Oliver Knight

Should you find yourself with your nose to the grindstone, your shoulder to the wheel, putting your best foot forward with your head duly bowed. Then you are either playing the harshest game of twister known to man, or a slave in Giulio Cesare.

In my case, this time at least, it’s the latter.

Not being one usually known for his world class voice, I never dreamed I would ever actually be in an opera. I have been fascinated and enthralled by it ever since I was taken as a child to see The Magic Flute, and I am an actor, but this is something new, and rather special to me.

The supernumerary role can be many things. Often it’s all standing about guarding doors, or milling about in the background, filling the space where the principals are not. Though there is some of that, this is much more fun.
For one thing the five of us do have to manually rotate the truck (a rotating stage) in true slave fashion. However, Tim [Albery, the director] also has the faith in us to really involve us in much of the action, which is just great.

The real bonus though, is just being there when the principals sing. Opera from three feet away is an experience I shall keep with me always. As indeed is being, albeit briefly, part of the Opera North family. An incredibly welcoming and generous company that have taken us into their world.

Cannot wait for tomorrow, to see what they throw at us next. I am loving every minute, will keep you posted.

Oliver Knight

Giulio Cesare opens at Leeds Grand Theatre on Saturday 14 January, before touring to Nottingham, Newcastle, Salford and Dublin. For more information about this production, click here.

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.

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.


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.

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

The countdown to Yorkshire’s Cultural Olympiad activity has begun with the launch of the brand new Leeds Canvas website www.leedscanvas.com.

Opera North is one of eight leading Yorkshire-based arts organisations taking part in Leeds Canvas alongside Northern Ballet, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Phoenix Dance Theatre, Yorkshire Dance, Leeds Met Gallery and Studio Theatre, Leeds City Council, and Leeds Art Gallery. 

This exciting new project is one of 12 arts commissions that will be realised across the UK to celebrate the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The city of Leeds will form the canvas upon which major artists will be invited to create something that will change the way people see, experience and understand the city.

The joint project, which is developed through Arts Council England funding, will uphold the legacy of the 2012 Olympic Games by delivering a high profile arts commission in the region every four years.

Leeds Canvas’ first commissioned work will take place in May 2012, and involves the highly-regarded and quirky Quay Brothers: identical twins whose award-winning stop-motion animation films have won them worldwide acclaim. Working with composers, choreographers, artists and filmmakers from the region, they will explore the themes of chance, discovery and surprise. 

Talking about the project the Quay Brothers said: ‘For us it is a fabulous opportunity to use the city of Leeds as a vast scenographic space. We have the entire city to create an unexpected marriage between all these different artforms.’

Visit the Leeds Canvas website for more information, blogs and regular updates at www.leedscanvas.com

The Quay Brothers

Having started my Summer Internship at Opera North I can say the layout of the theatre and offices is a lot bigger than I expected. My first morning I was given a tour of the offices and backstage, with a number of levels and countless stairs all looking very similar. I realised how easy it may be for someone new to the building (like myself) to find themselves getting lost.

Last week I was lucky enough to sit in on the Orchestra of Opera North rehearsing for Opera in the Park. Here I got my first glimpse of the Howard Assembly Room. It really is a hidden gem, capturing the beautiful tone of every note sung and instrument played.

Orchestra rehearsal in the Howard Assembly Room. Photo credit: Brian Slater

As part of my internship I was asked to help during a day of auditions. I again realised I’d have to get to grips with the layout of the theatre as to not get myself – or even worse, the people auditioning – lost. Before I knew it the first person had arrived, out of around 15 singers who were auditioning for mainstage Opera North productions which will take place over the next few seasons.

After guiding a number of people to the rehearsal space, I’d discovered many of them had trained at colleges such as Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the Royal Academy of Music. All of the singers were surprisingly chatty; I know if I was in their shoes I’d be too nervous to chat away, but then again I guess they’re used to the audition process. However, one lady told me that just before an audition she still gets nervous, but she assured me that nerves can be a good thing. Having spent a brief time with each auditionee I begin to feel a sense of what it may be like to audition for an opera company. Rehearsal space can be an issue; you may find yourself warming up with two or three other singers in the same room and you have to be ready for the unexpected, not always knowing how many people you’ll be auditioning in front of. Combined with obvious nerves, I can imagine auditioning for an opera company to be both an anxious and an exciting experience.

One thing that was lovely to see was during the afternoon, as I was showing a singer the way out of the building, she bumped into an old friend whom she had trained with at the Royal Academy.  As they were catching up with each other I felt somewhat guilty having to separate them as I wanted to make sure auditions were kept to schedule. I soon came to find many other people auditioning recognised each other, some from previous auditions while some had even been up against one another at competitions.

As the day was drawing to an end I was thankful to have brought a bottle of water with me. I hadn’t quite realised how much exercise would be involved! Constantly running up and down stairs and through corridors had definately taken its toll on my feet. Although looking back, it had been a great workout! 

Kelly Donnellan