Batley does opera… brilliantly

“Do you feel prepared?” I ask the young performers from Acorn Youth Theatre.

“Yes and no,” admits Nicola, “but a quick run through and I’m sure it’ll all come flooding back.”

It’s the big day and already this afternoon the primary schools have had their rehearsals in Batley’s impressive Central Methodist Church. For the next two hours composer Omar will fine tune each of the community groups before they rehearse all together for Batley Does Opera.

CS_220316_023-EditSceneMaker Andrew is in the wings. “It’s very exciting to think this daft idea has come together and now over 200 people are about to watch us perform opera in Batley.”

“And I understand you’ve got a part?” I ask.

“Yes, you’ve got to be careful what you wish for, haven’t you?” he jokes. “I’m doing some narrating and then I’m going to sing incredibly badly.”

“You did say you couldn’t sing.”

“I can’t, so I’m tailor-made for the part.”

Downstairs in the ‘green room’ the Sarah Taylor School of Dance are waiting for the rest of their troupe to arrive. Kadie says she’s feeling a little nervous, “but we’ve learnt it all, so we’re going to do really well.”

CS_220316_067-EditIn the next door dressing room Batley Community Choir are also upbeat. “We had our last rehearsal a week ago with Omar and went through it all again last night,” says Anita. “Consummate professionals.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” I say.

Now all together, Omar is running through some last minute stage directions for the dance group. “This might be ridiculous but let’s try something. I’d like you to sneak round here, split into two groups and then,” – he runs up one of the aisles holding his fists in front of him, making a buzzing sound – “imagine you’re riding mopeds. Is that possible?”

CS_220316_051-Edit“Yes!” they shout as they too start buzzing. It’s very spontaneous.

CS_220316_205-EditSomewhat later than planned the schoolchildren, dance group, young thespians and community choir all come together for their first full rehearsal, 45 minutes before the show is due to start.

To wild applause Omar introduces each group in turn. “And this is the wonderful and formidably-talented Andrew,” he says, to whoops and cheers, “who will be playing… himself.

“Okay, let’s put all this together,” he says, taking up position behind the lectern. “There’ll be lots of bumps along the road, but that’s okay.”

I don’t notice that many bumps and, after skipping over a few arias, the rehearsal comes to an abrupt halt as the eager audience has to be seated.

Setting up my camera and tripod on the upstairs balcony for the performance, I chat to some of those taking their seats. Lorraine is here with her elderly mother. “I used to sing in a choir in the Methodist chapel on Wellington Street,” she tells me. “We always had lots of concerts, and things for the whole family.”

“So this is like a blast from the past?”

“I suppose it is, yes.”

Peter and Vicky are from Gomersal and, being musical themselves, thought they’d see what Batley Does Opera looks like.

“You don’t associate Batley with Opera do you?” says Vicky, “but Batley used to be a very musical town. There was an orchestra, church choirs, amateur dramatics, lots of performances. This is going to be very interesting.”

She’s not wrong. After some words of introduction from Creative Scene’s Rebecca and Opera North’s Tim, Omar raises his makeshift baton and the show begins.

CS_220316_272-Edit CS_220316_297-Edit CS_220316_373-EditHalf an hour later and after the hair on the back of my neck has stood up more than once, I’m down in the green room again amongst a gaggle of excited schoolkids and performers.

“How amazing was that!” says Acorn’s Nicola. “Well done Batley! I hope it’s not a one-off. I hope we can do opera again.”

“That was absolutely fantastic,” says Andrew. “Batley has just done opera and done it brilliantly.”

Batley Does Opera was a Creative Scene/Opera North production in association with Batley Business Association.

Community performers included Acorn Youth Theatre, Batley Community Choir, Batley Parish and Carlinghow Princess Royal Schools, and the Sarah Taylor School of Dance.

They think they can’t sing

“So what’s this opera called then?”

“L’elisir d’amore,” 11-year-old Imogen tells me in her best Italian accent.

“It’s a love story,” says Kadie. “He drinks a potion and all the women fall in love with him.”

“Not exactly,” someone chips in, “he inherits loads and loads of money and everyone’s attracted to him because he’s a billionaire.”

