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Step into the Rehearsal Room as Opera North’s Latest Production Spirals into Chaos and Violence

· Ali Turner · Culture

What's real and what's an act? It's almost impossible to tell.

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Ever wanted to be a fly on the wall of one of the city’s most prominent cultural institutions? Opera North’s latest production will let you do just that, with explosive consequences…

When you see an opera come to life on stage, it’s often hard to believe that just weeks before, the singers hadn’t even started rehearsing. But you might find it a little easier to imagine this season because Opera North’s new production of Pagliacci will take you into the rehearsal room for a tense drama that blurs the lines between performance and reality.

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Credit: Tom Arber

Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci tells the story of a travelling theatre troupe, a family of performers whose lives are so intricately entwined that when one betrays another, it has the potential to destroy them all. And believe it or not, it’s actually based on a true story. Leoncavallo’s father was a lawyer and he worked on a case where an actor killed another man on stage in a fit of jealousy.

It became the inspiration behind Pagliacci, an opera that sees a troupe of theatre players arrive in a small village to put on a play. The head of the group begins to suspect that his wife, the leading lady, is having an affair with one of the villagers – what follows is 75 minutes of passion, jealousy, rage and violence with a shocking conclusion.

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Credit: Tom Arber

It sounds as simple as a soap opera, but Pagliacci comes with a twist. Director Charles Edwards has changed the setting, turning the theatre troupe into an opera company. In this version, the players are opera singers, the villagers are production staff and the show is the final rehearsal room run-through before opening night – which means you’ll get a unique glimpse into the creative process.

It’s not their actual rehearsal room, that would be a little tight given the size of the audience, but it is a fairly close replica – a simple, no frills space with props, production staff and a makeshift stage. They’ve kept it as close to the real thing as possible because while Edwards may have updated the setting, he still wants to stay true to Leoncavallo’s original vision for Pagliacci.

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Credit: Tom Arber

“We want to be as un-theatrical as we can be,” Edwards explained. “We’re trying to give the sense of a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary about putting on a one-act opera at Opera North, so there will be no artifice in terms of costume, setting, or lighting. Leoncavallo wanted to present a ‘slice of real life’ and that’s what it will look like. In a way, we see ourselves on stage – real people, like the audience, like you and like me.”

For once, when you look up at the stage, you won’t see an elaborately constructed world, you’ll see Opera North. Except, it’s not Opera North – it’s Opera North performing an opera about an opera company rehearsing an opera. Everyone you see has two characters, the one they play in Pagliacci and the one they play within the show they’re rehearsing, but you can’t always tell which is which.

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Credit: Tom Arber

And so as the tension rises and the rehearsal begins to descend into violence and chaos, you may find yourself wondering – is this real? Is this really happening or is it part of the act? The beauty of Pagliacci is that you never really know.

“I think the great thing about this piece is that you shouldn’t know what is going to happen at the end, even at the end,” Edwards confessed. “That in a way is what the whole thing is about. It’s about seeing something on stage and not knowing if it’s reality or if it’s been directed – has it been carefully put together, has there been meticulous attention to detail in the staging and the movement or is it completely out of control? I want the audience to feel like they have seen something they didn’t expect to see, but I can’t tell you any more than that or I will ruin it.”

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Credit: Tom Arber

If you want to find out what happens at the end, you’ll have to go and see it for yourself, and you can bet your bottom dollar that you’ll hear some incredible songs along the way. From Tonio’s desperate (and surprisingly direct) plea to the audience to Nedda’s soaring song to the birds and Canio’s grim determination that the show must go on in the famous ‘Vesti la giubba’ – the music is as big and melodramatic as the action on stage.

If it’s your first time, you can get the best seats available for a tenner

Ticket prices vary, but we’re going to let you in on a little secret – if this is your first time, you could save up to £18 on your tickets. Just take advantage of Opera North’s ‘Try for £10’ offer. Call 0844 848 2720* to book your tickets and you’ll be allocated the best available seats on the day.

See Pagliacci at Leeds Grand Theatre from Saturday 16th September to Saturday 21st October 2017.

Terms & Conditions apply. *Calls cost 7p per minute plus your telephone company's access charge.