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Step into the Secret World of Opera North

· Ali Turner · Culture

Find out what goes on behind the scenes to create one of Opera North's incredible productions...

Behind the Scenes on Billy Budd

From huge productions to short heart-wrenching performances, Opera North's Season of Secrets is absolutely unmissable. Find out what's on & book your tickets.

It’s one of the city’s finest cultural institutions, but to most of us, Opera North is still a mystery, so we stepped behind the curtain to show you what goes on in their secret world.

This autumn, Opera North are bringing three very different productions to the stage. Each one has been more than a year in the planning, as they set about the tricky task of telling a story through music. As members of the audience, it’s hard for us to imagine how they do it – so we stepped into their world to find out.

It all starts with the score

Il Tabarro Opera North

Credit: Tom Arber

There are three possibilities when it comes to bringing an opera to the stage – it’s either a reprisal, a new production, or in special circumstances, both. “Reviving and creating a new opera are different challenges; when reviving your job is to honour the concept and style set out by the original director whilst at the same time bringing the piece to fresh life as if for the very first time,” Director Michael Barker-Caven told us. He’s heading up their Puccini double bill, which includes a revival of David Pountney’s 2004 production of Il tabarro and a brand new production of Suor Angelica.

Since music is at the heart of the opera, it’ll come as no surprise that this is where it all begins when you’re creating a new prodction. “The first step is always listen, listen and listen again to what the score tells you; almost all the answers are in the music,” Barker-Caven explained.

Opera North Der Rosenkavalier

Credit: Tom Arber

“I imagine the world that this music creates and begin to seek out the key highs and lows, the dramatic structure, the journey of the narrative and the characters,” Barker-Caven explained. “The process of conceptualisation and preparation can often go on for a year or more, and it never really finishes; the pieces stay on inside you and sometimes you wake up in the dead of night – even years later – and go, oh my God, why didn’t I think of adding such and such before!”

But while the music may be the inspiration behind what you finally see on stage, it’s just one piece in a very complex puzzle – because actually, opera is as much about the story as it is the music, and that story is told through everything from the set to the acting. It’s not something you can do with music alone.

Collaboration is key

Behind the Scenes on Billy Budd

Credit: Tom Arber

The director isn’t the only one that listens to the music repeatedly in those early days. “I start by listening to the music. The music is absolutely fundamental. That, and reading the libretto,” Hannah Clark told us. She’s the Set & Costume Designer, working alongside Barker-Caven on Suor Angelica.

“As a designer, you always work extremely closely with the director of a production, but the nature of the relationship can vary enormously – some directors have very few ideas about the design ahead of the first meeting, whilst some come with very specific ideas that they want to explore. Nowadays, it tends to be very much a collaborative process rather than the director dictating to the designer.”

Suor Angelica Opera North

Original set designs from Suor Angelica – they create a model before the stage itself goes into production

Together, they start to shape the production, taking it from its raw state (a score and libretto) and turning it into something unique. It’s this stage that will set the production apart from those that have come before – think of it like a film adaptation of a book, it’s the same story, the same score, but told in a new way.

Suor Angelica is the perfect example. Over the years, it’s been performed by all the big opera houses, but each production is different – and Opera North have certainly made it their own. It’s set in a convent, but not the warm, welcoming kind that you might expect. This one is harsh and controlling – a punishment, not a calling.

Opera North Suor Angelica

Credit: Tristram Kenton

At first glance, you might think it’s set in the past, but appearances can be deceiving, as Clark explained, “We wanted the costumes to have a timelessness about them, and were interested in exploring the fact that nuns’ habits have actually changed very little over the centuries. We went for a pre-reformation or medieval inspired design for the nuns’ habits that feel period, yet could exist today.”

The audience is in for a shock though, because Clark has a trick up her sleeve. “The design for the Princess, however, is completely and starkly modern. We wanted her to come across as a very powerful woman, so thought a lot about contemporary female politicians, particularly Hilary Clinton, and their image — uber-groomed, often very conservative, and quite uptight. As you can imagine, this is quite an intervention into the medieval feel of the world of the convent.” 

Suor Angelica Opera North

Credit: Tristram Kenton

It’s a very modern reimagining of Suor Angelica, taking Giovacchino Forzano’s heartbreaking story and Giacomo Puccini’s emotional score, and transplanting it into a world that’s all too familiar. It makes you put yourself in her shoes, and the injustice of it is almost overwhelming.

From the initial plans to the rehearsal room

Behind the Scenes on Billy Budd

Credit: Tom Arber

These decisions, made years ahead of the actual production, will shape what it becomes – but not everyone can be involved at that early stage. In fact, rehearsals don’t start until 7 weeks before the production is due to premiere. So by the time the singers are involved, the set is in production and the costumes have already been made.

That’s not to say they don’t have creative license though. Barker-Caven tries to give them the freedom they need to make the role their own within the boundaries of his vision, “It’s important that the singers feel ownership and an organic sense that they have contributed to making it because they are the cast who must sing and create it in the moment.”

Behind the Scenes on Billy Budd

Credit: Tom Arber

The singers are a huge part of the final experience – so it’s absolutely essential that they’re on board with the vision that’s been created for them. The opera is, after all, as much about acting as it is about singing, and the performers inevitably have their own ideas of who their characters are and how they should act. It’s hardly surprising really, because they have to memorise the script, learning the words, the music and the pronunciation, repeating it over and over again until they become the character.

