Archives For Classical Music

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

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.

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.

I am looking forward to my performance at this year’s Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod on Tuesday 2nd of July as a guest of the renowned International Tenor Rolando Villazón. The evening’s gala concert is to be accompanied by the British Sinfonietta Orchestra conducted by James Hendry, also starring is the famous Welsh lyric soprano, Rhian Lois. If you have never been to the International Musical Eisteddfod in Llangollen I can heartily recommend it, whether you intend to compete in one of the many categories or just come to enjoy the beautiful singing, fabulous dancing, or the joyous multicultural atmosphere that permeates around the Pavillion and throughout the Town during the festival.

The event is best described on their website:
Every summer since 1947 Llangollen has staged one of the world’s most inspirational cultural festivals. Each year around 4,000 performers and as many as 50,000 visitors converge on this beautiful small Welsh town and its International Pavilion; to sing and dance in a unique combination of competition, performance, and international peace and friendship.

The International Pavilion, Llangollen

Llangollen’s place in world music is now immutable. Since its inaugural year in 1947 more than 300,000 competitors from over 100 nationalities have performed enthusiastically on the Llangollen stage. In 1955 a young Luciano Pavarotti sang in the choir from his home town of Modena, conducted by his father. The choir won first prize in the Male voice choir competition. Pavarotti returned for a spectacular concert in 1995.”

“Margot Fonteyn, Alicia Markova, Joan Sutherland, Angela Gheorghiu, Kiri Te Kanawa, Jehudi Menuhin, José Carreras, Lesley Garrett, Bryn Terfel, Katherine Jenkins, Dennis O’Neil, James Galway, Nigel Kennedy, Elaine Paige, Michael Ball, and Montserrat Caballé are among the musical stars that have appeared in our concerts. Placido Domingo confesses that his first professional engagement in the United Kingdom was at the 1968 International Eisteddfod.

The River Dee and the Town’s Railway Station

If you want to come along to the Eisteddfod you can buy tickets from the
Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod website.

Just to let you know that if you want to come along to watch Waterperry Opera Festival’s production of Mansfield Park this year that although they have increased the number of performances the tickets are selling fast so don’t leave it too long to book or you may be disappointed.

Finally, I am thinking about changing the header picture on my FaceBook page to the one below, please let me know what you think 🙂

Pop-Up Opera Tour

April 28, 2019 — 48 Comments

This week as April draws to a close I am really happy to share with you that I will be working with Scottish Opera again on their Pop-Up Opera tour around Scotland in May and June.  This year we will be performing three separate shows aimed at audiences of all ages:

A Little Bit of Iolanthe │Gilbert & Sullivan arr. Derek Clark

“ Iolanthe is banished by the Fairy Queen for marrying a mortal. Now, 25 years later, two worlds again collide when her son announces he’s in love. Unfortunately, his beloved is a popular girl and he has some serious competition… Light-hearted satire at its best, Iolanthe is full of fun.”

A Little Bit of The Magic Flute │Mozart arr. Derek Clark

  “Tamino is in love with Pamina, the daughter of the mysterious Queen of the Night. When she is abducted, he sets off to rescue her but soon realises all is not quite as it seems. A beguiling mix of comedy, fantasy and pantomime, The Magic Flute is also a profound story of the search for love, wisdom and truth.”

Puffy McPuffer and the Crabbit Canals │Music Marion Christie Words Allan Dunn

  “A tale of the five waterways that link Scotland from the North Sea to the Atlantic. Like most families, each one is different: Caledonian – the longest; Crinan – the most beautiful; hard-working Monklands; Union – the fastest; wise old Forth & Clyde. Each one thinks they’re the best. Can an ordinary little puffer boat make them think again?”

The tour will include dates at the Perth Festival of the Arts, Dumfries & Galloway Arts Festival, Old Kilpatrick, Barrhead, Giffnock, Borders Book Festival, Dirleton, Callander, Cupar Arts EDEN, Aboyne & Deeside Festival, Haddington Show.  You can see the times and dates for the shows here:

For these productions, I will be performing alongside Jessica Leary ( Soprano ), Aidan Edwards ( Baritone ), Ross Stenhouse ( Storyteller ), Lizy Stirrat ( Accordion ), Sharron Griffiths ( Harp ), and Yorke Sinclair ( Harp ).

Some Of The Places We Will Visit On The Tour

If you have the time I would appreciate it if you could please check out the new Kickstarter page of my friends at Improbable who have been responsible for some really amazing and innovative projects. Watch their video and if you can spare any amount to help them to bring their imaginative plans to life I can assure you that it will be gratefully received as they only have until May the 15th to hit their target.

