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Reimagining the Fairy Tale: Behind the Scenes with Opera North

· Ali Turner · Culture

Three magical fairy tales, one delicious season – here's how they did it.

Opera North's Cinderella

From princesses to evil witches, love stories to epic adventures – don't miss Opera North's Season of Deliciously Dark Fairy Tales. Book your tickets now.

It’s time to rediscover your favourite fairy tales, as Opera North breathe new life into three old classics…

How do you turn an age-old fairy tale into something new? That was the question Opera North tasked their creative team with three years ago, when they first set to work on their Season of Deliciously Dark Fairy Tales. And the answer will probably surprise you, because although they’ve transformed three classics into modern masterpieces, they’ve taken a very different approach to each. We caught up with the creative team to find out how they did it and what you can expect on the night.

It’s not as traditional as you might think

Opera North Hansel and Gretel

Credit: Tom Arber

People often think of opera as traditional, or even stuffy, but in reality, it’s one of the most adventurous forms of theatre around. Why? Because when people burst into song on stage, you have to suspend disbelief – and that means you can do almost anything.

“One of the things that I find, is that opera tends to push the envelope a little bit more than theatre. I’ve always thought that it’s because opera is quite abstract to start with – when you go and see an opera, you’re already accepting a certain amount of weirdness. You’re accepting that there will only be a small number of words because everybody is going to be singing everything and they’ve got to coordinate that with an orchestra,” Ian Galloway, the Video Designer on Hansel & Gretel, told us. “As a way of storytelling, you’re already accepting that it’s not going to be naturalistic, and so, weirdly, I find that opera tends to push design ideas further than the theatre, if only because everyone’s ready to accept it.”

Opera North Hansel and Gretel

Credit: Tom Arber

Modern productions can be almost avant-garde, which means they’re more akin to progressive and immersive theatre than traditional Shakespeare or Marlowe. But at the same time, they’re set to iconic scores from some of the most prolific composers of all time – and though the music itself is almost always set in stone, everything else is open to interpretation, and that makes things very interesting indeed.

In this case, they wanted to bring the fairy tale to life, not just through the music, but also through video. It’s a theme that you’ll see through all three productions, and one that has been at the heart of creative conversations since the very beginning. “The idea came out of a series of conversations I’d been having with Christine Chibnall, the Planning Director at Opera North. Christine was keen to do a season of fairy tale operas, all of which would use video in some way, and we both thought that Hansel and Gretel would be an interesting piece to explore under those conditions,” Director Edward Dick told us.

Hansel and Gretel

Credit: Robert Workman

He took that brief and ran with it, creating an immersive production that lets the audience see what the performers see. In his reimagining of Hansel and Gretel, the two siblings live in the present day, and they create their own imaginary world with their camcorders. Through the magic of technology (rather than the wand of the Fairy Godmother), their recordings are streamed live onto walls, so you’ll venture into the forest, without ever leaving their room.

“The initial brief was to use video in some way, so the first challenge was to find a way of doing that in a way that was conceptual and at the centre of how the story was going to be told, not merely decorative,” Dick explained. “That was the starting point – Hansel and Gretel playing with a live camera and using it to create an imaginary world in which they get lost, a bit like the Blair Witch Project.”

It’s a process of discovery

The Snow Maiden

The end result is often surprising and always entertaining, but the process they use to get there is just as fascinating – and it’s one that starts years ahead of the show you see on stage. The Director guides it all, working with the creative team to develop and hone the idea – and the decisions they make during those early stages define the show you eventually see, from the costumes to the very world it’s set in.

Take The Snow Maiden for example. Although it’s a favourite in Russia, this was the first professional production to be made in the UK for 60 years, and they decided very early on that they wanted to do something different to the norm.

The Snow Maiden

Credit: Tom Arber

“It would have been easy to say that the piece just exists in Russian folklore, but we decided not to do that. We set it very clearly today, but in a way that allows us to pull in all the folk histories of the piece,” Director John Fulljames told us. “It’s really a piece that exists in more than one world, it exists now in the 21st century, but it also has a mythological element and a medieval element. In English the closest reference I think is a Midsummer Night’s Dream, because it’s a play that has different worlds; the fairies, the Athenian lovers that get lost in the woods and the mechanicals – in the real world none of those worlds meet, but Shakespeare brings them together and it’s exactly the same in this piece.”

