This is everything that will surprise, amaze and intrigue you about the Orchestra of Opera North.
Hidden in the pit, it’s easy to forget that we have one of the best orchestras in the UK, right here in Leeds. The Orchestra of Opera North is internationally acclaimed, not just because they play beautiful music, but also because they push boundaries and shatter preconceptions. This is an orchestra that plays Prince as well as Mozart, so we stepped behind the scenes to find out how they do it – and what we discovered was fascinating.
1. It’s one of the most well-rounded orchestras in the UK
The Orchestra of Opera North is unique in that it works on such a diverse array of events. From traditional operas and semi-stagings to orchestral concerts, live film screenings and club nights, they’ll turn their hand to just about anything, which is really unusual.
Opera keeps them on their toes – this is singing from memory, so anything can happen. The performers often stretch or compress the line and the orchestra has to go with it, so even though they’re playing the same music, every performance is subtly different.
In contrast, film scores demand click-perfect timing. It’s not easy to keep a 75-piece orchestra in time with a film, but the movie won’t wait, so they have to follow the music to the letter. It’s the exact opposite of what they do when they play for the opera, but they absolutely nail it. Last year, when they took on Brassed Off, they streamed the flugelhorn player live alongside the film, and you could see their fingers playing in perfect sync.
2. They bring the music to life in new and exciting ways
It’s easy to imagine that music is set in stone, that you can’t take creative license with the notes on the page, but you can – and it’s almost magical when you see it happen because the orchestra transforms the music before your eyes.
“I can say this because I’m a very small cog in a big machine – we are fantastic at colouring and painting atmosphere,” First Violinist Andy Long explained. “This sounds crazy, but when I sat in the first rehearsal for Peter Grimes, Richard Farnes who was conducting at the time, said ‘Ok, I want you to make it sound like the grey sky, and then you’ve got the grey sea and then you’ve got the horizon in between that you can’t see.’ I sat there in my naivety and thought how is this going to work? Then all of a sudden, we did it again, and I don’t know how it happened, but the orchestra changed it.”
3. By the time they get to rehearsals, they know every note
Learning the music, that’s what rehearsals are for, right? Wrong. That happens in living rooms and studies, in dens and spare rooms, so when everyone comes together, they can focus on creating the conductor’s vision for the piece. Everyone has their own approach.
For Andy, it’s note-bashing – there’s nothing artistic about it, he’s just learning the nuts and bolts of the piece. But for Principle Harpist Céline Saout, it’s something more, “The harpist isn’t needed as much in the orchestra, so I need to play a lot at home to be on the same level. For me, it’s almost become a spiritual practice. We have to maintain a really high technical level just to get the notes right and in tune, so there’s that part of the physical practice, but it’s also food for the soul, if I don’t practise, I miss it.”
For a full-length opera, they get just 30 hours to rehearse. That’s a stark contrast to the chorus, who start work weeks ahead and have hundreds of hours under their belt before opening night. But because they already know the music, they can skip straight to the good bit – bringing the music to life. “That’s what’s really exciting about working somewhere like Opera North, everybody is so good and so dedicated that you can go the extra mile and start thinking about how things should sound and how they should be shaped, rather than just hitting B flat in the right place,” Adam Mackenzie, Principal Bassoonist, explained.
4. They are the elite, the best of the best
Orchestras are often seen as elitist, but this one certainly isn’t. They do flash mobs in shopping centres, raves in Millennium Square and pop-ups out in the community, but while they may not be elitist, they are elite. They have to be the best, otherwise, you wouldn’t come and hear them play. And when we say they’re the best, we mean on an international level, just because they’re local, doesn’t mean they’re any less talented than players in London, Paris or New York.
In many ways, they’re like athletes. They practice every day until playing becomes second nature – and once they’ve reached orchestra standards, they have to maintain it, so the work never stops. It’s this dedication that keeps them at the top of their game – and we’re the ones to benefit, because they bring that passion and that discipline to every show.
