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

Reaching new audiences: Sandra Piques Eddy sings the title role in Carmen

This Friday we run our second unique event for bloggers this year, – a ‘blopera’ perhaps – at a live performance of Carmen in The Lowry, Salford Quays. People in the big cities we perform in such as Manchester/Salford and  Leeds have created their own cultural urban networks, interacting with each other in different ways and we wanted to see how we could engage with them, offering a new way to access our productions.

We undertook a similar event at the beginning of the year with The Culture Vulture in Leeds, where there is a vibrant bloggers scene. It was a fascinating evening, many of the attendees had never been to the opera before and it was great to see their reactions to this unique artform. We gave them backstage access, the opportunity to take photos on the stage and meet some of the singers, we encouraged them to tweet before and after the performance and also to write a blog on their experience. It was a really successful experiment in engaging with new audiences in new and interesting ways.

I was appointed Digital Communications Manager last year, a new role within the company, and have spent a whirlwind 6 months sharing my knowledge and experience (and learning a great deal myself in the process). We have been exploring a number of digital projects and have been keeping a tag on what other arts organisations around the world are doing, such as Vancouver Opera (http://vancouveropera.blogspot.com/2011/05/blogger-night-at-la-traviata.html) and San Francisco Opera (http://www.wired.com/underwire/2010/07/live-tweeting-the-opera/). Online is definitely a growing area of our communications activity.

Last week Opera North announced its 2011-12 season. Whilst this had already been done via a press release to the print media, the announcement yesterday involved the coordinated release of email newsletters, videos on YouTube, website listings and a blog from the company’s General Director, Richard Mantle. This content was then promptly read and watched by people in Leeds, London, Munich, Helsinki, Hong Kong and Tokyoand commented on via email, Facebook and Twitter.

The development and adoption of ‘digital’ by the arts sector has probably been slightly slower than in other areas, but it is now an important part of the way in which we communicate and engage with our audience. As well as removing physical and geographic boundaries it also allows us to give a much better insight into the working of the Company via the range of content we can make available online. The announcement of 2011-12 was accompanied by a mini-series of videos in which the company’s Music Director, Richard Farnes, Planning Director, Christine Chibnall and General Director, Richard Mantle discussed the creative and artistic decisions behind the programme. Being able to provide a direct link into the inner workings of the company like this is an exciting element of the opportunities that ‘digital’ presents.

Ash Mann

Digital Communications Manager

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.

“Wotan- that’s quite a role…” was what somebody said to me the other day. “How do you go about learning that?” Good question!

The composer Wagner’s Ring cycle has got to be one of the pinnacles of western culture and a truly incredible achievement from one human being. Its relevance today is as profound as the time it was written. The more I learn about Das Rheingold the more I love it, the more powerful a story it becomes and the more relevant it is to us today. It is so musically descriptive I can think of no better piece to hear in these Opera North concert performances.

Wagner has been a composer close to my heart for a very long time. My daughter Elsa was born when I was performing Heinrich in Lohengrin for ENO coming up to eighteen years ago. Since then I have either performed or covered Donner, Fasolt and Hunding in the Ring, Gurnemanz in Parsifal and now Wotan.  I first tried to sing this music when I was at the National Opera Studio back in 1990.

I remember one Friday afternoon at the National Opera Studio, I was having a coaching session with the beloved senior coach of that era who adored Mozart. Friday afternoons were notorious for the coach’s good lunches and I think it’s fair to say I was nothing less than indigestion. His face said it all! I responded by saying: “Well, I’ve got this other score, how about a look?” It was Wagner. The music that day was a revelation for me, it fitted like a glove. King of the Gods, much better than a Count’s Valet! But there were words of wisdom from my coach: yes this is you but you will have to wait twenty years…

The learning process has been a real voyage of discovery and has taken over my life for most of the last year. Coming to a new role in a known piece is like looking at a favourite painting from a totally new angle. I’m getting used to it now since my voice has taken me from the bass repertoire to the helden-baritone repertoire.

