Abingdon Abbey Buildings

Semele at the Unicorn

It all began with a chance encounter on a music course at ‘Jackdaws’ in Somerset.

At tea one afternoon, my eye alighted on a poster advertising auditions for a week-long workshop on Handel’s opera ‘Semele’. This was to culminate in two performances involving local schoolchildren, with the lead roles played by advanced opera students from music colleges. The Friends, I knew, were wondering how to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Unicorn and in a moment of serendipity, I rang the director … I think she was initially doubtful about our ability to deliver, but the Friends liked the idea and a small group of us was formed to translate it into reality.

Opera is expensive and we realised that the only way it could possibly pay was to make it a high-price Gala Performance and to secure considerable grant aid and sponsorship. The Friends kindly agreed to underwrite losses up to a certain sum, and while we hoped not to call on them (and in fact did not need to) this was hugely reassuring.

We designed posters, found sponsors and advertisers, gathered information for a Gala Programme, liaised with ‘Jackdaws’, put together an orchestra and chorus, sold tickets, organised accommodation, selected a caterer – and tasted several different bottles of Prosecco. We wanted everything to be right.

We were surprised how little was known in Abingdon about Alan and Frances Kitching and the Unicorn’s unique role in the revival of Handel operas in the 20th century. Those early performances were meticulously true to the original Handelian style both in music and staging – Alan would have had it no other way.

While we wanted our venture to recognise and celebrate Alan’s achievements, Jackdaws offered quite a different production: Jupiter was a pop star and instead of a shower of gold, arrived in a helicopter. Handel’s nymphs became his screaming fans and Semele admired her own reflection, not in a mirror but on an iPad.

The performance was a sell-out and the general consensus was that it had been a huge success. We, the working group, felt proud of a job well done and we hope that the Friends felt the Unicorn’s 60th anniversary was celebrated in appropriate style.

Writing in The Guardian in 2009, Nicholas Kenyon, Managing Director of the Barbican and former Director of the BBC Proms, said ‘The pioneering activities of the Unicorn Theatre in Abingdon from the 1950s on…are now part of operatic history.’ I hope we have added a small historical postscript of our own.

Glynne Butt, August 2013