Well, after ten weeks rehearsing and performing in Leeds, here we are again on tour at the Lowry, Salford Quays, picking up where we left off in March, so some notes from the bunker are in order

Several Opera North old lags are back for another stretch, which makes for very jolly evenings in the From the House of the Dead. It’s always good to have Jeff Lloyd-Roberts back, and Roddy Williams, and Rob Hayward, Alan Oke, Stephen Richardson – yes all of you, don’t be offended if I’ve missed your name off, I’m on a tight word-count here. However, at the Lowry there is no natural light or fresh air for the Company Manager, which leaves me longing for my freedom…….

In case you hadn’t realised, this season is all about imprisonment, liberty, love, death, and scratchy grey uniforms for the gentlemen of the chorus. Don Jose is sent to jail for dereliction of duty; Florestan is imprisoned by his political enemies; Goryanchikov, a toff, is sent to a tough gulag in Siberia – shades of M. Strauss-Kahn do we think? I love the way life reflects art, but it’s sobering to think that nothing changes in the world.

It’s only a short tour this time – a week at the Lowry and a week in Nottingham – with the added interest of two concert stagings (From the House of the Dead and Fidelio) at The Sage in Gateshead, while the Newcastle Theatre Royal undergoes renovation. Of course, they won’t be JUST concert performances, so we’ll be turning up in force.

The Company Office on tour is never dull: people asking questions, needing hotels or transport, ringing to say they’re ill or delayed, asking for tickets, changing rehearsals, having meetings, trying to get online…. And we’re trying to sort out a chorus of 24 children for The Queen of Spades which starts rehearsing in August, so lots of emails flying around about audition arrangements.

And just when you thought it was safe to go back to Leeds at the end of it all, what happens? Das Rheingold, that’s what, just one of the biggest things we could do without a stage, with a completely different set of people needing accommodation, transport, tickets…..

Jane Bonner, Company Manager

Remaining tour dates:

Theatre Royal, Nottingham- 24 – 28 May

The Sage, Gateshead – 3 – 4 June

 General Director Richard Mantle assesses the Question of Liberty

In all three of our operas this season – Beethoven’s Fidelio, Janácek’s From the House of the Dead and Bizet’s Carmen – the question of liberty, either personal or in the wider social or political sphere, is at stake. Opera is rightly prized for its capacity to stir the emotions, but this season demonstrates that it can engage just as passionately with ideas. Precisely because of the emotional power of music, opera is perfectly placed to convey the personal experiences of individuals caught up in larger social or political events. Writing of the first London performances of Fidelio, Thomas Love Peacock spoke of ‘a force and reality that makes music an intelligible language, possessing an illimitable power of pouring forth thought in sound.’

‘Thought in sound’ – that’s a useful phrase to keep in mind this season. I write these words at a time when international headlines are full of the events in Pakistan, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and the Ivory Coast, whilst at home the debates are about – amongst other things – the legitimacy and efficacy of public demonstration in the wake of the protests against public spending cuts, and the way we run our prisons, to name but two. All this serves to point up the universality of the liberty theme. So as well as exploring it through our main stage productions, we also examine its immediate contemporary resonances in what I am certain will be an enormously stimulating series of talks, performances and film screenings in the Howard Assembly Room inLeeds.

Richard Mantle

General Director

Steven Harrison as Florestan in Opera North's Fidelio

A singer’s career path is a process that proliferates with the same lifelong devotion of courage and love shared by athletes.  We dedicate our lives to a craft that encourages self-examination, awareness of human consciousness and the manner in which we ourselves, and the characters we portray, fit into that balance.

Like an athlete, the processes of a singer encompass many factors, which include muscle training through years of practice, self awareness in order to embody a role, trust in a coach, knowledge of your craft, a team playing spirit with kindness and respect for your colleagues, and finally accepting your victories but learning from your less successful performances in order to improve your craft and skill.

There are also technical building blocks that give the character a sense of reality.  Several months before I sang my first Florestan in Germany, I was singing “Werther” in Cape Town, South Africa.  I ventured out one day to visit the fort (Castle of Good Hope) where prisoners were jailed and tortured.  I didn’t realize at that moment what I was about to experience, but I found myself in an isolation cell.  It seemed rather uncomfortable and then, unexpectedly, the tour guide asked someone to close the door.

As the door was closing, the light vanished and darkness filled the room.  I began to understand what Florestan had endured.  I was in this small isolated chamber for perhaps one minute and instantly started to feel trapped and scared.  The blood-stained bricks still had the odor of death, the air was dank and heavy, you could only hear the sound of your own breath and the darkness was such that you could not even see the hand in front of your own face.  This was the life that Florestan had endured for two years. This moment inSouth Africa was the beginning of my process into finding the external character.