5. They’re artists, but they have to switch their creativity off
There are 54 full-time salaried members of the orchestra, but depending on the production, that number can rise to 100 or more. No matter how much they have in common and how in-tune with each other they are, you’ll never get that many people to agree. They all have different ideas and different creative visions, but at the end of the day, it’s the conductor who decides how they’ll interpret the music.
The orchestra isn’t a democracy, it can’t be – and so, the most talented musicians in the world actually have to suppress their creative instincts. “It’s a very strange life,” Phil Boughton, Director of Orchestra & Chorus for Opera North explained. “They’re the best players we can find, and they have these ideas, but they have to switch that creativity off to produce what’s on the page in the way someone else wants them to. Yes, they can put their own stamp on it, but it’s different.”
6. They play in the most unlikely (and sometimes uncomfortable) places
When you’re in the orchestra, where you sit can make all the difference. The acoustics change from venue to venue, so even traditional theatres can play havoc with the players. “The sound can change depending on your position in the pit, and because we move around for different productions, it can feel very different from night to night,” Principal Clarinetist Andrew Mason explained.
Sometimes they have to squeeze over 100 people into the pit, which means it’s hot, cramped and uncomfortable, especially when a rogue audience member spills their G&T – imagine playing with a constant drip down your back. And yet, that’s one of the smallest challenges the orchestra will face. Just last year, violinist Andy had to stop playing because the choir they were accompanying at The Symphonic Sounds of Back to Basics were so exuberant they were practically in his lap – and harpist Céline actually had to play in the dark!
She was sat in the wings, waiting in the pitch black for her stand light to come on, but it never did. “It just didn’t light up,” she told us. “There was a split second where I thought ‘I can’t play, I can’t see my music’ but you have to do it, you can’t stop the show, there’s 2,000 people in the audience. Something in your brain just switches on and you carry on, you just have to.”
7. They never really get to see the show
Opera is theatre at its best. It brings together incredible music, elaborate costumes and unbelievable sets to put on a show that will absolutely blow your socks off – but the orchestra never gets to see it. They’re hidden in the pit, so they miss the magical moment when it all comes together.
In fact, The Lowry in Manchester is the only place where the orchestra can see the company’s hard work pay off, and even then, it’s just a glimpse. “The pit at The Lowry is quite wide, so the players near the front can catch some of the action or play over their shoulder to try to see what’s going on. Wind and brass rarely get to see what’s happening because they’re generally towards the back of the pit, so the sight lines just aren’t as good,” Phil told us.
8. They can’t plan more than 6 weeks in advance
This isn’t a 9-5 job. The orchestra is contracted for about 24 hours a week, but between learning the music and practising, it’s a full-time gig. They can’t choose when to take their holiday and they don’t get weekends because they’re almost always performing, but they do get a fair whack of time off, so it’s really just life on a different schedule.
Except for the fact that they don’t know what they’ll be doing in 6 weeks’ time. They might be in London, Manchester or Birmingham, they might need to learn a new piece of music or work with a new conductor – but they just don’t know. You don’t plan ahead in the orchestra, you put your life in someone else’s hands – and that takes trust. For most of us, that sounds like madness, but they do it because they love it.
9. The show must go on
There are no understudies in the orchestra. If someone gets stuck in traffic or catches a cold, there’s no one to take their place, but of course, they’re human, so it happens and all chaos ensues – which is why Phil has a list of 4,000 musicians on his phone, ready to draft in at a moment’s notice. It also comes in pretty handy when someone forgets their instrument (yes, it happens).
He’s also been known to park people’s cars when they get stuck in traffic and once he even played himself, as he used to play the trombone. “That’s the excitement of live music, you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen,” he told us. “Things go wrong and the audience always get on side if they see that happening. We’ve done a violin concerto and the soloist’s string snapped, so the leader passed his violin to the soloist who carried on the solo, and the show goes on. You just have to do whatever it takes to keep going.”