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.
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’!
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).
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.