Learning a Wagner role takes a long time. It’s so multi-layered, you don’t have the luxury of learning the tune, inserting some words and aiming for the high note at the end of the aria as some Italian roles allow. With Wagner the words are the melody, the language leads you, every note in the vocal range counts. I’m understanding that’s where the Wagnerian technique lies. The orchestra is the conscience of the character, telling the story and that includes the past, current and future thoughts of the character himself as well as everything else that is going on!  Apart from that I think you probably have to be a little bit crazy and fearless to sing this music- I’m sure my neighbours would have a lot to say…

Of course you have to have the vocal resources, the size of voice, mental and physical stamina and the vocal imagination. But my goodness it’s wonderful stuff to sing. I’ve never been vocally happier or learnt so much as I have during this learning period and Opera North have done this properly, giving me every opportunity and resource. Martin Pickard, Opera North’s head of music and I spend the most part of a day locked away in the studio, at times wrestling with Richard Wagner’s great creation (in the best sense of course) and getting a tremendous buzz and sense of discovery. I have to confess I have been horrified when I see bits of Wotan in myself!

But above all it has been a wonderful time. I didn’t realise when we started just how much I would learn from it. Some say one learns to sing through Mozart, but for me Wagner is teaching me to sing. It has also opened up a whole world of music I would perhaps not have been introduced to and would love to explore further: Bach; lieder; my great hero Hans Hotter is proving a real inspiration through his recordings and writings.

I was also very lucky before Christmas. I was working at the Opera de Paris at the glorious Palais Garnier, I was sharing a dressing room with that great artist Heinz Zednik, one of the greatest ever Loge and Mime, and with that direct link back through to the great Maestros such as Bohm and Karajan. The hours we spent just sitting talking about phrasing, style and the traditions of the music were very special. If I can put a little of his wisdom and inspiration into my Wotan I’ll be happy- thank you Heinz.

I have to add to this the Wagner Society who has generously supported me with some top coaching- thank you to them.

So it’s two months to go now until we open with the first performance in June. Daily work continues and I get closer to this masterpiece and find who my Wotan is. I really can’t wait to hear the orchestra and join in with the Wagner tubas as that great introduction to scene two of Das Rheingold begins and then onto that glorious ending as we go over the rainbow bridge and enter Valhalla……..

Michael Druiett, Wotan, Das Rheingold

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

Mieczysław Weinberg

Director David Pountney discusses Mieczyslaw Weinberg.

 

I have been living with Weinberg’s music for the last 3 years, an increasingly exciting experience! It all started with a leaflet from the publisher announcing they had acquired the rights to an opera – The Passenger – with music by Weinberg – who? – friend of Shostakovich – aha – heard of him! – subject Auschwitz….Well this piece of paper was halfway to the bin when I thought, wait a minute….and three years later I now know that Weinberg was an extraordinary man driven by his bitter personal experiences to spend a lifetime writing music of searing power and quality. He was a Polish Jew, born in Warsaw, who escaped the Nazis by fleeing into the Soviet Union. He lost his entire family, and could only justify this survival by continuing to pour out music – 27 symphonies, 17 string quartets, 6 operas etc.

The Soviet Union saved him, but also persecuted him: he was arrested in 1953 as part of Stalin’s anti-semitic purges, but luckily for him Stalin died and Weinberg’s close friend Shostakovich engineered his release. His most important opera, The Passenger, was blocked from performance – condemned for its “abstract humanism” – code for wasting sympathy on Jews rather than promoting the communist cause. And so Weinberg and his librettist turned to safer ground, adapting a Russian literary classic, Gogol’s tale “The Portrait”. This is something quite different from The Passenger and the many Weinberg symphonies which recall the suffering of the war: this is a biting satire on the question of artistic integrity – a resonant topic for all those who had somehow to survive life in a totalitarian society. Today, artists are corrupted by money and fame, but the effect is the same….they just have less excuse. They are not fighting for their survival after all.

Weinberg survived by writing film music, circus music, and very charming music for a Russian cartoon of Winnie the Pooh – all good training grounds for a theatre composer – but he never let these financial strategies deflect him from his true purpose. Finally, an overdue revival is beginning. Last summer’s Bregenz Festival gave the world stage premiere of The Passenger, which is now out on DVD (Neos) and presented a further 22 works! Tap in his name on Amazon and you will find a good list of recordings: it’s a discovery well worth making.