Tying those two worlds together was one of their biggest challenges, but the way they’ve done it is ingenius. The opera is set in a modern day sweat shop, where they make cheap costumes, inspired by Russian folklore. It’s a cold, disheartening place and the workers dream of escape – and that’s how they were able to sit the real world and the fantasy world side by side. The costumes they make become the costumes they wear in a daydream that brings a bit of magic into their lives.

Snow Maiden

Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

Working out the details is essential to the success of the production, but at the end of the day, planning only gets them so far. So while they’re nailing down the concept of the piece, the singers are learning the lines, ready for their first day at rehearsals, which doesn’t actually take place until a few short months before the premiere.

“We sing the music together around the piano and try to work out what’s going on in the music. Then we put it on the floor and we begin to explore it physically to work out how you tell the story, and that’s always a process of discovery,” Fulljames told us. “In the end, theatre isn’t a literary art form and it isn’t something that exists on the page, it’s very physical and it’s only when you begin to explore it in the room that you work out how to make the story clear in this performance and in this design in 2017.”

It’s a leap of faith

Opera North's Cinderella

Credit: Tom Arber

Surprisingly, it was the most famous fairy tale in their trio that almost didn’t happen. Cinderella is a story most of us grew up with, but Rossini’s version is a little different to one you know and love. There’s no Fairy Godmother, no glass slipper and no pumpkin – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t magical.

“It’s easy to say that Hansel and Gretel would be much more exciting, because it’s dark and dangerous. But Cinderella has all of that, it’s got wonderful qualities running through it, it’s told in a very light way, but it’s got great themes and great music. It is a very classic fairy tale, in the hands of Rossini, and there’s a lot of farcical stuff,” Director Aletta Collins told us.

Opera North Cinderella

Credit: Tom Arber

Luckily, Collins convinced her to take a leap of faith, and the result is an opera that’s light, playful and hilariously funny. Rossini’s score is untouchable, a musical masterpiece that’s both beautiful and challenging, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t made changes. You see, the original libretto for Cinderella, or La Cenerentola as it’s known in Italian, is full of speaking parts, making it more akin to a play than an opera, but in Collins’ version, it’s been cut down and striped back to make it all about the music.

“We’ve done some work on what you call the recitative, which is the speaking words between the singing,” Collins told us. “Originally it almost felt like a play and an opera, because those scenes were quite substantial, so we’ve kept them to an absolute minimum. There’s much more music than speaking. If you did do some of the original you’d be quite surprised at the amount of speaking in it. We’ve kept that quite minimal, so it really is a musically driven piece as opposed to scenes.”

Opera North's Cinderella

Credit: Tom Arber

All through the creative process, the scores acts as inspiration. The libretto dictates what will happen on stage, while the music sets the tone – which means the creative team aren’t the only people in the room, the two people who created the ballet in the first place, in this case, Gioachino Rossini and Jacopo Ferretti, also have an input. But while they may have had their own vision for Cinderella, it’s the job of the team now to make their production their own – and they’ve done it by bringing it bang up to date.

“When you look at the score, they’ve both got to live somewhere, and they’ve got to be very, very different. We could have just done this in somebody’s front room and then do a Buckingham Palace type thing, but we decided that having it in the place where they work helps to show that they’re actually quite poor, they just live above the dance studio,” Collins explained, and they’ve taken a similar approach with the Prince. In the opera, he’s undercover, pretending to be a servant so he can find a Bride who truly loves him, but if he were in the palace, surely everyone would know who he was? So instead, he’s taken over a hotel like a modern day celeb, and that becomes his ballroom. “Suddenly we then had a way through. It always starts out with what you need and then it’s about what would tell this story the best.”

See the result on stage

Opera North Hansel and Gretel

Credit: Robert Workman

Each of these fairy tales has been reimagined, transformed into something new and incredibly entertaining. But don’t take our word for it – see for yourself, book your tickets now.