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.
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.
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
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 …
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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?