Richard Burkhard, who plays ‘Nikita’ in The Portrait, is writing a fortnightly blog in the lead up to opening night:
Read part 1
Read part 2

The Adventures of PinnocchioI’m really looking forward to the opening of The Adventures of Pinocchio again at Leeds Grand Theatre at Christmas. It’s a great show and the perfect ‘pantopera’ to see over the Christmas period. I’m in a pretty special position as I get to see how the show comes together from behind the scenes. I have seen over 40 performances of Pinocchio, plus rehearsals, all from behind the scenes and I never get tired of it. Although, I have never actually seen the show as an audience member. May be that could be my Christmas wish?

My role in productions is to ensure that the right person gets on stage at the right time with the right prop in their hand.  But in Pinocchio I am also part of the action, I help to open the curtain for the puppet show and I am the rat hand puppet in the cupboard when Pinocchio is looking for food. From a stage management point of view it is great that all the different departments (crew, costume, wigs, stage management, fly men and props) are involved from start to finish.

Goodies, baddies, fun and adventure – this show will have you booing and cheering ‘panto-style’ by the end. Some of my favourite characters are:

The snail who takes forever to get down from the top of the house.  In reality she just moves to a different window on each platform.  It’s always fun trying to get her rucksack on time between one window and the next.

The Blue Fairy who is blue and sparkly and looks really Christmassy.

The Big Green Fisherman – I am responsible for helping to put the costume on.  There’s always a round of applause.

It’s a big production with loads going on; there are 27 named characters, 60 musicians, 48 singers and a total of 114 costumes.  It is really engaging for children as there are lots of different creatures like the parrot, snail, cat, fox and pigeon.

Funland is a really exciting scene; it makes me feel like a big kid at a fairground! Even backstage I can hear the audience reactions… every laugh, squeal and gasp.  Usually for every performance there is a kid sitting behind the conductor David Parry who squeals, ohhs and ahhhs and points…and David turns around to talk to them which is nice. Audience reactions are what is nice about the show, a lot of Opera North’s productions are quite serious and the audience is very quiet but with Pinocchio it’s a bit crazy and the audience is much more vocal.

Jane Andrews, Assistant Stage Manager

So – the latest offering from Opera North. I went to see the performance on Saturday 25th September and I thought it was probably the best piece of theatre I have ever seen. Obviously being a 3 hour piece I can’t go through all the details one by one so I have picked out my top two favourite bits. Enjoy!

Seaside scene – In which Pinocchio meets a giant fisherman

Pinocchio gets persuaded by his friend Lampwick to skive off school and come to the beach. While they are at the beach a giant comes. Lampwick runs off, leaving Pinocchio tangled in the giant’s net. This was my favourite scene because when the giant first appeared it made me jump and it was quite scary. The way the giant was controlled was just extraordinary. One man was hidden behind the huge giant controlling his legs, and there were two other men controlling the two arms. One of these men was singing as if he was the giant – I thought this was very clever.

House scene – In which Pinocchio is outside the Blue Fairy’s house

This is probably my second favourite scene because it is very clever and funny. Pinocchio is outside the Blue Fairy’s house and wants to come in. When he knocks on the door, a head peeps out of the top window and he sings a conversation with this head. What Pinocchio doesn’t know is that the head belongs to a snail and it’s very funny because she takes ages to let him in whilst Pinocchio gets more and more angry. Eventually he kicks the door as the snail comes through it and he gets his foot stuck! The snail says she’ll help him – but her tools are in the attic!

There was some spectacular dancing in the whole show especially in the Funland scene. This scene reminded me of an old-fashioned circus. It was busy and bustling.

The singing was amazing. I especially liked the Fox as his voice had a very big range and he sang really high for a man. I felt sad when Lampwick died – his singing was clear and mournful.

This opera was so much fun, there was always something going on wherever you looked on stage. The music was joyful and the costumes colourful.

