Young Artist Interview: John Savournin

I’ve always felt like something of a maverick; I haven’t taken a particularly usual path so far in my career. But I wouldn’t have it any other way; I relish variety and new challenges.

My parents have always been passionate about the theatre; they both sing, and my mother is both an amateur performer and director. I remember, when I was ten years old, sitting in a theatre during a technical rehearsal for an opera she was directing, leaning over to her to tell her that the flowers on the set weren’t symmetrical, and thought they should be. So theatre has been a way of life in a way, and I developed a passion for it. When I was eleven, I played the Judge in a youth production of Trial by Jury at the Gilbert & Sullivan Festival in Buxton and then, at twelve, I played a field mouse in a professional production of The Wind in the Willows at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, where I grew up, and I said to my father “This is what I want to do”. I’ve never really looked back. For most of my teens, I was dashing between amateur productions, school plays, competitions – I was completely hooked on music and drama. With the advice and encouragement of my first long-term singing teacher, Barbara Lowe, I decided to apply to music college, so I could continue to combine my passions, through opera and song.

Aside from a desire to get up on stage, my interest in creating theatre continued to rub alongside. While I was at secondary school, some friends and I staged concert performances of operas and a slightly dubious new musical that we wrote together. We’d spend hours in the garage painting scenery, writing songs and running rehearsals. After a year of finding my feet at Trinity College of Music in London, I had a craving to direct again, and put on a performance of Cox and Box by Sullivan and Burnand, together with a second half of Gilbert & Sullivan concert items. I’d grown up around lots of G&S, so it seemed like a good place to start. A friend, David Eaton, who was on the staff as a coach and repetiteur, offered to work on a full production with me. We both happened to be involved in a small-scale production of La bohème in a sixty seat theatre above a pub called the Rosemary Branch in Islington, directed by Stuart Barker, who is now the Director of Training and Productions for British Youth Opera. David and I sat down with the owner of the pub, Cecilia Darker to ask “Could we put on an opera here in the Autumn?” and so our chamber company Charles Court Opera was formed, so called because Trinity College of Music is based in the King Charles Court at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.

Now, twelve years later, no longer a student company, CCO has gone from strength to strength – most recently producing two operas commissioned by the Iford Arts Festival, and presenting our own brand of ‘boutique pantomime’ at the King’s Head Theatre in London, which I co-write, after many years of honing our craft at the Rosemary Branch. CCO is now one of the leading chamber outfits in the UK, and I’m still very passionate about the future of the company. There is an ever-strengthening place for smaller-scale opera in this country, which has a committed and enthused audience.

After finishing college, where I had learned from and worked with so many inspiring people, and had been given many opportunities to perform, I decided to give postgraduate training a miss for now and spent several years working as a singer for touring companies, while juggling my other hat as Artistic Director of CCO, and starting to gain more directing experience away from the company, including directing for the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company. I sang a few roles for British Youth Opera along the way, thoroughly enjoying those challenges, became a Yeoman of the WCOM and a Park Lane Young Artist, making my debut recitals at Wigmore Hall and the Purcell Room, with friend and pianist James Young.  I love the dramatic imagination in song repertoire, and it was a big passion of mine at music college, so it has been a joy to continue to explore it. I’ve recently recorded one of Peter Maxwell Davies’ last works for voice and string quartet – ‘A Sea of Cold Flame’ – which was released on Ayriel Classical this year.

I never ended up making a return to education and, in terms of my operatic career, an important milestone came when an agent watched one of CCO’s shows, in which I was also performing. He suggested me to Opera North for a production in 2012, and I’ve been lucky to enough to work for that company on and off ever since, whilst also forming relationships with the other national companies. This year, I’ve sung Alidoro, La Cenerentola for Opera North, Leporello, Don Giovanni for Opera Holland Park, revived CCO’s production of Die Zauberflöte in London, and directed a new Il Barbiere di Siviglia for CCO at Iford Arts.

I’ve also been enjoying developing new work with the Opera North Education and Outreach departments, writing and devising ‘whistle-stop operas’ – thirty minute mini operas based on one of their main stage programme choices, or, as with the current project, an introduction to the art form, and I was recently appointed Education Manager of the Concordia Foundation’s Young Audiences Projects. This Autumn, I’ve experienced a first – my national company debut as a director, while also performing in another piece for the same company. The other evening, I was in make-up backstage at Opera North, being made up to play a tree in Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, while listening to my own production of Trial by Jury being performed over the tannoy. It has been quite nostalgic to come full circle on Trial after having performed in it myself as child.

Opera singing and directing are not often considered to be paths that work alongside each other – though in theatre, an actor who also directs is relatively common. So I feel very fortunate to have been able to explore both these interests, which to me feel very compatible. I love working with directors and conductors as a singer, learning from them, absorbing how they work, and I find that being a singer helps inform my rehearsal process as a director. There are challenges; there are aspects of both jobs that use the same parts of the brain, but also very different parts, but that is what makes the balance ever-interesting. The balance may tip in one direction for a while, and then the other, but I’m enjoying going in whichever direction I’m taken; being able to continually fuel my passions for all the aspects of music and theatre.

Follow John on Twitter @jsavournin and @charlescourt