owes as much to Tarantino and Iannucci as it does to Mozart."

- Jeremy Dennis, Daily Info

"A rare privilege ... The bloody and visceral nature of his damnation, where corpses come on stage to tear at his body, is highly impactful, building on the gritty horror-inspired rendition of the scene with the Commendatore’s ghost. Instead of a statue, this production makes a corpse of the departed Commendatore, positioned atop a pile of dead bodies played by the chorus, replete with eerie lighting and a wonderfully ominous sound design ... Intimate, funny ... a must-see"

- Oxford Opening Night

"An accessible and thoroughly enjoyable performance ... A talented and intelligent take on what is sometimes a stale staple of the repertoire"

- Elijah Ferrante, The Cherwell

The Beginning Of An Idea

Jacqueline du Pré, St Hilda's, January 2019

Composer - Joel Baldwin

Libretto - Jonny Danciger & Joel Baldwin

This original opera, based on a short story by John McGahern, follows Eva Lindberg as she attempts to leave her life as a stage director to follow her dream of writing an imaginary life of Chekov. The more she tries to escape the restrictive forces around her, the more stifling they become.

At various points in the production we jump between the real world and Eva's imagination. The characters she tries to escape become ever more present in her writing.

The use of the chorus was vital in this production, with their heavily stylised movement jarring with Eva's relative naturalism. This point of contrast became more pronounced as the opera progressed. The piece ends with the symbolic death of the narrator as Eva's attempts to write ultimately fail.

Candide

Oxford Playhouse, November 2017

Company - Barricade Arts

Producer - Naomi Chapman

Conductor - Joe Davies

Set Design - Christina Hill

Lighting Design - Jennifer Hurd

This production of Bernstein's celebrated operetta was created as part of the official celebration of Bernstein's centenary, and featured a cast and crew of over 70 people.

I wanted to bring the tone of the show closer to that of Voltaire's original text. We separated the role of Voltaire from Pangloss, staging all of the scenes using 'found objects' and a set comprising of modular blocks moved by the chorus. This aimed to give the narrator a greater sense of control over the action and characters, creating and destroying worlds at will.

Our approach was also largely inspired by Monty Python, particularly in the use of jarring contrasts. The restoration-era idyll of Westphalia gave way to a cold and unforgiving post-war landscape, situating Candide brutally at odds with the world around him. Bernstein's bright musical score acted as a constant comic counterpoint to the characters' miserable circumstances.

I worked very closely with our designers from the start of the process to ensure a unified and clear approach to each of the show's 35 locations. The interaction between the cast and set was particularly integral.

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"Jonny Danciger's direction of the show, along with his choreographer and Amy Thompson and his other associates was exemplary. The songs were presented with unfussy verve – nautical numbers using just a length of rope and a ship's wheel, the colour of The Kings' Barcarolle late in Act II – and the comedy was never overdone. The foyer as we streamed out into the cold November night was buzzing like an upturned but pollen-rich beehive. Student drama in Oxford, even perhaps in Britain, does not - at least on this grand scale - come much more polished than this"

- Andrew Bell, Daily Info

"As a light-hearted operetta, Candide’s main objective was to create laughter for a few hours on a freezing Wednesday night. Needless to say, this objective was achieved; I left the theatre feeling uplifted (which was something of a surprise, knowing that Voltaire wrote Candide to reject optimism). I also left feeling thoroughly impressed. If you’re looking for a whimsical break from the real world this week, get yourself to the Playhouse and get ready for the trip of a lifetime. I promise that, even for those who shy away from opera as I once did, it will not fail to entertain. If any performance in Oxford can win people over to opera, it’s this one."

- The Oxford Student

Scoring A Century

Peacock Theatre, August-September 2019

Company - British Youth Opera

Director/Librettist - Keith Warner

Composer - David Blake

Conductor - Lionel Friend

David Blake and Keith Warner's 'Scoring a Century' details the key events of the 20th Century in a series of 20 panels. As self-proclaimed 'high art for low-brows, and low art for high-brows', the piece combines contemporary opera, spoken drama and musical theatre elements into a fast-paced comedic romp. The light-hearted nature of the piece is grounded by four intimate 'mini-operas', which directly contrast the comedic scenes and capture the serious heart of the opera.

