Christmas cheer has certainly been in the air of our rehearsal room this week. With Singing Trees, Elves, and Angels. Northern Opera Group organised our rehearsals to take place at the Yorkshire College of Music and Drama. This venue is a great space for rehearsals as it has been converted into different sized practice rooms. We rehearse in a large studio that hosts a lovely grand piano and plenty of space for staging the drama.
‘Christmas Elf’ involves both spoken dialogue and music and I have had a lot of fun working with my colleagues to tell the story.
To finish off our first week of rehearsals, today we are blocking the finale with the wonderful Community Chorus who completes our company.
During a little bit of downtime yesterday, I visited Harewood house’s Christmas attraction: ‘A Night at the Mansion’. It was extremely magical and full of Festive cheer, tinsel, and finely decorated Christmas trees.
I don’t want to give away too much about the experience, but I will explain that the concept was inspired by the Hit-Movie franchise ‘Night at the Museum’ starring Ben Stiller and Robin Williams. It is after hours, the doors are shut, and no humans in sight, so the statues, paintings, and household objects come alive! (using a little bit of Christmas magic).
There are even little characters similar in size to the ‘Borrowers’ which took me straight to my childhood, searching for them in cupboards. It also made me reminisce about the times I went looking for dragons and fairies in the forests and mountain valleys of North Wales with my Mum, Dad, and brothers.
Here is their trailer to give you a sneak peek!
I thoroughly recommend a visit to the attraction if you are in the Leeds area over the Christmas period. Next Saturday (21st December) If you fancy a real Christmas treat perhaps you can visit Harewood House during the day and then come along to our performance of The Christmas Elf in the evening. What a way to start your Christmas off, I am sure that you will go home with a huge smile on your face full of Christmas cheer and delight!
To close the year, I will be performing as a Christmas Elf, but not with a bubble gun outside Hamleys on Regent Street, but as part of a production with The Northern Opera Group. Their Christmas production of Hans Pfitzner’s opera Das Christ-Elflein (The Christmas Elf), will be sung in English using a translation by Ben Crick and Nicola Whatmuff. I am thrilled to be a part of the opera and will be taking on the role of Elflein (The Christmas Elf).
This opera was new to me and for anyone else unfamiliar with the story it is based on a children’s fairy tale. It tells the story of an encounter on Christmas Eve between a local Christian family and Pagan characters, from German Folkore. Scroll down this post and sprinkle some fairy dust to find a more detailed synopsis.
The music composed by Hans Pfitzner to a German libretto by Pfitzner and Ilse von Stach was originally premiered in 1906. It was later revised by the composer into a two-act opera which premiered in Dresden on 11 December 1917
During the summer of 1917 Pfitzner revised the work as a two-act Spieloper (comic opera). He shortened the play by adapting some of the speaking and silent roles into ones for singers. The revised version continues to be performed occasionally in German-speaking countries and I can’t wait to be a part of this English adaptation in Leeds at Christmas. The opera will be directed by Davis Ward under the baton of conductor Ben Crick. Illustrator Sophia Watts has been commissioned to create some amazing images to accompany the opera and I cant wait to see them.
A forest in midwinter
Elflein, a little elf living in the forest, asks his friend Tannengreis, an old tree spirit, why humans ring bells and sing at Christmas and what it all means. Tannengreis expresses his dislike and mistrust of humans. Frieder appears in the forest on his way to the village doctor. His sister Trautchen is dying and he no longer believes in God. He tells the elf that he too has no time for his questions about Christmas.
Franz and Jochen, servants of Frieder and Trautchen’s father, enter the forest to cut down a Christmas tree and end up having an encounter with Knecht Ruprecht whom they initially assume is a toy seller and then a warlock.
The Christ Child appears and announces that he will bring Trautchen the Christmas tree this year. Elflein is fascinated by him, but Tannengreis warns him to stay away from humans and their religion. After a dance by young men and forest maidens prevents the servants from cutting down a tree, angels appear to announce that it is Christmas Eve, a holy night. The Christ Child leaves for the von Gumpach house. Elflein goes with him.
The von Gumpach house on Christmas Eve
Herr von Gumpach scolds Franz and Jochen for not having returned with a Christmas tree. They protest that they have seen the living Christ Child, but he doesn’t believe them and Frieder openly mocks them. Tannengreis comes looking for the little elf and is hidden behind the stove by Frieder. Trautchen is brought into the room, and Knecht Ruprecht arrives with village children to explain the tradition of the Christmas tree.
