As we enter the final week of the rehearsals for Much Ado About Nothing everything is coming together nicely.  This week we will get to run through the full production, familiarise ourselves with the costume changes, and rehearse with the orchestra. It is going to be a whirlwind week culminating with our performances at Morley Town Hall on Friday 23rd and Saturday 24th August at 7:30 pm.

Here is a small taster video put together by Northern Opera Group featuring photos by Fiona Pelly and music from the Act 1 chorus! This is just a sneak peek at our rehearsals which I hope will encourage those of you who can to come along and savour the excitement and emotion of this amazing production. See the full opera on 23 and 24 August at Morley Town Hall Tickets £10 – £20 www.ticketsource.co.uk/northernoperagroup.

Yesterday I was invited to accompany David Ward for an interview hosted by Andrew Edwards on his BBC Radio Leeds breakfast show. Though I have done several interviews in the past for both radio and TV this was my first in an actual radio station. So, it was quite exciting for me as we made our way to the studio to sign in as guests.  The show aired just after 8:00 am and BBC Radio Leeds sent us the audio which I have shared with you below.

Andrew Edwards – BBC Radio Leeds – Interview With David Ward and Me

I have really enjoyed learning my way around Leeds and working with all the cast and creatives on this show. For those of you that can come along, I’m sure that you will have a great evening.

Rehearsals are well underway now for ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and it has been great to meet the rest of the cast and see the imaginative ideas of David Ward and his fellow creatives brought to life. 

Back Row – Edward Robinson, Roger Paterson
Front Row – Louise Garner, Phil Wilcox, Me, David Ward, Catrin Woodruff, Chris Pelly, and Jenny Martins

If you can join us at Morley Town Hall on either Friday 23rd or Saturday 24th August, there are still some tickets left if you are quick. You can buy tickets on the Northern Opera website HERE.

Following on from my post last week I want to share part two of my interview with David Ward, Director of the Northern Opera Group. In this part of the interview, you can read about my character, Hero and my on-stage partner Claudio who is played by Roger Paterson.

Then to close the interview David shares his thoughts on how to engage and attract future audiences to opera.

How would you characterise Hero, my role in the production?

The key to getting Hero right is to get the balance between her purity and innocence, and the flame of mischief and an awakening sexuality.

In our 1950’s set production, she’s clearly the model example of a teenager we find in these great instructional videos of the era – obedient, well behaved, never not chaperoned around a boy … She’s the token ‘Queen’ of the High School Prom – the girl all the boys want, but will never be allowed to get. Think Sandy, rather than Rizzo!

She is, however, turning into an adult, soon to leave home and marry, and start a life slightly removed from those societal structures she has grown up around. She’s emboldened by the attention she’s received from Don Pedro and Claudio (and, we can assume, many other young men) and under the influence of the unconventional Beatrice, it’s crucial we don’t let Hero become simply a wet character – the character’s sympathetic (but dull) victim.

My significant other romantic interest in the opera is Claudio, how do you envisage him?

The opera is marked by the distinction between the two central couples. Whilst Beatrice and Benedick are fighting against society’s norms, Hero and Claudio are living up to them. They are the perfect young lovers – respectful of each other and of the parents, not jumping the gun in following the expected stages of their burgeoning relationship.

Claudio – like Hero – is adjusting to his new place in the world, where he’s no longer a kid in school, but becoming a man. He’s already been to War, and now returns ready to take up his place in society. He’s still rather shy around women – he’s got a lot of emotional growing up to do! – but when he feels that he’s been deceived by Hero, he takes up the alpha-male role that society and culture have taught him to adopt.

But this isn’t the real Claudio. As we discover in the opera’s final scenes, it’s not a role he’s comfortable with, nor one he really wants. He loves Hero, he believes in her, and he recognises his follies. He might have been to War, but there’s still a lot of growing up to do …

I read a tweet from @operamagazine that referenced an article in Vogue Magazine, Can Opera Attract A New Generation Of Fans? At La Scala, Signs Of Hope

Asking Will Millennials Kill Opera, Too?  Can Opera Attract a new generation of fans?  I noticed you had special price tickets for students and young adults with prices starting at £10, £15 and adult tickets £20, what other ways are you trying to engage a new generation of fans?

I think that opera companies of all sizes have to be mindful of how we can attract new audiences.

