Nicola Lisle talks to conductor Janet Lincé about reviving Holst’s one-act opera Savitri and other sacred pieces

For Janet Lincé, putting on Holst’s rarely performed opera Savitri is the fulfilment of a long-held ambition. The one-off performance on September 27 is a revival of a piece that she first discovered many years ago, and she is excited to be bringing it to the glorious setting of St John the Evangelist in Oxford.

“It is quite special for me, because I’ve always been interested in Gustav Holst’s music — all aspects of it, orchestral and choral. I first got to know Savitri a very long time ago, when I was freelancing as an accompanist in London. A small amateur group got together and I was its repetiteur. We did three performances at the Battersea Arts Centre, which was fun. And it’s such a magical piece.

“The SJE is wonderful — it’s so atmospheric, the acoustic is good, it’s got space to put the offstage choir and it’s got the staging area. Because it requires such minimalist staging, I could see it working there straight away.”

The opera arose from Holst’s fascination with Hindu legends and the ancient language of Sanskrit in which they were originally written. His discovery of the sacred verses Rig Veda led to him setting many of them to music — including the tale of the simple country-dwelling woman, Savitri, whose overwhelming love for her husband, the woodcutter Satyavan, gives her the courage to outwit Death.

“It’s a very intense, very beautiful opera,” says Janet. “It involves three principal singers, an off-stage female voice choir and a small ensemble.

“The characterisation of the three principals is so strong in the music, and the offstage chorus provides wordless atmosphere at salient points in the score.

“The instrumentation is just two string quartets, double bass, two flutes and a cor anglais. It’s the cor anglais sound that is particularly relevant — it’s this mournful colour that keeps appearing through the piece.”

Janet has recruited three distinguished soloists for the piece — soprano Yvonne Howard (Savitri), tenor Mark Chaundy (Satyavan) and bass Matthew Hargreaves (Death) — along with her own locally-based groups, the chamber choir Choros and professional chamber ensemble Corona Strings.

As Savitri is only a half-hour piece, the programme also includes other Holst works based on the Rig Veda.

“I was drawn to the idea of the spirituality of these pieces, and Holst’s relation to them,” explains Janet. “And I thought actually I’d like to explore them myself a bit more. So then I looked at the Rig Veda hymns, which is why I’ve included two sets of the choral hymns to the Rig Veda, both for female voices, and a little orchestral piece, the Fugal Concerto, in between. That’s how it’s become an all-Holst programme with the same thread running through it of the Sanskrit literature.

“For me it’s a wonderful opportunity to bring together the main strands of my activities, Choros and Corona Strings, but also to do some opera. I’ve always wanted to conduct more opera, because I sang as an opera singer myself, way back in my former life. I also want to do music that really speaks to me, so that’s why I’m really keen to do this.”

A Holst Celebration: Savitri (staged)/Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda/Fugal Concerto
St John the Evangelist Church, Iffley Road, Oxford
Saturday, September 27, 7.30pm
Tickets: 01865 305305/ or