Frankie Parham © Guy Bell, GBPhotos.com
Frankie Parham
© Guy Bell, GBPhotos.com

It might be challenging to plan for the future when the present is so utterly unsettling. With news of the coronavirus ravaging the world and with Italy being among the worst affected countries, discussing a music festival taking place in Florence this summer might feel out of place. Yet, as I speak to Frankie Parham – me an Italian-born Londoner, he a British producer that has found in Florence a second home – we both find great solace in talking about this country we love and the joy that we will feel once we will be able to travel there again to enjoy music with those close to us. 

“We're obviously very sad about the situation and hopeful that it will improve,” Parham tells me – “we” being him and the two co-founders of The New Generation Festival, Maximilian Fane and Roger Granville. “We are trying to view our festival as a kind of light at the end of this tunnel and we hope that people can really look forward to it. Come summer, we hope that we will all be relieved to be on the other side of this outbreak and that it will be a welcome celebration.”

Now in its fourth year, The New Generation Festival was established to shine a spotlight on young talents of the future. And we are not only talking about singers and musicians, but also about directors, designers and everyone else who brings the stage to life – including the audience. Set to take place in Florence from the 26th to the 29th of August, the Festival is housed in the stunning setting of Palazzo Corsini al Prato, a palace and gardens belonging to a noble Italian family. For a few days, this normally private residence opens to the public, with a full-scale opera production being performed twice, as well as evenings of symphonic music and jazz.

<i>Le nozze di Figaro</i> at The New Generation Festival 2019 © Guy Bell, GBPhotos.com
Le nozze di Figaro at The New Generation Festival 2019
© Guy Bell, GBPhotos.com

“Florence is an incredible cultural centre and a beautiful place,” Parham tells me. “We discover new things all the time, but going into the fourth year now, we know we've got a long way to go – and we want it to go on for many, many years – but we're really delighted to have gotten this far”.

After presenting Elisir D'Amore, Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro in previous years, the 2020 opera will be Rossini's La Cenerentola. “In true Renaissance style, this year's festival is going to be about distilling all the different disciplines that we cover – opera and classical music, but also a late night programme of contemporary music, fine arts and photography – into a focus on beauty,” Parham explains. “In Cenerentola, the definition of beauty is a central theme – if it's something that is external or comes from within, or both.”

With this year's new production comes a new group of artists from all over the world, including Armenia, Bulgaria, Malta, Italy and Canada – all under 35 – spearheaded by French director Jean-Romain Vesperini. Behind the scenes are French designer Thibaut Welchlin (“He has done some fantastic drawings!” Parham tells me), British stage manager Rebecca Moore and assistant managers Bryony Relf from the UK and Vanessa Codutti from Italy  – only a few names among the very international group. “We're always looking for the best, most exciting up and coming on and off-stage talents and we seek them out from young artist programmes, conservatoire showcases and competitions. For example, the lead part of Cenerentola will be sung by the 2017 winner of the Neue Stimmen International Singing Competition, Bulgarian mezzo Svetlina Stoyanova.”

It will be quite busy backstage, in the dressing rooms of the Palazzo, housed in what were the former stables. “They have wooden partitions that separated the horses, naturally creating little rooms,” Parham explains. “It sounds quite eccentric but actually works incredibly well! It's obviously completely untraditional, but we are all young so everyone really gets into the spirit of it.”

Palazzo Corsini al Prato in Florence © Guy Bell, GBPhotos.com
Palazzo Corsini al Prato in Florence
© Guy Bell, GBPhotos.com

And if last year, under the direction of South African Victoria Stevens, the festival experimented with projections to transport Figaro to the world of Golden Age Hollywood, this year's Cenerentola will have a distinctive French flair, being set in the period of Louis XIV. The court of the Roi Soleil will be brought to life thanks to video mapping, a digital technique that will allow large scale visual effects to be created on the facade of the Loggia, the pre-existing 15th-century colonnaded proscenium where the main action of the Festival takes place. “We're also experimenting with building a catwalk that will work its way around the orchestra and come across the front of the auditorium, so that the singers can come even closer to the audience.”