As assistant director, I was responsible for ensuring that the myriad of complex production elements all worked coherently within the directors vision. This included organising numerous on-stage transitions done by the cast (involving 14 moving doors), liaising with the technical departments, and ensuring that the rapid multi-roling of cast and ensemble was compatible with the many quick costume changes. I also prepared the cover singers, directing the 1-hour cover showing.

I was also the sound designer on this production, creating a number of highly stylised effects (from steam trains to exploding bulbs) and voiceover recordings.

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The Cave

St John's Auditorium, Oxford, May 2019

Conductor - Hannah von Wiehler

Company - Oxford Alternative Orchestra

Design - Jonny Danciger and Loic Daraed

This was the first production of Steve Reich's multimedia opera to incorporate a live acted component. The work closely investigates differing perspectives on Abraham through musical and visual repetitions of interview fragment

Staging this work in 2019, it was all the more important to explore the ways in which technology and religious culture can define one another. From simulation theory and being ‘blessed by the algorithm’ to lighting rigs in churches, technology is becoming both whatand how we worship. Through introducing the live character of an academic researcher, the multimedia format can develop from a means of delivery into a contextual force, facilitating an important dialogue between technology and faith.

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In terms of the performance, I thought this was very accomplished. Run by Hannah Schneider and Jonny Danciger, the coordination of music and images was astonishingly accurate. The work was also interactive at times, with the actor shining a torch out onto the audience and among the orchestra. The idea of exploration was well portrayed by the actor, Maddy Page, in this scene and indeed throughout, with the confusion of technology, whiteboards, notes and pages being depicted continuously. I found this element particularly interesting, as the clear frustration and despair illustrated made me the more conscious of the complications and issues caused by technology and indeed any problems which confuse or distract us in our lives. 

 

Overall, this multimedia artwork was thought-provoking and inspiring through its abstract yet sensory design, and really forced the listeners to consider and interpret small elements to create their own narrative or meaning in the music. The performance itself was highly professional and encapsulating. The lighting and staging was effective at enhancing the drama and colour in the music, and the orchestra themselves maintained a focused and attentive presence which enables the solemnity of the narrative to come across. 

 

An interesting thought experiment, which I would recommend to anyone looking for a new perspective on conflict and, more generally, the natural world around us.

- Lucy Howard, The Oxford Student

Witch

Jacqueline du Pré, St Hilda's, January 2018

Composer - Toby Young

Conductor - Freddie Meyers

This was the world premiere of a new opera by Toby Young. The piece focuses on the ostracism of a new female employee in an office workplace, who remains strikingly silent throughout. It was largely inspired by the #MeToo movement.

This production used technology to explore mob mentality. As the witch hunt intensified, characters ceased to perceive events individually, instead filming on their phones and live-streaming the video onto the set. As the perspective became more forced, the acts of brutality become more severe. It aimed to make the audience question their own perspective and potential for complicity.

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The silence beneath the noise is the guiding undercurrent of Witch, an original opera created by Toby Young and directed by Jonny Danciger. Whilst 35 minutes in an office may not be what you would expect from a self-titled opera, the exploration of what being a woman in the corporate world can entail provides plenty of scope for a theatrical narrative, one that is sharply resonant in a world in which questions of sexism and female identity abound.

What is possibly most striking is the use of technology, with the chorus filming Helen at various points, resulting in an uncomfortably close livestream of her face projected onto the background. This choral witch-hunt bears an uncanny resemblance to experiences of an anonymous public.

Witch draws out some serious problems in the way that we view scandals and that narratives are constructed about real people. It offers an intriguing insight into how opera can address current issues, and is worth seeing for these possibilities that it suggests.

- The Oxford Student

How To Use A Washing Machine

Burton-Taylor Studio, June 2018

Composer - Joe Davies

Libretto - Georgie Botham

This two-hander, scored for string quartet, follows young adults James and Cass as they return to their childhood home for the final time to box up their belongings. They go on a touching and humorous journey through their memories, and reflect on the trials and tribulations of becoming an adult.

This stripped-back staging used reinforce cardboard boxes to playfully create the settings for the characters' memories. A lot of time was spent on character development, allowing the songs to naturally breathe in the intimate space.

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Designer Christina Hill and director Jonny Danciger made great use of utilitarian props (boxes and domestic equipment) to the extent that these came to assume a significance beyond their physical presence, and also exemplified the ability of this show to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear of resources

- Andy Bell, Daily Info