There are three key things we do to help bring through a new generation of audiences

i) The staging of community productions, where anyone can take part in performing in a fully staged opera, for free. I originally discovered a love of opera through taking part – I didn’t come from a musical family or have any friends who liked opera, however, I was roped into taking part in a show where they were low on male voices and ended up staying! We do a lot of work with local choirs, schools and universities to attract new people to take part, and making participation free is crucial to attracting a wide range of people. Many choral societies and drama groups charge fairly significant fees to take part which prohibits people from joining – particularly those people who aren’t sure if they’ll like it or not. We’ve had people from ages 9 to 80+ take part in previous productions, and by bringing them together with professionals for future shows, we hope to add to the attraction and experience of taking part.

ii) The programming of a range of repertoire, for a range of audiences. By staging rare operas, we’re able to delve deep in opera’s past to find works that will appeal to both audiences new and old. This is particularly important for our community productions, where often a large part of the audience are friends and family of those involved – they need to be attracted by repertoire which sounds enjoyable, accessible and suitable for the whole family. For example, we’ve previously staged Pauline Viardot’s ‘Cinderella’ (a well know and well-loved story) and this December we’re performing Pfitzner’s ‘The Christmas Elf’ which is both a terrific opera and one that should chime with younger audiences this Christmas.  ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is another example of a work which will have appeal to new audiences who are familiar with theatre and Shakespeare.

iii) A commitment to low and affordable tickets. I spend a lot of time fundraising for our productions (we are a registered charity) to ensure that we can keep tickets prices at an affordable level and that we can taper ticket prices suitable for young audiences. We want ticket prices to be affordable so that a whole family can attend – if you think that a West End show might be £40 for the cheapest seats, £160 for a family of four to sit in the Gods can be extremely prohibitive! We also want tickets prices to be at a level where new audiences are willing to take a punt on something new. For our 2018 Festival, we had 40% audiences under the age of 35 which points towards some success in our ambitions to make our work attractive and affordable to young audiences. We have also trialed short, free, pop-up performances in recent years – delivered by a high-quality cast of repertoire that’s suitable for casual and new audiences. From 2020 we’ll deliver one free pop-up tour of a short opera every year to reach new audiences across the North of England.

This week I traded in my Jane Austen for a dose of William Shakespeare in the guise of a lovely opera composed by Charles Villiers Stanford with the libretto by Julian Sturgis based on the bards play Much Ado About Nothing. Having the opportunity to be a part of this rarely performed little gem has been made possible by David Ward and his production company The Northern Opera Group. 

I met up with David when I was last in Leeds and he kindly agreed to an interview which I wanted to share with you.  I hope that you find his insights and detailed answers as interesting as I did.

Tickets can be purchased for this years Leeds Opera Festival here:

1) Can you tell us about Northern Opera, when did you start, where are you based, what is your mission, goal, and hopes for the future?

We launched Northern Opera Group in 2015, with the aim of bringing operas outside of the core repertoire to audiences in the North of England. There is some great opera to be had in the North, however very little outside of the main operas (Figaro, Boheme, Carmen, etc.). I’ve always been interested in the further reaches of the repertoire, and having this as our focus seemed a great way to offer something new to existing audiences, and find all sorts of repertoire which might appeal to audiences who wouldn’t usually consider going to the opera house.

Our first production was Menotti’s ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’. We thought we’d see how this first production went before committing to any more, however, we had a great response from participants and audiences so we seemed to be on to something!

Since then, we’ve staged another eight productions and launched our annual Opera Festival, which provides an opportunity for us to bring audiences and artists together for a few days to enjoy varied performances, but also to debate and pick apart opera through a programme of discussions, workshops, and other events.

Alongside our focus on rare repertoire, we’re also committed to producing both professional and community operas. We firmly believe that the best way to get new people involved in opera is to enable them to take part, and we welcome people of all ages and abilities to take part, for free, in our community work.

We’ve grown quite substantially year on year so far, and over the next five years we hope to establish the Festival as a key part of the UK’s annual opera calendar, expand the number of events we’re able to programme, and increase the scale of our community work by bringing together professional and amateur musicians – this will start with our December 2019 production of the delightful festive opera ‘The Christmas Elf’!

2) Why did you choose an opera based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing by Charles Villiers Standford?

I first came across the opera in 2016 when we were looking for a rare Shakespeare opera to stage as part of the nationwide Shakespeare 400th anniversary celebrations. I was instantly attracted to the work – the characterisation is so colourful, the vocal writing so attuned to both comedy and drama, the libretto so craftily weaved from the original play!

Back then we were only able to stage a select number of scenes with five actors and piano, so the ambition of staging the full work remained.

When planning for our annual Festival, it’s important to find a headline opera that the whole programme can hang off. I like to have a theme that brings each Festival together (previous years have been Great British Opera, and Opera and Asia, for example) and with such an amazing and broad range of repertoire available around Shakespeare and Opera, there was always only going to be one opera that I wanted as our headline production!

