Opera Company

Dame Josephine Barstow as the Countess and Paul Rendall as the Master of Ceremonies in The Queen of Spades. Photo credit: Bill Cooper

This Autumn, 18 schools across the North took part in Opera 1 workshops and visited the theatre to see a performance of Opera North’s The Queen of Spades.

The Opera 1 team received many brilliant reviews from the students who took part, and three of those have been chosen to appear on the blog. Read on to see what they thought!

Lauren, age 11:

“Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Queen of Spades’ leaves the audience on the edge of their seats, hungry for more. The gripping plot and unusual characters give it an edge unlike any other. The story revolves around a heartbroken peasant, Herman, who is madly in love with the beautiful and rich countess’s granddaughter, Lisa. But Lisa is engaged to a prince and has to decide which path to follow that will lead her to her prince charming.

“Two Russian soldiers tell Herman of a card trick that could win him every gambling match he plays and make him rich enough to be Lisa’s lover, without her status being damaged. But the only woman alive who knows the secret is Lisa’s grandmother, the countess. Mad and blinded by his undying love for Lisa, he accidently murders the countess in an attempt to gain the secret of the cards.

“Upset and confused by the sudden death, Lisa commits suicide and leaves Herman lost and alone in the world. The last act shows Herman being told the secret of the cards by the countess’s ghost, and him then winning two games but losing the third -when what he thought was an ace turned out to be ‘The Queen of Spades’. He then dies tragically from madness and the opera is ended.

“An amazing opera I would recommend to anyone!”


Eleanor, age 14:

“In my opinion, your first opera should be the one you remember for years, and I will definitely remember The Queen of Spades as a warm welcome to the world of opera.

“The two lovers, Herman and Lisa kept us all guessing as they struggled to get past the obstacles that blocked them from their dreams of happiness right to the last minute, when tragedy and greed rips them apart. But the character that most had my sympathy was the countess, whose riveting performance as a faded, bitter beauty queen truly sent her out in style, leading to another flaw in the lovers’ plan.

“The Opera was truly brought to life by the wonderful costumes and the simply beautiful sets, which gave the opera a glamorous feeling without overshadowing the major talent that was on display.

“But the opera wasn’t all tragedy and heartbreak, the rousing drinking song at the end brought a feeling of companionship and cheer to the bleak reality of the story, only to be extinguished by greed, envy and pride.

“The score fitted perfectly with the emotions felt as we watched the lovers struggle, and most of the singing certainly did the music justice. The countess was mesmerising, but the relationship between Herman and Lisa felt blank and tired, and their stage presence didn’t quite have the sparkle that Dame Josephine Barstow as the countess brought.

“The lighting was exceptional, telling us who to look for in a crowd, and adding to the suspense of the more dramatic scenes.

“My favourite part was the ending, when the drama has reached its pinnacle, and the stage was owned by the countess as she brought the opera to a close with one final flourish.”

Caroline, age 16:

“Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades”, staged by Opera North at the Theatre Royal,

Newcastle, cannot be described as anything other than a resounding success. The production, directed by Neil Bartlett, was performed stunningly by a highly able cast, lead by Tenor, Jeffery Lloyd-Roberts who portrayed Herman, the man driven insane by love, jealousy and desire in this tale of twists, turns, deception and of course, the gambling of life.

“The plot was based on a novella by Russian author Pushkin, but rewritten for the opera by Tchaikovsky. Despite being set in 18th centurySt Petersburg with an array of varied characters, the cast presented the plot so that it was highly understandable yet not overly simplistic. Members who should be highly commended were Orla Boylan, portraying the female lead and love interest of Herman, Lisa, whose character’s feelings and emotional development were conveyed stunningly; and of course, Dame Josephine Barstow, playing the countess, whose vocals, though mature, were none the less crisp, powerful and the vocal control she has is unbelievable, with a sense of fragility mirrored by no other in the cast.

“However, it is not only the cast who are to be so praised. The costumes used throughout were perfect for the context, and also displayed subtexts of scenes and of characters (for example, the vulnerability and truth of character we feel from the countess during her death scene is increased by her change in costume). The scenery was also highly effective, being minimalist, yet versatile, as well as the lighting which was used to great advantage throughout the production. On top of that, the orchestra performed brilliantly with the cast and presented Tchaikovsky’s score beautifully.