When I begin to study a character I also look for the internal conflict. Conflict necessitates growth or awareness of one’s self and the world around us.  Conflict is also what drives a story and creates exposition and resolution.  Taking this one step further, a conflict always defines a flaw in a character’s inner conditioning.  It is this inner conditioning which I search for in order to become the character and embody the role.  If I can identify with the character’s inner conditioning, and his flaw, which creates the conflict of the drama, I am well underway in creating my portrayal.

The character of Florestan in Fidelio is often thought of as a “flaw-less” character. He is quite a dignified and noble man.  He is living in a time, however, where he is imprisoned within his being due to society’s lack of consciousness.  Ironically, in order to break out of this sociological “prison” he “dares speak the truth” and is therefore thrown into a real prison as a result of his braveness.  It is this very internal character trait that I must be able to identify with in order to understand this man.  I will simply say, in short, that I, too, have found myself “locked out” for speaking truths under circumstances where the truth was not wished for, heard or identified.  Is this a flaw one may ask?  Diplomacy is key in dealing with change.  In order to shake up the system one must enter it, find an accepted place well inside its core and then unknowingly create change. 

This method of character study is another level that adds to the process which started for me during that brief moment inside a dark dungeon in South Africa.  The process goes well beyond discovering and analyzing a character.  It is the progression we singers go through which begins at our first lesson and never ends.  The process is a euphoric, sometimes painful, always edifying journey into discovering a character, ourselves, our identities, and this process is built upon during every performance.

Steven Harrison, Florestan, Fidelio

So it’s the week of opening night for Fidelio already! It’s hard to believe how quickly the last few weeks have passed, it seems like only yesterday we were all huddled over our stands in the first music rehearsal. But yet again, so much work has been done during these past six weeks. We were very lucky that the set was available during our rehearsal period, this makes life so much easier as we get to familiarise ourselves with our surroundings very early on. The rehearsal period has been quite intense, this is such wonderful music, but there’s so much detail to be put in to the actual production. There’s so much to concentrate on during rehearsals, such as, getting the music right, following the conductor, concentrating on not falling off the edge of a six foot high bedroom platform(!) but all this hard work is worth it in the end. By the time we get into the theatre, the small details make a very big difference to the performances, and it all finally comes together.  

We’re now in the run up to opening night. The two week period preceding the premiere is always hard work. It all begins with the sitzprobe – a final music rehearsal before we move the production from studio to stage. This is the first time we as singers get to hear the orchestra, and this is when all the musical details are fixed. It is probably my favourite part of the entire rehearsal period. As wonderful as any repetiteur may be (and we have a great rep in the lovely John Querns) no piano can ever imitate the splendour of the full orchestra. The orchestra sounds truly amazing under Sir Richard’s baton and it proves to be a very exciting time ahead. It’s then onto four stage and piano rehearsals, a piano dress rehearsal, four stage and orchestras and then the general dress rehearsal.                 

This is the time the entire production team comes into its own. Imagine a big ocean liner the only way it can sail is if all the crew pull together above and below decks. It is so easy to forget, or indeed not to realise at all, how much work goes on behind the scenes to produce an opera at this level. No production could be done without the hard work and dedication of a number of different people. From the set builders, props managers, costume makers, wigs and make-up department, to even the wonderful dressers that bring very much needed cups of tea to the singers during the intervals! (I in fact am very impressed this year, to have been assigned my own Welsh speaking dresser – more a coincidence than anything else, I’m sure, but a very nice one at that)

So with all the rehearsals now done, a very electrically charged dress rehearsal in the bag, it’s now time to get ready for opening night. Having an audience present makes such a huge difference to a performance, and I’m quite sure I can say that we are all looking forward very much to seeing what excitement first night will bring. I’m sure there’ll be nerves, I was always told that a little bit of nerves makes all the difference between a dull performance and a real and exciting one, but as long as we all remember what we’ve been doing these last couple of months and follow Sir Richard’s baton, the ship should finally sail…

Opera North’s production of Fidelio opens tonight, Thursday 14 April.

Steven Harrison, Rigoletto, Opera Queensland

I have been staying in Leeds – a city I have never visited before – for three weeks now, rehearsing for Opera North’s production of Fidelio. For me, Leeds is a city where day to day life combines communication, motion, energy and camaraderie with a slight edge.  An edge where young people walk with style, all have room to be unique or full of character and worlds collide with a neat mix of European, Asian and African influence.

The centre of Leeds and the heart of its character can be found at the Leeds City Market.  I am simply wild about it.  All of my colleagues at the opera have heard all of my stories about my numerous adventures at the Leeds City Market – certainly too numerous to mention in this blog.   At least twice each week I find myself shopping there and never need an excuse to go.  Just this past Saturday, for instance, I woke up early and decided to get my week’s shopping done.  My first stop was a small breakfast cafe with red and white striped plastic tablecloths.  I ordered my tea and breakfast and sat down in a spot where I could enjoy the activity of the Market.  The silence of the cafe was quickly broken by the sound of my eggs hitting the sizzling grill.