“And how does it end?” I ask.

“It’s not about love potions or money,” says 11-year-old Erin. “They realise they truly do love each other.”

CS_120316_067-EditThese dozen of so girls from the Sarah Taylor School of Dance are about to start the final rehearsal for their part in the upcoming Batley Does Opera. For the past few Saturday afternoons they’ve worked with Opera North on their song and dance routines.

“What have you been doing so far?”

“Working on our characters,” says 10-year-old Reece. “They’re playing the bulky men,” – she points at the older girls – “and we’re playing the women.”

“Bulky men?”

Amelia explains: “There’s a part when the men from the navy come in and show off their muscles and the women walk around trying to ignore them.”

CS_120316_074-EditCS_120316_088-Edit“What’s been the best bit so far?” I ask.

“Making up the songs,” they all reply.

Having been to rehearsals for each of the three amateur groups who will perform in a week or so, I can see how composer Omar Shahryar works with each to develop their characters. He teases out lyrics and within minutes they’ve written their own song which he puts to music.

CS_120316_049-Edit CS_120316_133-EditOpera North vocal coach Kathryn Sturman gets the girls warmed up with the ‘Frothy Cappuccino’ song as I ask dance school owner Sarah about the project.

“At first I didn’t get many takers,” she says, “these girls are more used to ballet and tap. They didn’t think they could do opera: they didn’t think they could sing.”

“A frothy cappuccino is a tasty drink
from far away in Italy.”

“They can sing brilliantly,” I say as the warm up song reverberates around the practice room. “What’s it been like for you as a local group, getting involved with Creative Scene?”

“It’s been really good,” she says, “these young people wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to work with professionals like Kathryn and Omar.”

“And what about bringing opera to Batley?”

“It’s a brilliant idea, let’s hope lots of people come and see it,” says Sarah. “It’ll be great for all the groups to get together on the night and see what everyone else has been doing.”

CS_120316_139-EditOmar is drawing a plan of the Batley Methodist Church on flip chart paper. “You lot and Nemorino are both trying to get Adina’s affections in this song,” he says. “After you’ve finished singing then you start to call Nemorino names: Shut up you idiot! Sit down you big… fat head!” The girls love this idea and immediately descend into a discussion of better insults.

Parents are invited to watch a run-through at the end of the rehearsal. There’s marching, saluting, muscle-flexing and gondolier-punting. The girls confidently belt out the opera tunes and their made-up versions. Proud applause follows.

It turns out Imogen’s mum is in the Batley Community Choir and so mother and daughter will be ‘doing opera’ together.

“You’re both after the same girl,” I remind them.

“And we have to call you names,” says Imogen to her mum.

“I can’t believe it’s all coming to fruition.”

“We’ll learn and adapt two songs,” Omar says, “and then make up our own original song.” The choir members look at each other nervously. “Don’t worry, you’re in safe hands, it’s my job.”

CS_290216_016-EditJudging by yesterday’s session with Acorn Youth Theatre, Omar Shahryar is very good at his job and the Batley Community Choir has nothing to fear. This is the latest rehearsal for the upcoming Batley Does Opera production and all is well.

“We’re making our own interpretation that will go in front of, and around, a shortened version of L’elisir d’amore that you’ve all seen,” he says.

CS_290216_058-EditJust before tonight’s session at All Saints Church kicked off, I spoke to Ruth Sharpe of Batley Business Association who’s coordinating all the local groups for Creative Scene.

“I’m just so impressed with what Opera North is doing in such a short space of time,” she tells me. “Watching the young people compose their own lyrics in yesterday’s workshop was just amazing. I’m absolutely spellbound by it all to be honest.”

Ruth and her Association colleagues first mooted the seemingly outlandish idea of an opera in the town only last year. “Everyone I mention the Batley Opera to just laughs at me, that’s just how weird and wacky it is. But look,” she waves an arm towards the choir, “I can’t believe it’s all coming to fruition.”

On any given Monday evening this choir might be belting out their signature piece, Sing – Gary Barlow and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic – or staples like Scarborough Fair or You Raise Me Up. Tonight they’re getting to grips with Donizetti’s nineteenth century ‘rom com’.

