The Quay Brothers

Last Thursday the dark early evening rain and wind intensified the atmosphere of suspense and expectation around the Leeds Town Hall Crypt, as the first set of people came along to find out more about OverWorlds & UnderWorlds, the first major public-arts project by Leeds Canvas, planned for next year.

With the Quay Brothers’ exhibition, Dormitorium, the final destination, groups of people set off on separate journeys throughout the overworld and underworld of the Town Hall, from the Clock Tower with its view high above the cityscape, to the dark holding cells deep in the belly of the building.

This was the first opportunity for Leeds Canvas to reveal some detail about the free public event and installation planned for next May, an event over three days from 18-20th May that will transform public spaces and create unforgettable experiences using music, art, dance, light and film.

It was a chance to encourage people to connect the work the celebrated film makers have done on a small scale, by seeing their weird and wonderful set boxes in the Dormitorium exhibition, and seed an idea of what they might create on a large scale for the city of Leeds next year.

The artists have been inspired by Leeds’ heritage, its architecture and its relationship with water and have chosen The Dark Arches,GranaryWharfas the central location to OverWorlds & UnderWorlds. Other artists and arts organisations from the Yorkshire region will be commissioned alongside the Quay Brothers to create events and experiences in other public spaces, details of which will be revealed in the months leading up to May 2012.

The process so far has been an enormous learning curve for the eight organisations involved in supporting this to happen. Leeds Canvas is the coming together of eight of the city’s arts organisations and this our first time working to combine resources, knowledge and infrastructure to produce something on such a scale. It’s an incredibly exciting prospect as we learn more about each others work and how that might make interesting collaborations going forward. 

Ruth Burke-Kennedy, Head of Communications, Northern Ballet

Overworlds & Underworlds is one of 12 national Artists Taking the Lead project, developed with support of Arts Council of England. It is part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. For more information go here


Opera North's production of The Queen of Spades

Ahead of the opening of our production of The Queen of Spades tonight, we commissioned a short tongue in cheek survey to discover the gambling habits of the nation. Here’s what we revealed…

Men are four times more likely than women to risk breaking up with their spouse or partner in order to increase their chances of winning big.

Men are also more likely than women to risk their finances at the gambling table, with 28% of male respondents saying they would gamble their savings for a chance at hitting the jackpot.

Men are more regular risk-takers than women, with 59% of men gambling at least once a month. In comparison, only 19% of women gamble on a monthly basis, while 48% of women gamble only once a year and 21% of women have never gambled.

90% of all surveyed said that they had taken part in some form of gambling. The most popular way of playing the odds is the National Lottery, which 79% had played. Other popular methods of gambling among men include card games and placing bets on the Grand National, whereas women are more likely to gamble on scratchcards and arcade machines.

However, despite the high levels of gambling uncovered by the survey, 93% of people said that they would take higher risks to succeed in love than they would for money.

The Queen of Spades opens at Leeds Grand Theatre on Thursday 20 October and runs until October 28, before touring to the Theatre Royal in Nottingham (4 November), Theatre Royal Newcastle (11 November), The Lowry, Salford Quays (18 November) and the Barbican, London (22, 24 November).

To see Director Neil Bartlett’s picture gallery on The Guardian website 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

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.


Opera North Projects Manager Jo Nockels on preparations for Light Night, taking place across Leeds on Friday 7 October.

Light Night is now just four nights away and there is a hive of activity around the preparation of the installation ‘O Let me Weep,’ that will be taking place in the Howard Assembly Room. Light Night is a unique opportunity to throw open the doors of the venue to hundreds of people over the course of a few hours and offer them a glimpse into a new world, this year the enchanted wood of the opera The Fairy Queen.

Large hanging frames for the installation are currently being made, ready to be rigged in the roof this Friday. The dress maker has been fitting the extraordinary dress to singer Claire Bradshaw, images of forests and clouds will be projected onto the dress as they will with the hanging screens.

Whilst I say there is a hive of activity, the hive is not really here at Opera North just yet. The frames are in workshops in the basement, the dress has been designed and fitted at the singer’s house, the projections are being developed to run on sophisticated video software and the musicians don’t arrive until Thursday night for their rehearsal. It’s the moment of greatest tension in developing any new production: will it feel how we expect? How will everything work? Will everyone turn up?

My favourite part of Light Night projects is the reaction and interaction from the audience. During O Let me Weep, people will be able wander in and out of the room, so becoming part of the piece. Meandering through the ‘forest’ of screens, you automically become somewhere between an observer and a protagonist in the drama, perhaps encountering Titania herself, feeling the power of her voice, and this extraordinary moment in the opera. In the story of The Fairy Queen, this is when Titania wakes and realises that her husband has humiliated her and that her marriage is over. We wanted to explore what happens when you repeat that moment again and again, when you get stuck in that moment and that emotion.

Jo Nockels
Opera North Projects Manager


O Let me Weep takes place in the Howard Assembly Room as part of Light Night in Leeds on Friday 7th October. It is a free, five hour video installation with performance by mezzo-soprano Claire Bradshaw, guitarist Craig Ogden and oboist Hazel Cropper. Entrance is from 5pm-10pm and visiters can come and go at will.

What it is like for you returning to the role of Robin Oakapple and to Opera North?

Grant Doyle as Robin Oakapple and Amy Freston as Rose Maybud in Ruddigore

“It is such an honour to be asked to reprise the role for Opera North in this brilliant production of Ruddigore. I am very grateful for being given the opportunity in the first place, and to know that it was successful enough to be revived so soon is just icing on the cake.” 

How does the rehearsal process differ for a revived role rather than a new one?

“The rehearsal process is quite different, it begins with simply remembering what we did the first time around, and then becomes an exercise in finding freshness and spontaneity. Also it is a chance to polish up some rough edges. I have done revivals before where I wasn’t in the original production and I find that more difficult – wearing another’s shoes – but this is a joy. The rehearsals have been progressing very swiftly because we are lucky enough to have all of the original cast back, who are all brilliant actors and singers and are fantastic to work with. We are now ready for Jo Davies and her team to put it on the stage again.” 

How do you find performing the two different ‘characters’ of Robin Oakapple and Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd?

Grant Doyle (seated) as Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, with members of the Opera North chorus as the ghosts of the Murgatroyd ancestors

“The important thing I have to remember is that there aren’t two characters, it is really Robin all the time. I try to keep him as normal and affable as possible. When he becomes Sir Ruthven, he is forced into playing the part of a bad Baronet but never feels comfortable and after much guilt and comedy torture, finds a way out of it.  It is a gift of a role – a character playing a character, with all the over-the-top fun that brings.”

What do you enjoy most about this production?

“The best things about this production is all of my colleagues, who create a mad world of comedy characters around me which still make me chuckle, the clear and deft storytelling of Jo Davies’ direction and the exquisite sepia flavoured costume and design – love that hat and cape!”


Grant Doyle plays Robin Oakapple / Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore, which opens on Friday 30 September at Leeds Grand Theatre, before touring to Nottingham Theatre Royal, Newcastle Theatre Royal, The Lowry, Salford and the Barbican, London. More details and booking information is available here.

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.