For the first time this year, the cover cast will also have a chance of their own to perform. The Festival never needed to call in a cover in the past, Parham tells me, so they felt that this group of hardworking singers should also have their moment. They will be performing the opera at the beginning of September, touring the Italian region of Umbria.

This push to give new talents their chance in the limelight does not stop at the Festival: the same creative team responsible for The New Generation is also about to open the doors of a new training programme, the Mascarade Opera Studio, where eight young singers and two répétiteurs have been selected to undergo nine months of individually-tailored, fully-funded training, provided by leading artists and teachers. “Crucially, whether talents are involved in the festival or trained at the studio, we're not here to take them on and spit them out,” says Parham. “We want to ensure that we're not just showcasing them, but that we're also here to provide ongoing support.”

The Festival also offers an orchestral night, which this year features a young ensemble from Bologna, the Orchestra Senzaspine. They are returning after a successful run last year, with violinist Hao Zhou, the 2019 winner of the Concours musical international de Montréal: performing at the Festival is part of his prize, as it will be for future winners. He will play Sibelius' Violin Concerto, and the orchestra, led by Maximilian Fane, will close the night with Elgar's Enigma Variations.

Jazz night at The New Generation Festival 2019 © Guy Bell, GBPhotos.com
Jazz night at The New Generation Festival 2019
© Guy Bell, GBPhotos.com

Last but not least, the hugely popular jazz night is also returning. “We're continuing our collaboration with American organisation the Catskills Jazz Factory, that funds residency programmes for young jazz artists. This year's show, Florence Follieswill be a 1920s tribute featuring American singer Veronica Swift, who plays a huge number of instruments, tap dances and is a multi-talented Ginger Rogers figure, and, as a Fred Astaire character, Yorkshire-born jazz pianist Sam Jewison. The concert will then run into a late night jam session with music being played by different bands across the gardens.”

This year's pursuit of beauty is not only limited to music, because the Festival aims to be a multifaceted sensory experience, starting from the naturally beautiful setting of the Palazzo's gardens, to personal touches such as the food, which will be served in a family-style setting to foster a sense of community and conviviality. The idea of encouraging a shared experience, especially after months of social distancing and stunted interactions, is something that Parham looks forward to. “This style of dinner is actually inspired by the Corsinis themselves, which are a huge family who has these wonderful meals where everyone's chatting, sharing and passing things and having fun.” he tells me. “We are really trying to give everyone, no matter what their age or background is, a truly beautiful experience.” 

The Festival's aim is not only to showcase young talent, but also to attract young audiences: if you are less than 35, tickets only cost €35. “For the last two years running, the final night of the opera over 50% of the audience were under 35, which is exactly what we're trying to do, and we are so delighted that this is the response we're getting,” Parham says.

Audience and cast in the gardens of Palazzo Corsini in Florence © Guy Bell, GBPhotos.com
Audience and cast in the gardens of Palazzo Corsini in Florence
© Guy Bell, GBPhotos.com

Affordable tickets are not the only motivation that entices younger audiences to attend. “Our programme is very diverse across the four days,” he continues. “We headline with opera and classical, but we always end our evenings with a contemporary programme, whether it's rock bands or DJs or jazz... we've had a drag act perform as well, so it's a really wonderful mix in celebration of music. Our creative director Roger [Granville] always says that our unofficial motto is "great music is great music", and you can appreciate Bach as much as Beyoncé. They are all wonderful examples of talent. We are not dumbing down our classical concerts or our operas: they are full productions and very high calibre, but our programme celebrates all music and makes people realise that they are entering into something which is a bigger journey.”

The feeling of wanting this to be an interactive experience, rather than passive listening, is also reflected by the dress code: black tie or “anything you enjoy wearing” makes for wonderfully colourful and creative outfits in what becomes a joyful, fun celebration. The only strict rule at the Festival? Just do not to step on the tortoises – 20 or 30 of them are wobbling around in the long grass, so mind your stilettos.

“Community is really the key,” concludes Parham. “If you ask me what's making this Festival special, I'd say that this year our goal is just ensuring that there's a proper communal feel: an international family of music lovers, all coming together, enjoying music, life and breaking bread together.” 

Click here to find out more about The New Generation Festival.


This interview was sponsored by The New Generation Festival.