It’s something Roderick Williams is all too familiar with. He’ll be playing Billy Budd in the opera of the same name later this year, and he’s already completely engrossed in his character, “When you memorise a role you have a chance to examine every single word in painstaking detail, so you can often build up a very full picture of a character.” Like those before him, he starts with the music, pouring over the score and taking inspiration from Benjamin Britten, the opera’s creator, himself – Britten’s marking in the score has helped Williams to develop his own version of Billy Budd.

Der Rosenkavalier Opera North

Of course, getting into character isn’t always that easy – just ask Helen Sherman. She plays Count Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. That’s right, her character is a guy. It’s what’s known as a ‘trouser role’, which basically means means it’s a male character, designed for a female voice. But in this particular case, it gets even more complicated, because Octavian is having a secret affair with The Marschallin, and to avoid being caught, he has to dress up as a chambermaid. So not only does she have to play a man, she then has to play a man, pretending to be a woman.

So how does she do it? Well, she’s had some unusual tips over the years, including being told to stick a pair of socks down her pants, but in the end, the solution was a lot more simple. “I think it’s crucial to remember that you’re playing a person, not a caricature,” She told us. “And the shoes. The shoes are important. I like to start from the ground up.”

Behind the Scenes on Billy Budd

Credit: Tom Arber

Once the singers have been brought into the mix, the opera finally begins to come together, but it’s not without challenges. With so many decisions made before the singers begin rehearsals, there’s inevitably a bit of drama – both on stage, and off.

Work usually starts on the costumes four or five months ahead, but the singers who’ll be wearing them don’t actually see them until their first day of rehearsals. So, what if they hate them? “It’s usually apparent from the first costume fitting,” Head of Costume, Stephen Rodwell, confessed. “My job at that point is to be a mediator between the singer and the costume designer, with the hope that we can find a solution that everyone is happy with. No singer should walk on stage hating what they are wearing, and if they don’t connect with their costume, there’s a problem.”

Der Rosenkavalier

Credit: Robert Workman

Whatever problems arise, they have less than two months to solve them, as the singers move from the studio to full dress rehearsals and the opening night at a rapid pace – which makes the end result all the more impressive.

The challenges of the stage

Behind the Scenes on Billy Budd

Credit: Tom Arber

Once the production has moved to the stage, they have a new set of challenges to face. You’ve probably noticed that operas tend to be incredibly emotional, especially when you’re dealing with heartbreaking productions like Il tabarro, Suor Angelica and Billy Budd. The music intensifies the emotion, drawing you into the story and making you feel every devastating moment.

It’s something Roderick Williams has experienced from both sides of the stage, which gives him a unique insight into what the audience will experience, “If all goes to plan, I think the audience can expect to feel fairly devastated by the end of the piece. I remember sitting in a dress rehearsal of the opera at a concert performance in the Barbican Theatre, with the late Richard Hickox conducting. I was sitting beside Mark Padmore, he and I had been singing roles which finished in the first act, so we could watch the second from the audience. When the lights came up at the end, both of us had tears streaming down our cheeks. But we were both smiling too.”

Suor Angelica Opera North

Credit: Tristram Kenton

Even when they’re on the stage, the cast aren’t immune to emotion of it all. In fact, it’s both a challenge and a strength – they have to feel the emotion to convey it to the audience, but they can’t let it affect their performance. For Anne Sophie Duprels, the singer playing the role of Suor Angelica, it’s about channelling the emotion, “Performers are like electric cables, the emotions travel through us towards the audience, we don’t keep it for ourselves.”

And when that’s not possible? Well, then you need a different approach. Take Opera North Chorus member Lorna James, for example, she does the 7 times table in her head to distract herself, while fellow chorus member Sarah Estill just lets it all out, “The secret is, we sometimes don’t control our emotions. There’s lots of blubbing amongst the ladies chorus at the end of Suor Angelica, but fortunately for the most traumatic bit we are off-stage.” Look out for glistening eyes as they take their bow.

Opera North Behind the Scenes

Credit: Tom Arber

Emotion is something you can prepare for – wardrobe malfunctions, not so much. Obviously they do everything they can ahead of the show, and the dress rehearsals are absolutely essential to avoid any nasty surprises, but despite all their efforts, sometimes fate intervenes – the trick is to learn from it and adapt to avoid it happening again.

It’s something Head of Costume, Stephen Rodwell is only too familiar with, “We try to avoid using zips where possible – if a zip gets stuck, it’s very hard to fix it quickly. We had an incident in one show where a character was zipped into a wedding dress while they were on stage – another singer was meant to zip the dress up at the back. They got it zipped on, but she had a linen shift underneath which got caught in the zip!  When she came off stage for a costume change, the wardrobe supervisor had to rip a huge hole in the shift to get the dress off .”

Years in the planning for one night on the stage

Although they do multiple performances of every production, both here in Leeds and on tour around the UK, for most of us, all that planning and all that effort will amount to just one night of entertainment. So is it worth it? You bet it is!

If you haven’t been yet, now’s the time to do it, because Opera North’s Season of Secrets promises three very different productions, each as mesmerising as the last. You can get tickets from just £15, or £10 if you’re under 30, which makes it a surprisingly cheap night out – especially when you think about everything that goes into making it happen.