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.

Noah Stewart as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly

Just days after the opening night of Madama Butterfly in the Leeds Grand Theatre and the Autumn season is now officially open. There was a wonderful response to Saturday’s performance and with the Howard Assembly Room programme already running and orchestral concerts in Kirklees about to begin, the Company is truly operating at full tilt. The Autumn performance diary lists some 79 events right up to 1st January.

It is often said that in times of constraint the bold get bolder and there are many bold and exciting moments ahead for us this season, including one of the largest and most ambitious new productions in our history: Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades.  Our Music Director Richard Farnes has been campaigning for this for many years, possibly since he began with us some eight years ago, and we are extremely excited to be bringing what we consider to be one of the composer’s most underrated operas to fruition. It is a ‘grand’ opera, with big music and an even bigger cast – an additional chorus of 26 has been brought in to add to our full-time 30 members. And it features an exceptional cast, which includes Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, who received great acclaim for his Peter Grimes, and Dame Josephine Barstow. It also has the exciting twist of being directed by one of the country’s most inspirational theatre directors and a great story-teller himself, Neil Bartlett.

And we return to London this season in an exciting new partnership with the Barbican. We have always maintained a certain presence in the Capital and we are delighted to be returning this season with two operas and a more intimate avant-garde music theatre piece, The Girl I Left Behind Me.

The exceptional revivals on the mainstage are two of our most popular productions in recent years – Madama Butterfly and Ruddigore will take audiences from deep tragedy to comic hilarity, both with wonderful music.

And as for the programme of events and activities in the Howard Assembly Room, we are looking forward to sharing this broader face of Opera North with new and familiar audiences. We have always felt that as a company we have a responsibility to bring more than just opera to people and there is an abundance of work to be enjoyed in this space.

I hope that you dip a toe in our sea of events this season and enjoy whatever you take part in.

Richard Mantle, General Director 

With two weeks to go until the opening of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore, Kay Shepherd explains why returning to the choreography is like meeting old friends:

Hal Cazalet as Richard Dauntless (centre). Photo: Robert Workman

“Having had such a joyous time choreographing the original production of Ruddigore for Opera North in 2010, I was both excited and a little apprehensive about returning for the revival. Happily, any concerns about keeping the working process fresh were unfounded and I am now at the start of rehearsal week  three, with two really positive weeks behind me.

“Most of the cast is the same as before and I was correct in believing that the majority of the movement and dance would ‘come back’ to the performers’ bodies with a little help from music, lyrics, props, other actors and myself.

“The rediscovery of movements is sometimes like bumping into old friends… much excitement! We then have to remember why we became friends in the first place and not get overtaken with the joy of muscle memory.

Richard Burkhard as Sir Despard Murgatroyd. Photo: Robert Workman

“Most of the choreography in the production is as before, but there have been natural developments through re-rehearsal and I have made a few small changes.

“The main objective for me is for the final product to be clear in style and narrative, and for the performers to look and feel comfortable with what I ask them to do.

“And so onwards. I like Leeds, I like Opera North and I like Ruddigore. Happy Days.”

Kay Shepherd
Choreographer, Ruddigore

Opera North’s production of Ruddigore, by Gilbert & Sullivan, directed by Jo Davies, opens at Leeds Grand Theatre on Friday 30 September. For more information and booking details, click here.

Listen to some sound clips from the production here.

Ruddigore – ‘Cheerily carols the lark’ by Opera North

Ruddigore – ‘I once was a very abandon’d person’ by Opera North

Anne Sophie Duprels as Cio-Cio-San in 2007 production

Opening night is in a few days and the week running up to this big night is always a busy one! Stage and orchestra rehearsals and dress rehearsal, it’s all coming together and it’s the last chance to polish up on all the details and get comfortable with the space and costumes.

I always get nervous…for every show, no matter how many times I’ve been on stage it’s always a challenge. Performing in the geisha costume especially, is not easy at first because of the wooden platform shoes. They are not easy to manage on the ramp and you need to practice to stay balanced all the time. The kimono is actually very comfortable and the fabrics are amazingly beautiful. The heavy white geisha make up does take a long time and Nicola Heath the wonderful make up artist here at Opera North has a lot to do! We have to start getting ready 2 hours before the show starts. All this preparation and transformation help me get into the character and the physicality of a 15 year old Japanese girl.

I’m very much looking forward to the opening night and to share this beautiful music and heart breaking story with the audience.

Madama Butterfly opens at Leeds Grand Theatre on Saturday 17 September. For more information go here.

Leeds is the first city out of LondonI have visited and my first impressions were somewhat mixed. News of riots in the UK sparked my family and friends to worry about my safety. Luckily for me the riots did not happen in Leeds, plus I was met by my own personal bodyguard who is best known as Jane Bonner, Opera North’s Company Manager. Standing at five feet six inches tall she immediately took one of my bags and said, “You don’t travel light I see”. I knew instantly that I would enjoy my time with Opera North and in Leeds. Besides Jane’s pleasant welcome, I was also informed by my good friend and friend of Opera North’s Sandy Eddy.Sandy recently performed the role of Carmen with Opera North. I had the good fortune of singing one of my first Don Jose’s with her at Chicago Opera Theater, when she was several months pregnant with Bea, her daughter.

