Newsletter No 16: Flyer by Rachel Hunt – Tenor Michael Gibson – Edith Sitwell’s inventive poetry – London Song Festival 2023

by Elizabeth Mucha

The long-awaited Art Sung flyer is finally here!

Illustrator Rachel Hunt, who created the flyer for the Jane Bathori production in 2021, has surpassed herself. During our discussions over the previous months, she very quickly picked up on the element of playfulness inherent in both the poems and Edith’s personality.

She writes: As I researched Edith Sitwell, what became apparent is that she is as well known for her eccentric dress sense as she is for her poetry and her performances. She is always seen in fabulous hats and large rings, so I have pictured her in one of these hats, holding the book with her ringed fingers on display. This layout is a play on the title of your project, ‘Behind her Facade’.

To discover more of Rachel’s work please visit her website where you can find her iconic Thames boat racing drawings as well as her incredibly detailed and colourful bird and animal drawings.

I am delighted that Michael Gibson, a very talented young Scottish tenor,  will be joining us for the performances at the London Song Festival and at the Barnes Festival in March 2024. He brings the number of Scots in the Art Sung ensemble up to three: myself and Polly Smith being the other two! He is in his second year at the Jette Parker Artists programme which gives him many opportunities to tread the boards at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. This season sees him singing Borsa (Rigoletto), Young Servant (Elektra), and Normanno (Lucia di Lammermoor) as well as Pong (Turandot) in the Royal Opera House’s 2024 tour of Japan.

In Art Sung – Edith Sitwell, his song repertoire includes some wonderfully fun songs by William Walton from the song cycle, “A Song of the Lord Mayor’s Table” as well as Benjamin Britten’s sublime setting of Sitwell’s poem, “Still falls the Rain”. He will also be taking on the speaking role of the ubiquitous ‘critic’ – the bane of Edith’s life whom she dubbed the ‘pipsqueakery’. And finally, and most importantly, he will be tackling the tongue twisters in Edith’s fantastical Façade poetry!

Describing her poetic process in her autobiography, Edith Sitwell wrote:

..I have been experimenting with the effect on rhythm, on speed and on colour by placing assonances and dissonances not only at the end of the line, but at the beginning, and in different and most elaborate patterns throughout the verse.

Experiment she certainly did, creating virtuosic poetry which she likened to Liszt’s Transcendental Studies for piano. With a broad knowledge of history, the classics, and very well informed on current affairs of her time and an extraordinarily rich imagination, she was well equipped to dazzle her readers with liberal sprinkling of facts woven into her poetry. To give just one example, in the final poem of Facade, “When Sir Beelzebub” Sitwell makes references to such events as the Crimean War, historical figures (Queen Victoria’s poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson), mythological figures (Proserpine), and the French gendarmerie – all set against a background of Sir Beelzebub calling for a rum in Hell. Quite a cocktail!

Her personal life is also never far from the surface in her poetry: her childhood in Scarborough is surely the setting for the “Tango Pasodoble”. Walton underlined this by incorporating the tune of “I do like to be beside the seaside” into the accompanying music. In this poem, ‘Jo the bandito whose slack shape waved like sea’ is modelled on the Vorticist painter, the eccentric Percy Wyndham Lewis. During her Sunday portrait sittings for him, he would take on different characters such as the Spanish ‘macho man’ complete with sombrero, uttering ‘Caramba’ every so often! For those of you who fancy taking a stab reciting her poetry here’s a couple of lines which you need to say as fast as possible!

 Thetis wrote a treatise noting wheat is silver like the sea; the lovely cheat is sweet as foam;

 To see how it’s done, here’s a link to the amazing Canadian singer and conductor Barbara Hannigan performing the ‘Tango Pasodoble’ from Façade with Sir Simon Rattle conducting.

The London Song Festival runs from Friday, 20th October  until 1ST December. The theme this year is ‘City and Country’ and celebrates the contrasting delights of both locations.  Full details of programmes and tickets can be found here including tickets for Art Sung- Edith Sitwell on Friday 24th November, 7pm. We look forward to seeing you there!

Elizabeth MuchaNewsletter No 16: Flyer by Rachel Hunt – Tenor Michael Gibson – Edith Sitwell’s inventive poetry – London Song Festival 2023