Taking the time to re-visit my trip to Seoul over the past few blog posts have been really fun. This post is going to focus on sharing a video from my performance in the Recital Hall at the Seoul Arts Centre and the Instagramable Food Treats Inspired by K-pop culture.

One of the verses of Muttertänderlei, is about comparing her gorgeous baby daughter to sweet traditional German baked goods such as Zuckerwechen (Sweet Bun). I think this metaphor describes the deliciousness of cute babies and how you want to gobble them up. Which as a concept can definitely transferred to Korea. Cute cartoons, bold colours and celebrations of K-Pop stars decorated public areas and in turn went on to inspire food!

Rainbow Crepe Cake

The colour palette of magical unicorns, for instance, may have inspired this rainbow cake created by Billy Angel Cake Company in Seoul. This colourful cake is created from 20 individual crepes coloured with different fruit flavours and delicately divided by layers of spread mousse.

Bedazzled Ice-cream

Bistopping ice-cream cafe was a favourite find of mine. Imagination exploded here, in the form of embellished cones (with hundreds and thousands, painted icing, colourful sugar loops), chocolate phrases and crazy cookies which could be added to your ice-cream to produce your own unique design.

Ginormous Gateau

We found a little cafe called Conversation Cake from posts of Instagram. These cakes were  gorgeously decorated with macerated fruit and indulgent layers of sponge. Our most expensive cakes of the day, and sadly on our visit a little dry, but with a glass of refreshing iced coffee they became well-balanced.

Flower Pot Mystery

Bananatree cafe was unbelievably cute from its hand-drawn menus to its quirky presentational style of its delicious food. We tried Candifloss covered coffee, Eggyffogatto and a Flower Paap. The flower pot cake was an outstandingly yummy experience. From the chocolate soil and truffle stones which deceptively hid the delectable strawberry gateau beneath – found by trusty miniature shovel shaped spoons.

Fizzing Refreshments

We delved inside the wonderful world of Line Friends at their flagship store and Cafe and tried a selection of jazzy and vibrantly colourful drinks inspired by the characters. From marshmallow white hot chocolate to a mysterious blue soda float and a popping candy strawberry slushy. Our tastebuds tingled from the experience.

Changdeokgung Palace

April 7, 2019 — 47 Comments

Following my visit to Seonjeongneung – The Royal Tombs I waited to visit the Changdeokgung Palace Complex with my brother Matt and his husband Alex as they were flying out to join me for a short holiday in Seoul. 

The palace complex of Changdeokgung is situated north of where we were staying in Gangnam and across the Han river. We decided to include a visit to the Gwangjang Market in the morning on our way to the palace to make the most of the day!

The journey took around 40 minutes on the tube, which was so easy to use with the T-Money cards that you can use all over Seoul, on different modes of transport, (bus, tube, coach and taxi). What made the travel cards even better is they come with all sorts of colourful designs, using cartoons from popular culture. If travelling in Seoul, I recommend two apps Naver Map and my preferred choice City Mapper, both apps provide visuals of your route and the ability to track your location. The reason I prefer City Mapper is that I could type in English characters and save the journeys to my phone using the Wi-Fi at the hotel. This meant that when I was exploring, I could use the GPS location and map guides on airplane mode – saving some extra pennies!!

The Market is the oldest in the City and was an easy stroll from Euljiro 4(sa)-ga station, there was a huge collection of items available on sale from fabrics and clothes to dried fish and culinary delicacies. The atmosphere was already buzzing at 10:00am, which I was surprised at because my Guide book wrote that it is well known for providing an authentic night market experience.

When we arrived at the Changdeokgung Palace the first impression was the splendour and size of the complex.  I tried to imagine how it must have appeared to those who visited back in the 15th Century when it was built.  The site was considered the secondary palace to one at Gyeongbokgung and was differentiated by the size of the grounds.  It was such a treat to walk around the well-cared for public areas and take it all in. Each Hall was beautifully ornate with painted, sculpted wooden Roofs and rich vibrant interiors. One room had mother of pearl decorated furniture which glowed in the sunlight of modern day.

We wanted to visit the Secret Garden and so we waited for the English tour as you could not walk around unescorted.  The best part was that whilst we were waiting, I found out that if you hire traditional dress, (Hanbok) you are able to enter the complex for free, so off I went to hire a costume. 

I visited Hanbok Rental, a shop just across the main road opposite the Grand Main Entrance and Ticket Office. The staff were so efficient and friendly, guiding me through the many colours and layers to the traditional gown. I really recommend this shop, as they had lockers on site for your larger belongings, and little handbags, hair ornaments, and parasols were included in the rental price. I am so glad that I rented the Hanbok as I felt transformed to another time and enabled me to pretend that I was attending a royal palace event.