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

I’ve always treated sleeping pills with a heavy dose of suspicion. Anything that I might come to rely upon should be avoided, and, in the end, does one ever feel genuinely refreshed after a night of drug induced torpor? I wouldn’t know, but I’m seriously considering it as an option, such is the power of Weinberg’s The Portrait to invade every corner of my brain. There isn’t a waking moment that snippets of this bewitching score fail to raid my consciousness. And the nights…Oh! The nights! The nerves before a premiere are challenging enough to contend with, let alone being forced to lie wide awake at 4am with themes and motifs bouncing around one’s cranium. Maybe,…and here’s a thought..maybe Weinberg’s score  is bewitched, haunted! Maybe all those who perform it are destined, rather like Paul Nilon’s character Chartkov, to become possessed, tortured and finally subsumed into its very pages. Mmmmm…not sure about that. What I do know, however, is that shuffling up the Headrow towards the Grand Theatre, as I was on Wednesday evening, the prospect of  performing the role of Nikita in the UK premiere of The Portrait in a state of such utter fatigue was, well, worrying!…And then….there it was- like a beacon of light on the horizon, an orange glow of hope. SAINSBURYS. A can of Lucozade, a Milky Bar and a couple of seriously under-ripe bananas later, and I was feeling fine. Up for the fight!

And what a first night it was. The excitement before curtain up was palpable, (or was it the sugar coursing through my veins?) You can tell if a show has been well rehearsed by the ambience backstage before curtain up. An atmosphere of calm concentration pervades, everyone going about their duties with diligence and purpose, with a common goal in mind. It always amazes me quite how many people are involved in mounting an operatic performance. Far from being pivotal, us singers are but little cogs in a huge well-oiled (one hopes!) machine. A production behind the production if you like, with its own choreography, its own synthesis of elements; checking props, moving the set, focussing lights, checking costumes, applying make-up, and much, much more. It’s truly a marvel.

Judging by the audience‘s reaction, the evening was a success. Paul Nilon gave a towering performance as Chartkov and has deserved his terrific reviews. The audience laughed at the right places, were gripped when they needed to be, and I hope, left with Dan Potra’s stunning set and costumes emblazoned in their memories. My own enduring memory of the evening will be the beam on David Pountney’s face when he took his curtain call. He has been the engine behind this piece of work and deserves credit for opening our eyes and ears to Weinberg.

Lordy, Merry Widow this evening; but I’ve been in absurdist Russia for the last 4 weeks! Will I….can I possibly remember the high-kicking choreography of the Septet? Forward on the right leg….forward on the right leg! Bye for now.

Richard Burkhard

Last chance to see The Portrait in Leeds on Thursday 10 & 12 Feb, then touring to Newcastle Theatre Royal, Theatre Royal Nottingham and The Lowry, Salford Quays.

Richard Burkhard as Nikita in 'The Portrait'

Hello again, and welcome back to my ‘Portrait’ blog. I have a confession, I’m not on ‘Facebook‘, nor do I know what is involved in ‘Tweeting’…weird I know!. so you could say I’m absolutely the wrong sort of person to whip up enthusiasm about an opera that has never been performed in this country. Well, judging by the audience’s reaction to this evening’s Dress Rehearsal I would say that ‘The Portrait’ deserves a regular place in the repertoire, not just because of the wonderful characters but because of it’s sparkling orchestration.

Of course I’m biased, after all, this show represents a new departure for me. Not in the sense that I’m playing a servant role (I’ve played plenty of those), and not because the music is particularly difficult, but…and this is 21st Century Opera for you…because my make-up is being ‘air-brushed’ on! Now most folk are air-brushed to improve their looks, but by the time my gorgeous make-up girl Carrie has finished, she has created a filthy, pox-ridden serf, with serious dental hygiene issues. What fun! Carrie plugs in the machine, drips liquid pigment into a steel pen, and, with a deft press of a button, blows a dizzying array of colours across my face. The result is truly horrible (in a good way!), and I’ve been enjoying some genuinely disgusted reactions in the wings. I don’t think I really knew what I was going to do with the role of Nikita until I saw the costume and make-up…sometimes it’s like that.

As I say, the reaction this evening was very encouraging. As well as telling the story, David Pountney, the director, and Dan Potra, the designer, have created a world of exaggerated, absurdist characters, larger than life, and full of colour. It’s a wonderful spectacle. Without giving away too much, characters fly in and out on wires, some incredibly tall, others absurdly small. In a nutshell, it’s a joy to be involved in something so unashamedly theatrical, but with a serious message too. As performers it’s an environment where we can feel free to experiment and have fun. I hope the audience (that’s you by the way!) will enjoy it as much as we are.

Richard Burkhard

The Portrait opens in Leeds on Wednesday 2nd Feb, then touring to Newcastle Theatre Royal, Theatre Royal Nottingham and The Lowry, Salford Quays.


Dan Potra's costume design for 'The Journalist' in The Portrait

Dan Potra's costume design for 'The Journalist'

Richard Burkhard is writing a fortnightly blog as he prepares for roles in Opera North’s productions of The Portrait and The Merry Widow.

Happy 2011.…I’m currently on the train back to Leeds, relieved that the festive period is over.  I can’t remember whether or not at my ‘Portrait’ costume fitting, back in December, a discussion was had about allowing for ’Festive Spread’ (I don‘t mean brandy butter).  I’ll not be able to look Stephen Rodwell, Head of Wardrobe, in the eye if he and his talented colleagues are obliged to ‘let out’ my costume, now that, presumably, it’s pretty well made. The gym beckons..