The Christ Child appears with the little elf bringing the tree for Trautchen but tells everyone that he has also come to bring the sick child to heaven. The elf takes pity on Trautchen and offers to take her place. The Christ Child agrees, grants the elf a soul, and gives permission for him to come back to earth every Christmas to visit Tannengreis. His new name will be “Christ-Elflein” (Christ’s Little Elf).
Christ-Elflein is brought up to heaven by the angels. Trautchen is cured, Frieder regains his belief in God, and Tannengreis is reconciled to humans. All present join in the Christmas celebrations.
There will be two performances on Saturday 21st December at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm at the Northern Ballet Stanley & Audrey Burton Theatre, Quarry Hill, Leeds, LS2 7PA. You can get tickets here :
If you live in the Leeds area and want to take part come and join in on 18 November at 7:15pm to sing in the chorus of the Christmas Elf. The first rehearsal will be at the Quaker Meeting House at 188 Woodhouse Lane, Leeds LS2 9DX.
Key things to note:
1) It costs NOTHING to take part! 2) You don’t need to have sung opera before and we don’t audition. 3) There will be rehearsals on the following dates:
Mon 18 November 7:15pm
Mon 25 November 7:15pm
Mon 2 December 7:15pm
Mon 9 December 7:15pm
Thur 19 December 6 – 9pm
Mon 16 Dec 7:15pm
Sun 15 Dec 2 – 6pm
Fri 20 December 6 – 10pm
Sat 21 December – Show Day 2pm and 7pm
Any questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Charlotte Hoather shone as Pandora, here presented as the Presidential Aide who resigns and joins Epimetheus’ gang of rebels. Her clear soprano was especially suited to the nature of the score, and her dramatic performance was strong yet subtle.
Pandora (a very impressive Charlotte Hoather), clad in statuesque white, is Zeus’s much put upon ‘chef du cabinet’:
There are many poignant moments. I will mention a ‘Queen of the Night’ moment for Pandora.
As The Fire of Olympus draws to a close George and I are looking forward to returning to the North West of England to perform a lunchtime recital at Bamford Chapel and Norden United Reformed Church, Norden Road, Bamford (near Rochdale), OL11 5PQ. If you missed our recital in Warrington then this is a great opportunity to hear our program of music inspired by English texts.
We originally designed the program to celebrate English and American composers and how the music is affected by the different styles and cultures vary. We begin with songs inspired by the English Countryside, local folklore, and Poetry that focuses on Nature‘s connection to love and human emotion. We then decided to throw in a wild card by including the two arias from Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, sung in English translation. This meant our musical cruise could take a detour to France. Since we were stopping in Paris, George decided to include a piece by one of Paris’s favourite salon players, Frederick Chopin. The piece is called ‘Rondo a la Mazur’ and is one of Chopin’s earliest piano works that showcase his talent of making the piano sparkle. The journey continues as we embark to the New World with musical flourishes of Copland and how his music drew inspiration from American folk songs and finishing off with more glitter with a sprinkling of Bernstein’s.
We really hope you can come along and board our transatlantic musical adventure.
Here is a couple of clips from our performance in Warrington last week:
The weather is changing and you can feel that Winter is approaching. The heavens opened yesterday morning just as we were preparing to leave for our concert in Warrington. But undeterred, umbrella in hand we set off in good time to make it to the concert.
Bold Street Methodist Church was a lovely venue and we were made to feel very welcome by the organisers of the concert, Brian, Irina, Sharon, and Dianne who had arranged the event with the support of WACIDOM.
The organisation supports many young artists, both singers, and instrumentalists and I have been proud to be associated with them since 2012.
The audience was so appreciative of the programme that George and I performed, and we were thrilled that so many people made the trip into Warrington to watch us especially considering the inclement weather.
Jake came along to our concert and is a regular supporter of the WACIDOM concert series and is a student of music himself. It was such a treat to have such an enthusiastic and supportive friend in the audience.
Following our performances of Romeo & Juliet for Arcadian Opera, last weekend in Stowe, we have kindly been given permission to share some of the photographs taken by James Gribble, who also played Mercutio. I hope the pictures give you a real flavour of the production. 🙂
My Autumn will be spent touring around England and you will be able to hear me sing in York, Stowe, Warrington, Stoke On Trent, Todmorden, Bamford, and Leeds.
Next up I will be performing the role of Pandora in ‘The Fire of Olympus’ in York with Radius Opera. We will be appearing at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre on the 12th of October at 7:30 pm. ( Tickets Here )
Then the following weekend I will be appearing as Juliet alongside William Branston as Romeo in Arcadian Opera’s production of Gounod’s Romeo & Juliet at the Roxburgh Theatre, Stowe. ( Tickets Here ) Performances are at 7:30 pm 19th October and 3:00 pm 20th October.