I thoroughly enjoyed this opera and I think it is a quality night out for the family.

By George Pitches  (aged 10)

This is the fourth show that I’ve reviewed and is easily the best I’ve seen so far. We had read the reviews and hadn’t thought that it would be as good as it was cracked up to be, let alone better. All the way through the actors and actresses were giving the show their all. It certainly paid off.

It was an interesting retelling of the tale (for someone like me who has only seen the film). Pinocchio was played surprisingly (but winningly) by a woman: Victoria Simmonds. There were so many amazing scenes, which made full use of the stage’s potential (especially the giant fisherman puppet scene) it would be very hard to pick a favourite. That, however, is my job and I would have to say my top scene was the traditional ‘extending nose’ because it captured the true story of Pinocchio and was just hilarious to watch!  The nose grew and grew and grew in response to Pinocchio’s lies but how this happened nobody was able to tell.  This, for me, is one of the essentials of a Pinocchio retelling and did not disappoint.

And of course, I haven’t even begun to discuss the singing. Consistent, powerful and moving are the words I would use to describe the operatic style of the performance. But the singer that really stood out for me was the mischievous schoolboy (aka, Lampwick) who was turned into a donkey. He had a fantastic voice and made some really long, powerful notes. I along with rest of the audience felt genuinely sorry for him when he eventually died.

In conclusion, Pinocchio is a superb production that breaks the generic ‘family show’ mould. This is essential watching for anyone who has read the book, seen the film and likes the idea, or all three! Perhaps the only part that could be changed was the scene directly after the whale spat out Pinocchio and Gepetto. I felt this went on for too long and could have been shortened. But this is a small criticism and is really just me being picky as the whole show overall was fantastic! Now stop reading this review and get out there and see this performance – it’s on tour from next week to Edinburgh, Manchester, Newcastle and Nottingham.

By Harri Pitches (aged 13)

To buy tickets and for more information, photos, video and reviews of The Adventures of Pinocchio please visit www.operanorth.co.uk/events/adventures-of-pinocchio/

On 16 August I moved to Leeds to work on Opera North’s production of The Adventures of Pinocchio. I’ve always been a big fan of opera and I feel privileged to be given the opportunity to work with such established musicians and singers.

A big part of my role is animating the birds and the Green Giant which means I am constantly changing costume throughout the show. I get a great help from the team backstage, I couldn’t do it without the dressers. However, controlling the Green giant is the most challenging; it is fairly heavy and cumbersome. Also, being inside the stomach is very hot but it means I can watch all of the action onstage through its belly button. It’s a fantastic workout; I think Opera North should launch a new DVD – the Green Giant Workout.

A lot of my rehearsals are with the chorus as we share a lot of scenes. Team work is essential as we need to all work in time together; we had to ensure we practiced until it was perfect. It’s important to challenge ourselves as performers, be willing to experiment and get out of our comfort zone. We have to be creative and have original ideas that add value to the performance.  More often then not it comes about through the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things. The more experienced I am makes me more rounded as a performer. Being a puppeteer is an interesting challenge; giving life to the puppet is a technique that can be quite difficult to develop without experience.

I haven’t always focused on puppeteer work; I first began by taking ballet classes when I was very young in France, as I wanted to train to be a dancer. I pushed myself in technique, branching out into other dance forms which led me to meet a dance company who specialised in martial arts and Chinese dragon dancing. By working with them I was introduced to puppeteer work. This then developed further when I moved to the UK and performed in the Lion King. The Lion King is renowned for its use of puppetry as it features a variety of different animals – there’s everything from birds to hyenas, which gave me the opportunity to animate a range of puppets.

I really enjoyed the opening night of The Adventures of Pinocchio, it went really well and we got a great reaction from the audience. It is vital to connect with the audience by involving them and I always try to do this when I perform. I look forward to performing again and I hope the audience will be as responsive when I perform in Opera North’s new production of The Merry Widow.

Gregoire A. Meyer, 11 October 2010

To buy tickets and for more information, photos, video and reviews of The Adventures of Pinocchio please visit www.operanorth.co.uk/events/adventures-of-pinocchio/