Christmas is, of course, a time for music making, and ever since I was a young’un  I’ve been busy at this time of  year. As a boy chorister at St.George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, I remember we had a particularly full schedule. Often the Royal Family were in residence and would attend services, and often these services would be going out live on telly. These commitments meant that the choristers weren’t allowed home until after Sung Eucharist on Christmas morning. This seemed unfair to a nine year old, but thinking about it now, it probably made Christmas all the more special…I must tell my own nine year old to stop playing ‘Jingle Bells’ on the piano. Now that the festive period is over, it just seems wrong…a bit like roasting a turkey in July. You just wouldn’t do it, would you!

I was very happy to have some time off with my family over Christmas, having been in Leeds for a while. Indeed, the director, David Pountney, in a fit of festive philanthropy, gave us until January 7th off. He was obviously happy with what had been achieved before the break, and didn’t see the need to return to Leeds between Christmas and New Year.

Work wise, I’ve been gathering together recital repertoire for a Leeds Lieder concert which will happen after the Widow/Portrait tour ends in March. It still seems a while off, but I need to get going on it. Along with more established repertoire, some of the music is new to me and, evidently, quite challenging. I’m performing some songs by my dear friend and pianist Edward Rushton (a Leeds boy). Edward is a wonderful composer, and his music is being heard more and more. But, and here’s the problem, it’s shockingly difficult to learn…and to play… Edward, ironically, maintains he can’t play his own music! Of course he can, but the fact that he’s my pianist rather puts the onus on me to get it right!

My train to Leeds is now severely delayed. Am I the slightest bit annoyed? No, not a bit of it. In fact, my mood is one of lightness and fluffiness. You see, my resolution for 2011 is to curb my tendency to complain, to grouch and grouse, and, in this case, to rise above the fact that we are currently stationary somewhere outside Derby, nearly an hour behind schedule, that courtesy amongst passengers is clearly a thing of the past, that there are no announcements, no apologies, nowhere to sit, and no Diet Coke…aaaagh! Panic!!

Back to ’Portrait’ rehearsals tomorrow, IF I get there! I’ll let you know how things are going soon. Bye for now!

Richard Burkhard

The Portrait opens on Wednesday 2nd February 2011 – more info

The Merry Widow opens on Thursday 3rd February 2011 – more info

Richard Burkhard as 'Sir Despard Murgatroyd' in Ruddigore. Photo credit - Robert Workman

Well, it’s the end of week 1 of rehearsals for Weinberg‘s ‘The Portrait’, and I am quite astounded by how much we’ve already achieved. After only 5 days, the production is already pretty much blocked, which is, in my experience anyway, unheard of at this stage. Alright, there’s still a lot of detailed work to do, but the basic shape is there. Now, I’ve not worked with the director David Pountney before, so I’m unsure as to whether this is how he normally works, (it occurs to me he is rather like a portrait painter himself, making rough sketches before filling in the detail), but the prospect of an extended break over Xmas and New Year could also be a contributing factor, anxious, as he must be, to get as much done as possible before we all go away for 2 weeks. Still, it’s been a demanding and rewarding week for all involved….the production’s going to be colourful and whacky that’s for certain!

For my colleague, tenor Nicholas Sharratt (also in The Portrait), and me, this week’s exertions have been with one eye on the other production we’re in at the moment, ’The Merry Widow’, which opens tonight for a mini revival of 4 shows over 5 days. I can’t think of a better show to see at this time of year, especially Giles Havergal’s production, which has received critical acclaim, as well as foot stomping approval from packed houses here in Leeds and on tour.

Performing/rehearsing 2 shows at the same time is something I’ve done quite a lot of at Opera North, and which I enjoy. As a performer I want to be performing as much as possible, and the challenge of switching between characters, and making them as individual as possible, is something I find very enriching. Especially when the characters, and sound worlds they exist within are so completely different. Kromov in ‘The Merry Widow’, for example, I portray as deadpan, sardonic and aloof, a sort of John Le Mesurier, whilst Nikita in ‘The Portrait’…well I’m not sure about him yet (too early to tell), but certainly he’s a much more physical and earthy character. What is vital with so many performances is to preserve energy and stay fit; in this job, if you don’t perform, you don’t get paid! I always find it amusing that if you tell a fellow singer that you’re suffering from a mild cold, you might aswell be telling them you’ve got the Bubonic Plague, such is the reaction.

Performing 2 different shows on consecutive nights can, and often does, prompt the question, do I ever walk out on stage and launch into the ’wrong’ opera? Well, the answer, perhaps boringly, is no. In this case, Lehar’s world of frills, champagne and Grisettes is as far removed emotionally, but also musically, from ‘The Portrait’ as is possible to go. However, you never know….. I suppose I could possibly burst out into a reflection on the demise of true artistic endeavour, I just hope it’s not whilst I’m doing the ‘Can Can’…….or the ’Can’t Can’t’ as those of us with tight hamstrings call it!

I should look at my dialogue scenes now. After all it’s been nearly a month since we last performed ‘Widow’ and it’s another full house tonight. In my experience these sorts of shows can throw up unexpected occurrences…watch this space. Have a Happy Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Richard will be blogging once a fortnight in the build up to The Portrait and The Merry Widow which open in February 2011

The Portrait opens on Wednesday 2nd February 2011 – more info

The Merry Widow opens on Thursday 3rd February 2011 – more info