Following Romeo & Juliet, I will be performing with pianist George Todica in a lunchtime recital at the Bold Street Methodist Church, 4 Palmyra Square N, Warrington on 26th October.
One of the highlights for me will be performing the role of Pandora in Stoke on Trent at 7:30 pm on Wednesday 30th October at the Repertory Theatre as my Grand Parents and their friends will be in the audience to watch. ( Tickets Here )
My last performance in the role of Pandora for Radius Opera will be at 7:30 pm on Saturday 9th November at the Todmorden Hippodrome, Todmorden. ( Tickets Here ) Although there will be a screening of the film of the opera that Tim Benjamin produced and directed that was so much fun to be a part of. The premiere will be at the Leeds International Film Festival at 7:30 pm on 16th November 2019 ( Tickets Here )
I have another lunchtime recital with pianist George Todica at the Bamford Chapel and Norden United Reformed Church at 1:00 pm on the 12th of November.
Last night, Saturday 14th September, was the premiere of Tim Benjamin’s The Fire Of Olympus at the Burnley Mechanics Theatre. It was a lovely venue with a fabulous stage and a wonderful audience.
After all the hard work put in by everyone involved over the past few months it was such a thrill to finally bring the piece to the stage. It was a wonderful experience to perform such a different character role alongside the rest of the cast and the orchestra to bring Tim’s music to life.
As the tour is still ongoing, I don’t want to give too much away about the production and what we have in store for the audience. But if you can attend one of the shows I do encourage you to come along and witness the spectacle first hand.
With the ‘Fire Of Olympus’ opening in Burnley, Lancashire on Saturday 14th September 2019, this coming week is going to see all the hard work put in by the cast and creatives as all the pieces finally come together. There are still a few tickets left for the performance in Burnley if you want to be amongst the first to see this amazing production you can get your tickets here:
Following my interview with Tim Benjamin last week on my blog, Tim turned the tables on me with some questions of his own. He kindly allowed me to share them with you along with a short promotional video that he had filmed to help raise awareness of the opera.
1. Pandora is famous,
yet people don’t really know much about who she really is. Can you give us the
I discovered that Pandora was the first human woman on Earth. Zeus the leader of the Gods asked Hephaestus a fellow God to create her to go to Earth to be an evil thing for men to balance out the theft of fire for use by mortals by Prometheus his name meant ‘forethought’ he was as his name suggests a thoughtful Titan (one of the original supreme beings on Earth) 🔥.
During Pandora’s creation, the other Gods were asked to bestow gifts upon her. Hephaestus made her in the likeness of the goddesses, Athena dressed her in silvery robes and taught her feminine skills, Aphrodite gave her elegance and desirability, Hermes gave her a beautiful voice, but Zeus contrived within this to provide her with curiosity, a litany of lies and deceitful essence. She was also given a bottle/jar full of the ills of the World. She was told when she was sent to Epimetheus (Prometheus’ brother another Titan, his name meant afterthought) to be his bride not to open the bottle under any circumstances.
After they were married and had a daughter her curiosity got the better of her, she opened the bottle and unleashed the evils and sins on humankind, other than hope which some believe was trapped in the bottle when she hurriedly tried to put the stopper back in place.
2. Pandora is the
character who changes the most in the opera. How do you interpret and realise
In ‘Fire Of Olympus’ Pandora is a personal assistant to Zeus on Mount Olympus, she is extremely efficient and hardworking, promoted by him, a trusted and loyal worker who is very ambitious and driven to succeed and expects be respected. I believe in her mind she sees herself as one of the elites and wants to be accepted as an equal.
After the mysterious
‘Fire’ is stolen from Zeus’ office, Zeus is incandescent with rage, especially
when Epimetheus avoids capture and starts a people’s rebellion, a revolution.
Pandora is asked to report on the mob and the people’s uprising. Zeus has a
plan that changes Pandora’s outlook in an instance, he wants her to go to
Epimetheus and ‘allow him to do what he wants with you’ he wants her to give
him the bottle and be sure he opens it. Zeus just sees Pandora as a tool, a
nothing, a disposable pawn ♟ she finds this
impossible to accept, if she remained loyal to Zeus he would always just use
her as a girl and would never see her as she saw herself an equal.