“Overall, “The Queen of Spades” was a wonderful, highly enjoyable and successful production.”

Opera 1 is a programme of creative workshops run by Opera North’s Education team aimed at introducing young people in secondary schools to the art form of opera. Students work with a team of professional artists on a range of music, drama and design activities before seeing a production performed at their local venue. Find out more about Opera 1 here.

Opera 1 is kindly supported by The Hedley Denton Charitable Trust, The Joicey Trust, The Sir James Knott Trust and the Whitaker Charitable Trust.


The Opera North Children's Chorus with Musical Director, Justin Doyle and Vocal Consultant, Rachel Staunton. Photo credit: Jonny Walton, Kaptur

Education is a very broad term and means different things to different people.  At Opera North we believe in creating opportunities that engage people from cradle to grave.  Our two newest projects illustrate our commitment to young and old.

Our Little Voices project sees parents and their children aged 0-4 flocking into weekly sessions which get them involved in music and movement activities which are both fun and educational.  Children develop a sense of pulse and pitch, and each week we have a listening session at the end where we dim the lights and listen to a snippet of opera!  Little Voices is one of our most over-subscribed projects and it’s wonderful to see so many children being introduced to music so early on in their lives – let’s hope they carry on enjoying it for a long time to come!

Our work with older people is in partnership with Bradford District Care Trust, and we hope to explore the power of musical reminiscence for those with Alzheimer’s disease.  This is an incredibly important and interesting area of research and delivery but is also a very sensitive subject, so we will be treading carefully and seeking lots of support from the experts.  From an academic point of view there is the opportunity to look into how and why music can be helpful to those suffering from AD – research shows that music heightens responses in AD patients allowing better attention and improved memory, and that the parts of the brain which process music may be spared by the disease.  Away from academia, our work is important for the simple fact that it is a fun session which gives the participants an engaging activity which makes them feel more confident and generally better in themselves.

There are many other new projects this year, and our established programme continues to inspire people all over the North.  Our partnership with Streetwise Opera continues, and is due to grow to include work with the homeless in Leeds and the North East in addition to the existing programme in Manchester.  Thousands of children will see their first opera this year whether that’s Queen of Spades or Cautionary Tales (which tours the north in March 2012).  We continue to train local teachers and artists in order to ensure that as many children as possible are coming into contact with good music-making opportunities.  Our extensive out-of school programmes continue throughout the year, spearheaded by the Opera North Children’s Chorus – 90 children singing together is a phenomenal sound!  Any child aged 7-13 is welcome to audition.  Come and hear them in their debut alongside the ON Orchestra and Chorus in Dewsbury on December 21st.

Rebecca Walsh
Head of Education

The Christmas concert will take place on Wednesday 21 December at 7.30pm at Dewsbury Town Hall, as part of the Kirklees Concert Season.  For more information and to book tickets, click here.

In just over a week Yorkshire will have headline billing in London’s cultural calendar when Opera North begins a five-day residency at the Barbican.

This is a fantastic opportunity for one of our most celebrated organisations to showcase its talent to a London audience, proving why Yorkshire is such a rich, diverse, innovative and artistic place.

It’s my job to celebrate and shout about everything that is great about our county. I act as a global cheerleader for our tourism industry and that includes our cultural and artistic bodies, which is why I am delighted Welcome to Yorkshire will be partnering with Opera North during this residency. It provides the perfect platform to not just tell, but to show, an audience how wonderfully blessed we are in Yorkshire to have companies such as Opera North.

Yorkshire is less than two hours from the capital and can easily rival anywhere in the UK for a weekend break or a longer stay, so it’s great to have a stage like this where we can literally sing our praises and really put Leeds and Yorkshire at the forefront of people’s minds, especially at this time of year when people are starting to think about next year’s holidays.

I’m sure all three shows will be an undoubted success. They will put Opera North centre stage in the capital and encourage more people to think about heading to Yorkshire to experience our wonderfully creative county. I will certainly be there to lead the standing ovations. I hope the audience who will come and see the productions at the Barbican will walk away with one thought: that they need to see Opera North again but next time in Leeds.

Gary Verity, Chief Executive, Welcome to Yorkshire

Opera North’s Barbican residency is supported by touring partners Welcome toYorkshire and Tennants.

For more information go here.