At that very same moment, as if timed with a two-hand gesture from the short order cook, the radio began playing a nostalgic clarinet rendition of “Begin the Beguine.”  The smell of sausages came wafting up from the grill as the ceiling fans, clock pendulum and passers by all seemed to move and sway to the beat of the Beguine.  A woman at a table in front of me dressed in a thickly piled beige wool sweater began to tap her foot to the rhythm, joining this parade of motion. Special moments like this are why I always frequent this wonderful and very atmospheric place.

I got up to leave and the woman behind the register took my 3 pounds and said “Thanks, Love, have a nice day.”  Warmly spoken greetings like that are very typical of what I’ve experienced at the Leeds City Market.  Whether I buy a pair of shoelaces, a filet of salmon, fresh produce, a toe-nail clipper or just a cup of tea, everyone always calls me “Love” and communicates and happily engages in conversation.  When I think of the primary element I enjoy about Leeds, it’s this exchange in dialogue which I especially cherish.  In New York City we call it “kibitzing;” that wonderful daily chitchat shared with a shop owner or passerby.  Kibitzing is all but gone in Manhattan and, can I say, I adore this quality about Leeds.  When I return from the market and remove all of the articles I’ve purchased from my shopping bags I remember each  conversation and every person I met that day. The market is overflowing with color and wit and character and it enriches my daily life here in Leeds.

Some other things I love about Leeds are too numerous to mention but I will name a few.  I love that people feel comfortable jaywalking (makes me feel at home!). I love that flowers now decorate Briggate along with benches and trash cans to keep the city friendly, yet tidy.  I adore watching the trains whiz in and out of the city atop the elevated tracks, either from my balcony window or from below and up close.  I marvel at what city planners did with Granary Wharf, adding a modern feel while maintaining an old world charm through artful restoration. I love eating Thai at Saengarun restaurant or having a coffee with Michelle and Janet downstairs from where I live.  I love drinking John Smith’s Smooth Ale at the end of the day! And finally, I really enjoy walking home, down Briggate, and waving through storefront windows at shopowners who recognize me as a customer, and glancing down at the pavement to admire the wide spaces between the enormous old stone pavers on my street to welcome me home.

All this and I have not yet even begun to speak about the wonderful Opera North!  The cast of “Fidelio” is an amazing group of talented and personally heartwarming people.  I cherish every day I work with them and equally love my days free because I get to enjoy the wonderful city of Leeds which has impressed me so much.

Readers of this blog can definitely find me strolling the shops in the Leeds City Market and I would welcome a kind exchange of kibitzing any time! So if you spot me, do say hello!

Steven Harrison, Florestan, Fidelio

I was asked a few days ago if Fidelio was my first production with Opera North. Having said it wasn’t and that I’d done a couple of shows with the Company over the past few years, when I actually sat down and thought about it, I realised that this opera will be my ninth! It got me thinking what it is about a Company that keeps you wanting to go back to work there time after time?

The cynic would imply that it is the need to pay the mortgage and the bills, but this isn’t the case when it comes to Opera North. Having worked with many opera companies in this country and abroad, the thing that carries me up the M1 each time is the promise of a warm welcome and that feeling you get when you greet members of your ‘family’ after long periods apart.

It was with a feeling of nervous excitement that I arrived for the first music call of Fidelio a fortnight ago. Having never sung any Beethoven before, I was slightly apprehensive about the first rehearsal, and also very aware of the calibre of musicians awaiting me in the rehearsal room! Thankfully, it went smoothly and everyone seemed to get on well (very important, as we’ll be spending the next seven weeks together!). As well as having a great cast, we have a strong creative team, which includes director Tim Albery and conductor Sir Richard Armstrong, who both worked on the original production by Scottish Opera. It isn’t all that common for the original director to revive his or her production, so having Tim around feels like a bit of a luxury. He has such a clear idea of what he wants from the piece, but yet is very accommodating to our need as performers to find our own way along the journey of our characters.

Having had three days to concentrate on the music with Sir Richard, we were straight into production rehearsals. The opera is set in a prison and follows Leonore’s journey as she disguises herself as a prison guard named “Fidelio” to rescue her husband Florestan from death in a political prison. I play the role of Marzelline, the prison jailer’s daughter, who falls in love with Leonore (or “Fidelio” as she believes ‘him’ to be). This, as you can imagine, has given us many moments of laughter, as it is rather difficult at this point to imagine the beautiful and feminine Emma Bell as a man. I guess this is what is called artistic licence! Though, knowing the skills of the Opera North wig and make-up department, it will all become very clear once we are on stage and in costume… well, here’s hoping anyway!

Fflur will be blogging once a fortnight in the build up to Fidelio which opens 14 April 2011 – more info.