She is disgusted,
drained and feels she is worth more. Without knowing what is in the bottle she
takes it from the office with the intent to work with the rebellion against
3. In what ways are this role and music like Baroque music and Handel? In what ways different?
The ‘Fire Of Olympus’ blurs the musical traditions of contemporary and baroque music. The singers are accompanied by a chamber orchestra, which is a large ensemble for various instruments that existed during the baroque era, such as the harpsichord. The opera presents its story-telling in a similar way to Handel and Baroque opera. The Recitatives move the story forward in a speech like manner and the Arias allow for dramatic soliloquies in an ABA format. (For context, in pop music you have typically verse chorus verse chorus. This can be called ABAB format.) The character’s initial emotions are presented in Section A, then explored further with new musical ideas in Section B and finally when section A is repeated, typically with ornaments, the character’s emotions turn into decisions which are then acted upon the scenes to follow. However, I would associate Tim’s use of syncopated rhythms and atonal harmonies in the recitative and melismas as a contemporary music tool to word paint.
4. Do you approach
roles in new opera differently from well-known roles from the operatic canon?
Yes, I approach roles in new operas slightly differently from well-known roles, for a start I can’t just watch other videos of fellow singers interpretations and I wouldn’t have studied the characters in scenes during my training or watched other people doing the roles in their scenes. However, that is what I also love about portraying characters such as Eve, Hero, Uccelina and now Pandora I have to breathe life into the character from scratch. I always try to interpret from the words and music what the composer and librettists intentions are for the character. I create a drawing and a storyboard of how I imagine the character to look and act. I get as much information in advance from the Director and I was also very pleased to meet the librettist during rehearsals last week to get his feelings and thoughts about my interpretation and make any changes from what he told me.
5. Everybody sings,
perhaps to their baby, in a choir, on the football terraces, or even in the
shower, but few people can sing like an opera singer. Can you explain in
layman’s terms how you make such an incredible sound?
I’ve always had a natural amplification. I was frequently told in school performances and choirs I sang with that I was “too loud”. Whilst at High School, I participated in musical theatre productions and often my microphone was turned down or completely off on stage to balance with my colleagues. When you’re told ‘your voice cuts through like a blade’ you think “Is that a compliment or not ?”😂. But in Opera this vocal quality is essential. When I began training professionally I found that operatic singing is dependent on three different categories: Support (Breathing / Posture / Muscular Activity), Phonation (the production of sound by the voice box) and Filtering of the Sound (resonance and the impact of the lips and tongue). Each category has lots of intricate layers, which is why operatic singing is an athletic art form that needs the training to maintain stamina and flexibility so the body can naturally and healthily produce sound that can sustain a three-hour performance over an orchestra that is both dramatic and pleasant to listen to.
This week sees the start of the rehearsals in Manchester for Tim Benjamin’s opera “The Fire Of Olympus” in which I take on the role of Pandora in this modern-day adaptation from Greek Mythology.
The opera has been composed by Tim Benjamin who is also the artistic director of Radius Opera. As the driving force behind this project, I asked if he could spare a little time to answer a few questions and he kindly shared his insight with us.
1. The Fire of Olympus is a new opera, what inspired you to pick this subject?
In 2016 I wrote an oratorio, “Herakles”, for choir, large orchestra, 5 solo singers, and a narrator (spoken)
At the very end, the narrator, who plays the part of “Time”, a kind of mystical storyteller, says: “Perhaps now I shall tell you the story of Prometheus… but no, that can wait for another time.” The oratorio was a big success, especially with the choral society that performed it, and lots of people asked when they were going to get a sequel about Prometheus. And so the idea for this opera, “The Fire of Olympus” came about! While the opera is a very different style of piece, two of my collaborators are the same; Anthony Peter my librettist, and Professor Emma Stafford, of Leeds University, our resident Ancient Greece expert.
2. What musical influences have you used when creating the opera?
The main musical influence is Handel, specifically his
“Italian” operas such as Giulio Cesare and Serse. However, rather
than a pastiche (i.e. trying to make something exactly like a Handel), I have
actively tried to “steal” Handel, to make it my own, in a similar way
that one could accuse Stravinsky of “stealing” Pergolesi, or Britten
of Purcell. So I think the end result sounds initially a bit like Handel, but
on closer inspection, it’s something quite different…
There is also a strong personal, non-musical inspiration from Handel: his opera company in 18th century London, with which he directed many of his operas at the Queen’s Theatre, and practically defined the fashion for musical drama at the time. I would love to achieve something along those lines, in the modern world and context, with my company Radius Opera! So we are filming “The Fire”, in a very artistic way, and hope to use this popular contemporary art form (film) with the style of 18th-century popular opera, to forge something new and with broad appeal.
3. I think it was an amazing idea to use technology and pre-record large choir choruses, have you seen this done before? Or was it a completely new direction for you?
