/Q & A with Stephen Higgins – Music Director and Conductor

Q & A with Stephen Higgins – Music Director and Conductor

The Vaults theatre has unleashed a brand new theatrical experience of Disney’s FantasiaSounds and Sorcery. Sound and Music Director, Stephen Higgins discusses the immersive production, the music inspired by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Beethoven (and more), and his ‘nerve-wracking’ experience working with a 96-piece orchestra.

When and how did you realise that becoming a music director/ conductor was your calling?

I started my career as a repetiteur or rehearsal pianist for opera houses including Glyndebourne, English National Opera, Royal Opera House etc., which was a fantastic way of getting to learn core repertoire and to observe different conductors at work. Many years of this provided me with a knowledge and understanding of what a makes a successful opera conductor and bit by bit I was invited to ‘step up’ and conduct rehearsals. This led to me taking more and more responsibility and is the reason that I am now doing this job.

You’ve worked extensively in various opera houses, festivals and theatres including the Young Vic. Do you have a favourite venue or memories of an interesting place you’ve performed at?

The great thing about a freelance career is that you never know where you will discover next. I consider myself to be incredibly fortunate – the memorable places I have found myself conducting include a Tuscan monastery, on a boat in the Norwegian Fjords and in an outdoor theatre on a Stellenbosch wine estate.

I loved the sense of company that I found whilst working for ENO at the Coliseum – there is an amazing melting pot of incredibly talented people all working together for a shared goal which makes for a vibrant working environment.

Your work spans a diverse range of composers and genres including Monteverdi, Mozart, Puccini, John Adams, Stephen Sondheim and more. Do you have a preference for particular classical composers or different genres?

Good music is good music in my book. My favourite music tends to be the piece I am working on when the question is being asked! I think that having the opportunity to delve deeply into any piece of great music allows you to really get under the skin of the composer and gain a proper understanding of what he or she was intending. The great thing about opera rehearsals is that you can spend four or five weeks on the same piece and thoroughly explore it in great detail.

Sounds and Sorcery Celebrating Disney Fantasia. Show Artwork

The production, Sounds and Sorcery celebrating Disney FANTASIA, sounds fascinating. It’s an immersive experience, which uses binaural sound technology. What is it like as a musical director working with new, cutting edge technology?

The original Fantasia was ground-breaking in its time due to the use of modern technology that was emerging in the 1940s. And we were keen to push the boundaries of what is possible in today’s tech world when creating Sounds and Sorcery. It has been a steep learning curve for me – finding out about ‘zoning’ and ‘networks’ and ‘bit rates’ and ‘latency’ – not words I have needed to know when working in a purely acoustic environment! But the possibilities of the way we have devised this show are so exciting – it’s like being in the middle of a symphony orchestra with the various instruments feeling like they are just to your left, or just behind you – an intense aural experience that not many people will have had the chance to hear before.

How does the binaural sound technology and classical music interact and work with 3D projections and dazzling set designs?

The music was the first thing to be ‘set’- each of the creative team has been working with the recordings from the beginning of the process. So, all of the visual ideas have been inspired by, and created precisely with the music. Lighting changes happen on accented beats, video moves and flows according to the tempi of the score. Everything in the show is designed to enhance the musical experience, rather than the music forming a backing track to the visual stimuli, which is exciting for me.

Have you performed any of the music pieces from Fantasia, such as ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, ‘The Rite of Spring’, ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ and the ‘Nutcracker Suite’ before?

I have conducted The Nutcracker a few times, but all the other pieces were my ‘debuts’!

Do you have a favourite song or piece from Fantasia? If so, which one and why?

It has to be the Stravinsky. It is incredible that a piece written over 100 years ago can still have such a visceral and dramatic effect on people. It still feels incredibly new.

And it is the most thrilling piece to be able to conduct!

I have fond memories of watching the original Disney film, Fantasia. Growing up as a child in the 80s, I’m sure this production will engage many audiences of my age group. How important do you think it is for classical music and opera to engage younger audiences? 

If we don’t try to introduce this music to people at a young age it is a disaster. I do a lot of projects taking orchestras into primary schools and the reaction of these young people is overwhelming – they don’t yet have the sense that it is ‘difficult’ or ‘not for them’- these concepts seem to come later. It is important to give as many opportunities as possible for children to find a way of coming into contact with pieces like the Fantasia selections – and creating an adventure – as Sounds and Sorcery is trying to do – where the visual and physical stimuli are as exciting as the musical experience is a good way of achieving this. Even the walk through the graffiti alleys of Waterloo to get to the entrance of the show is exciting.

Artwork of Sorcerer’s Apprentice Mickey from Walt Disney’s Fantasia. © Disney

The re-recording of the music takes place with a 96-piece orchestra. Is working with such a large orchestra a walk in the park for you, or were there hoops to jump through first before the actual recording of Sounds and Sorcery celebrating Disney FANTASIA?

I have to confess that the day of the Stravinsky recording was a little nerve-wracking. It is hard to describe the feeling one has when walking into a room where 96 people are looking at you as if to say ‘well- what are you going to bring to this session that is going to be interesting?’ That sensation of fear and apprehension never goes away! But once the music making starts it is incredible how a shared love of the music and respecting the composer’s wishes makes those nerves disappear. The key thing for a conductor in that situation is to know the score backwards and be ready to answer any tricky questions form the players. As with most things in life, thorough preparation is the key to success

What has it been like working with director, Daisy Evans?

A joy, as ever. Daisy and I have done many projects together – we share a passion for reimagining great works and presenting them in a way that is unexpected and surprising. This has been our biggest collaboration to date and it has been a totally enjoyable process

Do you have any upcoming operas or productions after Sounds and Sorcery celebrating Disney FANTASIA?

I have a recording of American Songbook repertoire with Sir Thomas Allen due for release shortly and am looking forward to working on Candide and Sweeney Todd in Bergen, Norway, where I spend a lot of my professional life at present.

What advice would you give to an aspiring conductor?

Watch as many concerts and operas and other performances as you can, learn your music thoroughly before stepping out in front of an orchestra and get to know how musicians and singers think and feel – imagine yourself doing their job and get to understand the pressures and emotions they are undergoing.

Sounds and Sorcery celebrating Disney FANTASIA is showing at The Vaults theatre, (Leake Street, London SE1 7NN) now until 30 September 2018. Click here for more information and book tickets. Twitter: @thevaultsuk Facebook: @soundsandsorcery 
Instagram: @soundsandsorcery 

(Header image: copyright © Disney)