Now the company has grown considerably since 2016, we’re able to bring the full opera to the stage – with orchestra – and, crucially, we’ve found the right venue which suits the opera perfectly. Morley Town Hall is a resplendent Victorian venue which – rather ashamedly – doesn’t have any existing classical music provision. We love to bring audiences to new and interesting venues, and we’re sure that artists and audiences alike will love discovering Morley Town Hall at the same time as they discover Stanford’s ‘Much Ado’!

Alfred Elmore’s – Swooning of Hero in the Church scene

3) The original opera was first performed in 1901, the setting Messina, in Sicily.  What is the setting of your production?

My approach to directing opera – particularly operas originally set a long time ago – is always to find settings which resonate with both the opera and with audiences. Sometimes this means keeping the original setting, how often for a work to communicate with audiences, and to help bring out some of the key themes of the opera, restaging the work to a more familiar setting can help the work speak to a new generation of audiences.

There were some obvious questions to answer as I began preparations for this production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ – notably which war is the production centred around, and in which places would we find such a close-knit and hierarchical community? The more I sat with the opera, and the more I thought about times and places that would resonate with audiences, the more I was drawn to the idea of moving the action to 1950’s small-town USA.

Coming out of the Korean War in 1953 was a generation of kids who hadn’t perhaps fought before, but who were brought up on heroic military exploits from World War Two. They were part of an extremely hierarchical society, where the pillars of the community found in ‘Much Ado’ – the Priest, the Chief of Police, the Mayor (Leonato) – rule supreme.

They were of a generation taught to respect their elders, to fall into clear societal positions, where the man was head of the house, where Scouts and Little League Baseball kept young boys rooted in the expectations of maintaining a certain way of life, and certain social structures.

But amongst this inflexible way of life, there are the early rumblings of a cultural revolution emerging. Claudio and Hero may be the archetypal young lovers who are the bastions of rural small-town life, but in Benedick and, in particular, Beatrice we see a new generation emerging. A generation that won’t simply nod along with how society expects them to behave. Beatrice – in my eyes a young Katharine Hepburn – can go toe to toe with the boys, and this contrast between our leading couples of Beatrice/Benedick and Hero/Claudio perfectly exemplifies this emerging clash of cultures.

As much as I would have loved swanky New York 1950’s aesthetic, this idea of small-town USA is central to the opera. The community is extremely tight-knit; everyone knows everyone and, returning from a War when they were simply three of many, Claudio, Benedick and Don Pedro return back to the bosom of their town as notable personalities – big fishes in small ponds. There’s also something about the confusion, deception, and hot-headedness of the opera that lends itself to the sweltering South (there’s a reason why Tennesse Williams’ Deep South settings work so well with his characters).

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford – 1921

Next week I will bring you part two of the interview in which we discuss some of the characters in the opera and you can read David’s thoughts about attracting new audiences to the world of opera.

WOF Instagram Takeover

July 21, 2019 — 52 Comments

Last Wednesday I was asked to take over the Instagram Story for Waterperry Opera Festival on behalf of the Mansfield Park Cast and Creatives. This was all a little new to me as my experience of Instagram was limited to my once a week post linked to my blog.

But undaunted I roped in the help of my good friend Hanah Crerar who is a whiz with Instagram Stories and she explained how they worked and what works best. For those of you unfamiliar with Instagram and their Story feature it allows the user to post short video segments which are only available for 24 hours.

As the day progressed everyone on the team got involved and we managed to get several little snippets recorded. Here are some of the ones that I managed to save, a little bit of cheesy fun to share with you all. All in our very best Jane Austin accents of course.

We have sold out on the 25th and 28th August but there a still a few tickets left for the 26th and 27th August if you are able to join us

Today saw the start of rehearsals for Waterperry Opera Festival’s production of Mansfield Park which we will be performing between 25th and 28th July at 2:30 pm. The performances are to be held in the Waterperry Ballroom which provides an absolutely amazing backdrop to this wonderful immersive opera by Jonathan Dove.

This year we welcome two new members to the original cast, Eleanor Garside who plays the part of Aunt Norris, and Damian Arnold who will perform the role of Henry Crawford. I am looking forward to working alongside both of them, and all my old friend from last year’s production. The cast and creatives are an amazing group of people and I can’t wait to see how this year’s rehearsal develop.

The performance on the 25th July is already sold out but there are still a few tickets left for the remaining days if you want to come along I would recommend booking quickly to avoid disappointment. The Opera Festival is hosted in Waterperry House and Gardens, Waterperry, Oxford, OX33 1LA and you book tickets HERE.