Hackers credit: Jonny Walton/kaptur

The arts, I have learnt, is full of incredibly creative people but a lot of them still haven’t quite come to terms with the possibilities offered by the huge advances in technology we’ve seen in recent years. Culture Hack North will help explore and explain those possibilities and I can’t wait to see what happens.

So what is a hack day?

A hack day is an event where developers, designers and people with ideas gather to build ‘cool stuff’ – the events now run all over the world and are organised by a wide variety of people, companies, and even government departments.

Culture Hack takes this format and is an opportunity for us to delve deeper into some of the data arts companies have stashed away, that they and we don’t yet realise has potential online.

I have spent the last 6 months organising the first ever Culture Hack North, Culture Hack North: Leeds 2011, which will take place this weekend (12-13 November) at NTI Leeds and is sponsored by Marketing Leeds. Over 50 developers will be working with data from 15 organisations including Opera North, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Museums Sheffield, Leeds Libraries, the Henry Moore Institute, Whitworth Art Gallery and many more. In addition to the ‘hacking’ there is also a programme of talks with speakers including Rohan Gunatillake (Edinburgh Festivals Innovation Lab), Greg Povey (Mudlark) and Lucy Bannister (Axis).

During the day the 50 hackers will split into teams to work on the provided data which can include opening times, location information or programme notes. Arts organisations involved have the opportunity to meet and talk with digital and creative professionals outside the confines of the usual client-agency relationship, which encourages new ways of thinking about the potential of digital and data. The results can be things that we would never have imagined and which would never have materialised without this kind of event. For the hackers there are a variety of prizes on offer for the best ideas plus the experience.

I think the most exciting thing about an event like this is you really have no idea what the outcomes will be, who knows what hacks will be made or what weird and wonderful ideas might emerge as a result of the conversations that’ll take place over the course of the weekend. And that’s kind of the point, to get all these people together, to think differently – without the constraints of the office environment and working on a specific project.

Ash Mann, Digital Communications Manager, Opera North

Culture Hack North: Leeds 2011 is sponsored by Marketing Leeds. The venue is sponsored by NTI Leeds and the event takes place as part of Leeds Digital Festival. The event has been organised by Opera North and Leeds Hack. For more information go here.

Next week our OPUS 2 and OPUS 3 out-of-school arts projects start again. Young people aged between 11 and 18 will come along and get a taste of what the project is about with our two taster sessions.

Opera North Education have been running these projects since 2007 and every year has a different, distinct flavour and this is what I find most exciting about OPUS, it’s not just about one thing. As well as working with artists on a weekly basis, there are also guest slots for other artists to come and share their skills with the group. Last year saw fight director Ran Braun lead a session based on the fight choreography in Carmen! So, one week might be focussed on singing, the next on devising a group drama piece, another session might be a guest slot for a film maker or a contemporary dancer.

OPUS also manages to bring a wide variety of young people together with different interests, tastes and experiences. The project is for anyone keen to explore everything that the arts have to offer. It’s not the quality of skills that matter, but the quality of ideas and a willingness to learn and try new things. It’s also a brilliant opportunity to find out about all the different art forms and skills that go in to producing an opera including, composition, writing, set and costume design, choreography, even lighting, sound and stage management.

To book on to a taster session, come along and enjoy and then decide whether to join the project. There are taster sessions on Monday 17th and Tuesday 25th October. For more information email education@operanorth.co.uk

Oh, and did I mention that OPUS members get to go and see live theatre, opera, dance, go to exhibitions and events? And all for free!

Alex Bradshaw
Senior Education Producer, Opera North

For the last year, I have been working on a book about Opera North’s history and its productions in the context of opera studies. It has been a wonderfully varied time, spent in corners of rehearsal rooms and the Grand auditorium with my netbook, rifling through boxes in the basement with archive material from the company’s 33 year history and interviewing key people. With the autumn season well under way, Opera North is currently ‘the size of a small emergent nation,’ as Company Manager Jane joked the other day.

Anne Sophie Duprels as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly

This made me reflect that there are also quite a few nations represented in the productions that are in preparation. Within the past month, a Japanese tragedy, a Victorian melodrama, a mythical tale about Gods, giants, Rhinemaidens and dwarves and a Russian tale of gambling, obsessive love and ghosts have all been in rehearsal. Japan (through the bypass of an Italian verismo opera), England, Germany (with a bit of Norse mythology) and Russia, all assembled on Opera North’s premises.

