One of the final events in this year’s Brighton Festival is a 50th anniversary concert performance of Sir Michael Tippett’s second opera, King Priam. Based on Homer’s Iliad, the piece explores personal and political struggles in making moral choices and will be performed by the Britten Sinfonia, the Brighton Festival Chorus and features internationally renowned bass Brindley Sherratt. The piece will be conducted by Sian Edwards and recently I was able to ask her about the opera and about the role of the conductor.


Can you explain to me the process of conducting an orchestra please? 

I think it’s a very interesting collaboration really, between me and a group of people who are all in themselves wonderful musicians. The Britten Sinfonia, who are playing for King Priam are absolutely marvellous players, and then I am there, in a way, to lead the overall vision of the piece. I bring the detailed parts together, in a unified form, and provide focus to the performance. With this piece, that we are performing on the 27th of May, we also have the Brighton Festival Chorus and we’ve got a whole lot of soloists so, in a way, I’m the central co-ordinating point.


I’m also the person who is responsible for generating the overall feel and energy of the piece. Obviously, Sir Michael has written a wonderful work which has its own incredible force, I mean the very first bars absolutely explode into life, and so it’s not that I am actually generating energy but I am sort of giving it that focus, line and direction that means everyone is pointing the same way.


Is it massively different conducting an opera as opposed to an orchestral piece?   

Well you have the extra, very big, dimension of having the singers and chorus and I think what is really interesting is that, of course, the composer is writing the piece to go with a text. He or she has got words in front of them, so what you have then is this other set of resonances and I think composers then try to write the piece to amplify those resonances, to give them an overall effect which, in this case, is the tragic story of King Priam.


So, as well as being the focus for the orchestra, you have that extra dimension going on and, so I must always be mindful of the dramatic effect of the words. I think in Britain we are very much word-orientated people, we seem to love the more word-based art forms and so my place is to ensure that the singers, and their involvement in the drama, come across.


Are you one of very few female conductors?

I’m sorry to say that I do seem to be. You know it’s very interesting that there are lots of women working as conductors with youth orchestras, lots working as choir conductors or with amateur orchestras and doing a really good job, but it seems that it’s really hard to move into the professional side.


I teach conducting at the Guildhall School of Music in London and in my classes I have a 50/50 split of males and females but it doesn’t seem to translate on to the professional side. I hope that it will change because there are some fantastic younger women coming through.   


So will King Priam be the big dramatic finish to the festival?

Looking through the brochure, it does look like it, but we have a long way to go before we get there. You see, what’s happening at the moment is that the singers, some of whom have done the roles before, are working on the music for themselves. I am working very closely with the management of the orchestra but we have very complicated rehearsal schedules. So we won’t actually all see each other until much closer to the performance and then all these people will bring their own expertise and it’s only then that we will see how dramatic the finished piece will actually be. 


Yours is a concert performance, is it costumed?

No, I don’t believe it will be, although I am sure that the way the singers behave on stage will bring a huge amount of dramatic feel to it. One of the thrilling things about performing it at the Brighton Dome Concert Hall is that we are able to do quite a lot of the off-stage effects. So, for example, you get this incredible sound of the trumpets and the chorus right at the beginning off-stage and I’m hoping for people who don’t know the piece that it will still be quite vivid.


When you stand there conducting, do you immerse yourself completely in the piece? 

Yes, I think you do. It’s always a balance between guiding things, responding to things that are happening, co-ordinating things and getting completely carried away.

When I am doing such a technically demanding piece as this which, being only 50 years old this year, is still quite modern, I think that my main purpose is to basically to hold it together and then for us all to get carried away, if you like. A performance goes a bit like a surfer on a wave and you really hope that you can make that wave propel everyone into something magnificent.


The concert performance of King Priam, featuring the Britten Sinfonia, Brighton Festival Chorus, soloist Brindley Sherratt and conducted by Sian Edwards, will be performed at the Brighton Dome on Sunday 27th May at 7.00pm