The production will be directed again by Rebecca Meltzer with musical direction by Ashley Beauchamp, and Bradley Wood will be providing the additional piano accompaniment.

Last Tuesday Night as I walked on to the main Pavilion stage at the Llangollen International Eisteddfod I had to pinch myself to make sure that it wasn’t all just a wonderful dream. 

Photo Credit – Spirit Of Wales Photography

To be opening the evening’s Opera Gala was a huge honour for me and knowing that I would be sharing the stage with Rolando Villazón and Rhian Lois brought a tingle to my spine.

Photo Credit – Spirit Of Wales Photography

My first two arias of the evening were O Luce Di Quest’anima from Linda di Chamounix, by Gaetano Donizetti followed by Je Veux Vivre from Romeo et Juliette, by Charles Gounod.

Photo Credit – Spirit Of Wales Photography

Rhian Lois then performed Quando M’en Vo from La Boheme, and O Mio Babbino Caro from Gianni Schicchi, both by Giacomo Puccini

Photo Credit – Spirit Of Wales Photography

Rolando Villazón then treated us to a lovely rendition of L’esule by Giuseppe Verdi .

Photo Credit – Spirit Of Wales Photography

I then sang my first duet with Rolando Villazón to close the first half of the Gala,  Non Ti Scordar Di Me by Ernesto di Curtis & Domenico Furnò.  This was so special for me, especially when he produced a rose from inside his jacket and gave it to me during the performance after our little waltz.

Photo Credit – Spirit Of Wales Photography

For the second half of the evening, I again sang two arias, the first was Qui La Voce Sua Soave from I Puritani, by Vincenzo Bellini followed by Glitter and Be Gay from Candide, by Bernstein. The Gala was brought to an end with the three of us performing Brindisi from La Traviata, by Giuseppe Verdi which was so much fun.

Photo Credit – Spirit Of Wales Photography
Photo Credit – Mandy Jones

I had a wonderful evening and was thrilled to have so many people in the audience to support my first Opera Gala including my parents, my Nana and Grandad, Gill and Terry, and my wonderful blog friends Hilary and Edwin, and I feel blessed to have shared this experience with them.

Rhian Lois, Rolando Villazón , Me, and James Hendry backstage after the Opera Gala

I also want to thank James Hendry, the Conductor and the British Sinfonietta for their amazing performances throughout the Opera Gala and for making my evening so special.

Yesterday we closed our tour at the Haddington show and it was extra special for me as my parents made the trip North to come and watch.

The Haddington show is an agricultural show filled with horse jumping, pig racing, pedigree competitions across farmyard animals and lots of good food! I caught my Dad checking out the tractors, it’s such a good job we never lived on a farm, otherwise, he would have bankrupted us, wanting the biggest and newest gadget every year.

Our shows were packed across all ages and it was a brilliant way to finish our tour. I had a lovely time working with the Scottish Opera team, the two months have flown by unlike the journey home to Cheshire which took twice as long as it should have done. Everyone must have been out enjoying the sun and returning home at the same time.

Much Ado About Nothing

June 23, 2019 — 59 Comments

I’ve been working on my next opera projects, researching characters, storylines, learning the music and words. I have watched the movie version of the play ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and bought a couple of books on how to interpret Shakespeare’s words correctly.

This year Northern Opera Group will host the Leeds Opera Festival from 23rd to 27th August 2019 at venues across the city. The Leeds Opera Festival will include A Feast of Falstaff, where the audience will be treated to a sumptuous feast accompanied by music from three Falstaff operas – by Verdi, Salieri and Balfe – followed by a screening of Orson Welles’ masterpiece, ‘Chimes at Midnight’.

Another new performance to be savoured at the Festival is the aptly titled Musical Confusion. This captivating performance will imaginatively weave together text and song to seamlessly bring together Shakespeare’s original plays with many of the operas inspired by his works.

Headlining this year’s Leeds Opera Festival will be a full production of Stanford’s comic gem, Much Ado About Nothing, transported to 1950s small-town America, where the makings of a cultural revolution are just getting started … 

There will be two performances in the fabulous setting of Morley Townhall on the 23rd and 24th August at 7:30pm.  I am thrilled to share with you that I will be performing the role of Hero in this wonderful production and I can’t wait to meet everyone involved.  This will be the second production of the summer that I will take to the stage with the fabulous Phil Wilcox who plays the role of Benedick in this production and he will also be reprising the role of Sir Thomas Bertram when we both return to Waterperry Opera Festival in July to perform in Mansfield Park.