So, in order of appearance on the Grand Theatre stage: Madama Butterfly opened some weeks ago, Ruddigore moved from the subterranean rehearsal room into the Linacre Studio (much more comfortable, as it has the dimensions of the stage) and has now also opened on the stage, and The Queen of Spades inhabits the Harewood rehearsal studio, ready for the stage next week. Stage management and technical staff excel at being in the right space for the right scene
change with the right box of props.

I try to observe each production at each of its crucial stages: rehearsal room sessions, culminating in the rehearsal room run, then the Sitzprobe in the Howard Assembly Room, the first time singers and orchestra come together. I will then see the production transfer onto the stage, still with piano, but already with costumes, make up and lighting. After the piano dress rehearsal, I will watch the orchestra and singers grow together during the stage and orchestra rehearsals. Finally, the dress rehearsal marks the transition to the performance with some people in the auditorium, and normally running flawlessly, due to the streamlined and honed processes that have lead up to it. It is the culmination of the efforts of everyone involved in the journey from first model showing to curtain up on the first night. After getting absorbed in the production process, I will turn my attention to the finished performance and its public reception, as both are important in the context of the book.

I will be writing a loose series of blogs on rehearsals, starting with some rehearsals I observed for Ruddigore, which you can read about here. More soon!

Dr Kara McKechnie lectures in theatre and performance at the University of Leeds. Her book on Opera North will be published by Emerald in early 2013.


Photos@Malcolm Johnson

Over the last week, I have been watching rehearsals for Ruddigore, which opens on September 30 after its huge success in early 2010. While writing this, I am cosied up next to two skeletons who live in a prop box when they are not on stage. The atmosphere is relaxed, as everyone loves working on this production. Choreographer Kay will often run warm up sessions, so performers are prepared for the energetic movement sequences on the rake. Before they get to the point where a whole scene or an act are run through, rehearsals are about simultaneity as well as repetition. A sequence is repeated and refined as the performers co-ordinate the many things that happen at the same time (singing, words, movement, gesture, facial expression, reactions). There are also some intermittent periods, where performers are going over steps, music and text, spoken dialogue or movement sequences in isolation. At a Ruddigore rehearsal, a scene in Act 2 sees director Jo Davies talking through a point involving a cloak with the singer of Robin, while Rose and Richard are practising a lift – impressive, as Amy Freston (Rose) sings some very high notes while flung head down over Richard’s (Hal Cazalet) shoulder. They practise it ‘dry’ several times, doing the movements on their own, then running through it again and marking the notes, while a line of chorus bridesmaids practises dainty steps, with the choreographer Kay demonstrating alongside them (but mind the tiger rug along the way!). To a passer-by, this might just seem like a hive of activity, but it’s a flurry of micro-rehearsals before everyone comes back together again with piano for an improved version of the sequence.

The next day, the gents who sing the parts of the Murgatroyd ancestors practise the choreography of ‘The Ghosts’ High Noon’. One ghost gallops in on an imaginary horse, one persistently chases Baronet Ruthven with a lance – nothing is safe from these mischievous ghouls. This is a show stopping number of skilfully choreographed mayhem, meaning lots of detailed one-by-one rehearsals, concerned with cues, timing and position in the space, often while manipulating props (my skeletal rehearsal room companions!). And of course there’s an opportunity to trip over the tiger rug.

Photo: Malcolm Johnson

Ruddigore is a performance which requires a lot of energy – try performing a Charleston on a raked stage while singing, or try dancing round a couple in an excitable group of singing bridesmaids at least twenty times until it’s exactly right, not to mention spooky dances while singing about the ghosts’ high noon in forte. Finally, try finding your breath in the vigorous finale and its infamous patter, congratulating Mad Margaret and Sir Despard Murgatroyd in William Gilbert’s immortal words:

‘Prompted by a keen desire to evoke,

All the blessed calm of matrimony’s yoke,

They will toddle off tomorrow

From this scene of sin and sorrow

For to settle, settle, settle, settle, settle, settle

In the town of Basingstoke!’

Dr Kara McKechnie lectures in theatre and performance at the University of Leeds. Her book on Opera North will be published by Emerald in early 2013.

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