She's got a burning passion for that good old-time music

From klezmer to 18th-century opera, if it's got a past, Lucie Skeaping will uncover it

By Judi Herman, July 7, 2011
Performing Jewish pieces put Skeaping in touch with her roots

Performing Jewish pieces put Skeaping in touch with her roots

'I came to Jewish music in the only way I could, looking at it as early or traditional music. I came to it that way because I'm from a family that was not religious in anyway." So confides Lucie Skeaping, the musician and broadcaster who has carved a reputation as one of the country's most popular performers of Jewish music.

She studied violin and singing at the Royal College of Music and went on to study early music, starting the City Waites ensemble, specialising in 17th-century ballads, with her husband Roddy Skeaping.

And just as she began to wonder about her own heritage, "all sorts of incredible things happened at once", she says. "I was invited to do a documentary about Sephardi Jews to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the expulsion from Spain and the London School of Contemporary Dance asked if I'd organise some traditional Jewish music for a modern ballet."

This was in the late 1980s and the Skeapings went on to found their much-loved klezmer band, The Burning Bush. "We were perhaps the first to try to use instruments for both Sephardi and Ashkenazi music which would have been available at the time the music was originally performed. And it was only really through that that I started to be in touch with the Jewish community. People came up to me asking me things I didn't understand and so over the years I have investigated and feel I'm a little more knowledgeable about Jewish tradition in terms of the music."

One reason for the popularity of The Burning Bush is the equal emphasis they give to Ashkenazi and Sephardi music. "I wouldn't like to say all the Sephardi repertoire is medieval. The expression I like to use is 'could be traced back to earlier times', whereas I would say the nearest relative to Ashkenazi music is old time music hall! It's got a good old theatrical Edwardian feel about it," says Skeaping.

With the City Waites for The Beggar’s Opera

With the City Waites for The Beggar’s Opera

She should know - as a child of 11 she used to peform music hall songs in Jewish old peoples' homes around Golders Green and Finchley where she grew up.

So where does the musical ability come from? "My father - he was a doctor in Golders Green, Dr Finch of Finchley Road (Fink before that) - was a brilliant jazz pianist. He used to tell us how, when he was in the air force in Egypt in the war, every café, every bar had a piano and he was the life and soul of the party. My mother was Patricia Feldman the sculptor. Some people might know her work from the reclining girl with the shorts in Golders Hill Park. She was a very keen dancer, so I suppose I got the all-singing, all-dancing thing from her."

Skeaping is presenter of BBC Radio 3's Early Music Show and broadcast a programme on John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, complete with airs recreated from the original pastoral score, played by the City Waites. She performed in Jonathan Miller's television production of the opera with Who frontman Roger Daltrey playing the robber chief, Macheath. Her researches revealed Gay's work was first performed in London in 1728, as a reaction to the excesses and pretensions of fashionable Italian opera.

"Instead of nymphs and shepherds, gods and goddesses, the stars and chorus were thieves, beggars, whores, London's lowlife - real people. It was a huge success and instead of long virtuoso arias he set bits of text to music the audience would recognise - these old ballads, basically the pop songs of the time, sold for a penny on song-sheets in streets and taverns."

Her eyes shine as she talks and it is easy to see why the City Waites have been headhunted to play the music for this summer's production of the ballad opera at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park. Skeaping is also playing the whore Jenny Diver.

"I'm ultimately the Judas figure who betrays Macheath. Roddy's actually doing all the musical arrangements. He's the one with the computer. We've tried very hard to get the right instrumentation appropriate to these old ballad tunes, using instruments found in the street, drawing rooms and concerts in the early 18th century."

So it is a period piece? "Pretty well. The director Lucy Bailey is going for old rough London, nothing too polite – it's billed for over-12s only, so some of it's quite strong. It's got lovely pleasure garden scenes with stunt people, and one of the whores will be entering from above on a wire. It's visually very interesting!"

Jenny Diver is in only one scene. "The rest of the time, thankfully, I'm playing in the band. We'll be in view, probably getting up and wandering around from time to time. Our only fear is rain. If there's even one drop of rain we'd have to be covered up because of the wooden instruments and gut strings. There's talk of an arbour…" she says hopefully.

'The Beggar's Opera' is at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London NW1, until July 23. Tel. 0844 826 5000

Last updated: 10:50am, July 7 2011