Cast & Creatives

Much Ado About Nothing was a comedy by William Shakespeare, written in 1598 (the middle of Shakespeare’s career).  In Shakespeare’s day, ‘Nothing’ or ‘Noting’ as he wrote meant gossip, rumour or overhearing and we all know how much misunderstanding and confusion can be created by a little gossip or Chinese whispers.

Largely unperformed since its premiere at the Royal Opera House in 1901, Stanford’s opera is a hilarious, moving and hugely entertaining adaptation of Shakespeare’s play.

In the story Benedick and Beatrice are tricked into confessing their love for each other, Claudio is tricked into rejecting Hero at the altar on the erroneous belief that she has been unfaithful. But in the end, Benedick and Beatrice join forces to set things right, and the others join in a dance celebrating the marriages of the two couples.

I’ve sung several songs that have used Shakespeare’s words before but this is my first full operatic adaptation of one of his plays. Do you have a favourite play, book or another Shakespeare play that you think would work well set to music?

On Friday I joined the Pop-Up Opera team to participate in the Borders Book Festival, which took place in the heart of Melrose, which is south of Edinburgh.

Just off St Mary’s road, Harmony Garden was home to marquees filled with events for both adults and children, a pop-up bookshop with some authors present to sign the books bought by visitors to the festival, and the ticket booth.

We were parked in a great spot between Harmony Garden and the Orchard where a delightful collection of Food and Drink trucks were situated decorated in bunting and festive twinkly lights. As well as delicious and artisanal food to nibble on, there were stretch tents and tipis for shaded cover – on what turned out to be a miraculously sunny day!

I thoroughly enjoyed being part of the festival and between shows, I took time to explore the stands and enjoying hunting for treats and oddities.

Then on Saturday and Sunday, we set up the trailer at the tranquil Archerfield Walled Garden in North Berwick. The beautiful grounds host a Garden Cafe where the chefs in the kitchen use local produce to create scrumptious dishes for all tastes. Not only was there a soup of the day, but also a scone of the day.

On Sunday it was Father’s Day (Love you Dad) and the cafe celebrated by offering a deal to Dad’s, a burger and a locally brewed beer! Yum! On-site there is also a farm shop, Knops microbrewery, and amazing trails to walk peacefully alone or with your friends, family, and dogs.

One walk that enticed the company, in particular, was the fairy walk! So we decided to treat our stage management and instrumental crew to fairy wings from the shop and prance around the grounds in our Iolanthe costumes. The setting was so beautiful and we had a great time.

Ross Stenhouse was on the bike.

Next week you can catch up with us in Callander, and the following week in Banff, Aboyne, and the Haddington Show.

I’ve got four days off work in a row which is great because I’ve got to finalise my preparations for The Llangollen International Eisteddfod Classical Gala on the 2nd July at 19:30. I’ve been offered the wonderful opportunity to be part of a Classical Gala with French/Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón as part of my prize for winning the Pendine Voice of the Future competition last July.

Rolando is one of the leading tenors of our day he is frequently seen in Europe’s leading opera houses and sings with orchestras and opera houses all around the World.

Llangollen International Eisteddfod

Good news if you’re in the North West of England you don’t have to go to London to the Royal Opera House to hear Rolando he is coming to Llangollen in North Wales for the first time, Llangollen is one hour’s drive from Liverpool, 45 minutes from Chester (one hour by train), one and a half hours for my friends and family from Manchester and Stoke on Trent they’re staying overnight in some of the lovely bed and breakfast accommodation and hotels in Llangollen, I told them they could even glamp this year.

James Hendry

We will be accompanied in the Gala by the British Sinfonietta under the baton of British conductor James Hendry. James joined the prestigious ‘Jette Parker Young Artists Programme’ for emerging talent at London’s Royal Opera House in 2016. Hendry promises his Tuesday night concert to be an ‘opera pick and mix’, offering guests an exclusive repertoire through opera, classical and even musical theatre. He adds, “It will be a passionate performance that offers an inspiring tour for opera fans and newcomers alike.”

“In recent years the orchestra has performed extensively in England, Scotland and Wales as well as visiting Western Europe. Highlights include the London Welsh Festival of Male Choirs at a sold-out Royal Albert Hall in London, a performance of Berlioz’ Requiem at Cheltenham Festival, screenings of Casablanca at the Royal Opera House in London, screenings of Home Alone in Denmark, and the televised world premiere of ‘Adiemus Colores’ by Sir Karl Jenkins at the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod in 2014. “

I wish that you could all be there with me, got my dress ready, got my shoes, feeling prepared, can’t wait to get started.