After Jane and I got things squared away at the apartment, we walked back to the offices at Leeds Grand Theatre. As we walked over Leeds Bridge, through what is the biggest weekend party strip in Leeds, I suddenly saw a mirage. That mirage was Nandos. I was first introduced to Nandos when I was performing in a production of Carmen in Opera Africa in Johannesburg and became instantly hooked. We don’t have Nandos in America, so having one that is blocks away from my flat made me smile from ear to ear.

It took about 3 weeks to get fully settled here in Leeds but that’s part of life on the road.  Jane helped square away my gym membership, which is essential for me. It’s important for me to look like the characters I’m playing as best as I can. I’m singing the role of B.F. Pinkerton who is a young, confident and sometimes brash naval officer from America, in Opera North’s revival of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Besides having a truly great cast and technical crew, the production is directed by Tim Albery and conducted by Daniele Rustioni. This role not only marks my UK debut, but my debut of the role of Pinkerton and I am very excited and lucky to have this knockout one-two punch combo!

While also in the UK this fall, I will be doing promotional appearances for my upcoming debut CD, which will be released this spring. Stay tuned for important news and dates!

Madama Butterfly opens on Saturday 17 September. For more information and tickets go here.

For Noah Stewart’s personal blog, click here.

For anyone who hasn’t seen a performance of Das Rheingold yet, Peter Mumford’s design uses a giant projection screen hung over the rear of the orchestra.  The screen is a triptych meaning it has three panels, in our case three side-by-side squares of approximately 4½ x 4½ metres each.  The screens and their frame had to be custom made. As Leeds Town Hall has quite a restricted weight limit on what can be flown from its roof beams. The frame was constructed from aluminium instead of the much less expensive but far heavier steel. 

Very early in the design process it was decided that we would tour a flying aluminium truss from which the screen, lights and projectors would be hung.  This guarantees that the set-up is standardised from venue to venue and speeds the installation and removal time. Once built and loaded with the equipment the truss is hauled up to the ceiling all in one go by electric motors.

The challenge for the forthcoming performance in September at The Lowry is the “acoustic shell” (borrowed from Welsh National Opera) which will encase the stage. Surrounding the musicians and singers with tall and shiny wooden flats allows the audience to hear a louder, crisper, more vibrant sound which is closer to that of a concert hall than a theatre.  The triptych will be at the back of the stage and sightlines from the “gods” prevent us from rigging our trusty truss in the auditorium. From a technical point of view The Ring Cycle has been arranged to be toured as a “one-night- stand”, although actually most venues have offered us some time either the day before the show to set-up or the day after to pack-up.  Birmingham Symphony Hall was unable to allow us any extra time so we arrived at 8am in the morning unloaded, set-up, rehearsed, performed, packed-up and finished re-loading the vehicles at 2am the next morning. Phew!

Tim Anger, Production Manager

Das Rheingold has its final two performances this week. Leeds Town Hall on Thursday 8 September and The Lowry, Salford Quays on Saturday 10 September. For more information go here.

‘Everyday I’m shuffling…’

Anne Sophie Duprels rehearses bowing in full kimono

Madama Butterfly is in the second week of rehearsals. Operatic voices are radiating from the corridor and the buzz of the approaching Autumn season is here. Placing myself inconspicuously amidst rehearsals I got a sneak peek of what’s in store. The Opera North rehearsal room is transformed into the Madama Butterfly set, transporting the cast into the minimalist Japanese surroundings. Everyone is in their everyday clothes with exception of the odd kimono slung around shoulders, Japanese hats and sandals. Anne Sophie Duprels (Cio-Cio-San) and Ann Taylor (Suzuki) try to keep their balance on ‘geta’ shoes, traditional Japanese wooden platform shoes worn by women to keep their long and expensive kimonos off the floor. The singers wear the ‘geta’ shoes in rehearsals in order to feel comfortable walking and performing in them. The set of Madama Butterfly has a steep incline which Anne Sophie Duprels must stand on and walk up, a task I imagine similar to attempting to walk up a hill whilst trying on your mum’s shoes when you were younger.

Director Tim Albery shows Noah Stewart (Pinkerton) how to shuffle

Director, Tim Albery is very involved in the rehearsals, he dips in and out showing the singers where to stand, demonstrating how to bow correctly, hands on hips, palms flat and a slight tip forward keeping the back straight to ensure it is as accurate to Japanese culture as possible. A sight I never thought I’d see, a grown man showing another grown man how to shuffle across stage in the style of a geisha girl. Pretending to carry a tray with straight arms, one foot in front of the other but barely losing contact with the floor, Tim Albery shuffled across the set closely followed by the new, young American tenor Noah Stewart (Pinkerton), who mimics the geisha shuffle in the production. Stage managers stand in for absent chorus members carrying trays of drinks and marking out the correct positions, props supervisors study which props must be on stage at what time and what scene changes must be made, scribbles on the score are made continuously and tiny sections of scenes are rehearsed over and over until perfect. Amongst all the rehearsal rush, alterations and repetitions it is still clear that everyone there is excited, enthusiastic and passionate about the piece, one of Puccini’s most famous and loved operas. The next stage for rehearsals is to join together with the chorus and orchestra before rehearsals move to the stage next week.  

Madama Butterfly opens at Leeds Grand Theatre on Saturday 17 September. For more information go here.