I have never seen or done this before, although I’ve created one or two large choral pieces. What appealed to me is the kind of person who joins their local choral society, then enjoys a wide variety of choral pieces from African Sanctus to The Messiah, performing alongside professional soloists, and develops a really fun-loving approach to music-making. I wanted to create something with those people, and give them back this new opera. And so we went and did numerous workshops, all over the north of England, and created this Chorus for “The Fire of Olympus”. It was huge fun and I can’t wait for them to hear what we’ve done!
4. What qualities do you think an opera company director needs to bring a project from inception to life?
Well, it’s hard, really really hard. There is basically no public funding for this – the Arts Council fund the big companies, but they have little money and many people competing for a slice of a diminishing pie, so they fund things like creative street festivals where the “bang for your buck” is greatest. It’s an inescapable fact that opera is expensive – perhaps the most expensive art form, particularly difficult at the “indie” level at which I’m working. I would say its only comparison (in respect of cost and difficulty) is film, which is also really hard to do well, and for which it’s also really hard to raise money for. However, with film, there are revenue streams – licensing deals, cinemas, TV – which don’t exist for opera, which really can only count on a theatre audience. And so, if opera is not subsidised somehow, ticket prices have to be high in order to pay for the work; so opera sometimes ends up accessible only to those who will pay the price. I hate that, as opera is truly an art intended for ordinary people to enjoy, much more so than (for example) chamber music or symphonic music.
I’m not sure if that answers your question! But for me, the hardest part has been trying, on one hand, to raise money and on the other hand to persuade people to donate things to us, while with my other hands, I try to create work of originality and high quality. So what does an opera director need to be? I would say an octopus. You need to have many hands…
5. Can you sum up the story, was it daunting to bring Greek mythology into a modern setting?
Zeus is a horrid, overbearing, manipulative man-child,
President of Olympus and all-powerful. Prankster-activists Prometheus and
Epimetheus accidentally steal his Fire, an ancient artefact that is the root of
Zeus’ might. He despatches his minions Hephaestus and Pandora to recover the
Fire, but they plot against him. So we end up with tragedy, comedy, passion,
and politics that I think are really resonant with our present
I did not think it was very daunting, though – the stories from ancient Greece are so fundamental to our culture, they almost can’t help but be familiar, yet teach us something new each time we hear them!
6. Did you remain true to the Greek legends and myths? If not, what changes have you incorporated?
The dystopian modern setting and characterisation are of course new, but apart from that, we have remained true to the myths. We have been assisted by Professor Emma Stafford from Leeds University, who is an expert on ancient Greece, but perhaps, more importantly, is a very keen amateur singer and actor!
7. When I storyboarded my role in preparation for rehearsals, I imagined Pandora as a Miss Sloane, Ivanka Trump, Karen Brady type woman, how do you see her?
She reminds me, a bit, of Claire Underwood in “House of
Cards”, but really she’s a super-ambitious self-made ice queen, who has
risen to the very top and has designs on Zeus’ position.
OK, that is not strictly true to the original Greek myth.
Pandora was “created” by the gods as a punishment for stealing fire –
in order to punish the first man, gods sent the first woman, effectively!! –
but we felt it would be more interesting to interpret this as a powerful career
woman who is flippantly destroyed by the man she helped secure in his position
Nonetheless, she is still sent with her “jar” (the word “box” is a mistranslation!) to punish Epimetheus; and it is true to the Greek that she and Epimetheus end up as an item, confounding the gods’ intentions, and found the race of men from whom we all descend…
After all our preparation and rehearsal, it was such a thrill to walk out on stage alongside my colleagues as the orchestra brought the score to life under the baton of Christopher Pelly. It was such a privilege to be a part of this production and bring Stanford’s Much Ado About Nothing to life.
It was lovely to see so many friendly faces in the audience, both on Friday and Saturday night. For those of you, I did not get the chance to thank in person I just want to say how wonderful it was to know you were in the audience and I do hope that you enjoyed watching the production as much as we enjoyed performing it.
After the curtain closed for the final performance of Much Ado About Nothing last night ( Saturday 24th August ), we had the opportunity to mingle with the audience and it was lovely to hear how everyone had enjoyed the production. We met Professor Jeremy Dibble, who is the president of the Stanford Society who came along to watch, he said that he had thoroughly enjoyed the adaption and that he had a wonderfully entertaining evening.
The time has flown by and though I am sad to say goodbye to the cast and creatives I can honestly say that I have enjoyed every minute of my time with them.
I want to wish David Ward, Festival Director, and Louise Garner, Festival Producer every success with the remainder of the Leeds Opera Festival as it continues until Tuesday 27th August. You can find out more about all the amazing events on the Northern Opera Group’s website here.
All the above pictures were taken our dress rehearsal and are credited to Pelly & Me Photography.
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.
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.