CS_290216_155-Edit“This is very different,” admits founder choir member Graeme Rayner. “It’s a different skill, a different mindset.”

“Have you ever sung any opera before?”

“I’ve got a theatre degree but, until the other week, I’d never even seen an opera before, never mind sung any,” Graeme admits. “I had that stereotypical view of opera: heavier people croning along like the Go Compare advert and had no interest.

“Then we went along to see L’elisir d’amore the other week and it was fantastic. I’m a real convert already. I’m certain I’d go back and see another one.”

Choir02Omar has warned the choir that tonight they’ll have to act as well as sing and theatre director Anthony Haddon is here tonight to help out. [Anthony has featured before on Making a Scene when he worked with SceneMaker Gayna].

“The primary schools will be here,” he says, drawing a plan of the Central Methodist Church in front of the choir. “And you will be up here on the balcony opposite Adina.” I can visualise it already. The whole choir will take on the role of love-struck waiter Nemorino and, above the heads of the audience, will be imploring Adina who has eyes for another.

“I haven’t seen inside the church yet but I think you’ll only be visible if you stand up,” says Anthony, “and your movement will be limited but at some point we’ll introduce a swaying movement.”

“Shall we all wear pinnies?” someone suggests, I’m not sure how seriously. “Because we’re supposed to be waiters.”

They set out chairs to represent the balcony front and I offer my scarf as a prop. It works wonderfully. Everyone gets totally engrossed and before long they’re all swaying from side to side like a FA Cup Final crowd.

CS_290216_196-Edit CS_290216_188-EditAnother uplifting rehearsal. I can hardly wait to see how the young street dancers are getting on.

The magic potion coming to Batley soon

Batley and opera. Not two words that naturally go together. But in three weeks time, and for one night only, Batley will ‘do opera’.

Some months ago I was in the Leeds offices of Opera North next to the Grand Theatre. “It’s the least obvious thing you would stage in Batley,” SceneMaker Andrew Marsden had said as he and Batley Business Association colleagues scoped out their idea.

And now, with the support of Creative Scene, Opera North is working with three community groups and two local primary schools to rehearse the ambitious Batley Does Opera production.

Only last week all the performers – from schoolkids to street dancers – took a trip to the Grand to watch L’elisir d’amore [The Elixir of Love], a version of which they’ll perform.

CS_280216_028“Had you seen an opera before?” I ask the teenagers from Acorn Youth Theatre in Dewsbury before their Sunday morning rehearsal with workshop leader Omar Shahryar.

“No, never,” says Nicola.

“And was it (a) interesting? (b) boring? or (c) long-winded? And did you need a big bag of sweets?”

“By the second half it was really funny,” says Jordan. “And even in Italian you could tell it was funny because of all the body language and exaggerated expressions.”

As the young performers step into Studio 1 for a warm-up with Omar I put my tape recorder in front of Andrew who’s come to watch. “What’s it been like working with Opera North? Has it given you more confidence as a SceneMaker?”

“Opera North is a huge, internationally-renowned organisation,” he says, “they know everything there is to know about opera. I like listening to it but know nothing about it. But I now feel I can talk to them about coordinating a community opera – and not just as a small part in the process – but as an equal partner, someone who is significantly involved.”

CS_280216_044As well as all the organising, I know Andrew is very keen to at least get a walk-on part. “And are you actually going to be in it?” I ask.

“I hope so. There’s some pressure on them to write me a role,” he says, smiling. “I can’t sing but I’m sure there is something. I’ve got to be able to say I’ve appeared on stage with Opera North. I might never have that opportunity again!”

In the mirror-walled dance studio the young singers are recapping on L’elisir’s storyline. From what I can make out there’s Adina, a beautiful café owner; Nemorino, the doting but penniless waiter; a suave army captain and a travelling salesman who claims his potion can cure everything from warts to sleeplessness as well as making women fall in love. The perfect Italian opera plot then.

After learning some lines Omar splits the four performers into pairs, “One of you is not listening, closed off,” he explains, “and the other is trying to get their attention.”

imploreThey walk around the room, taking it in turns to implore and to ignore. In a impromptu modern day re-working, Jordan takes out his phone, pretending to check Facebook, while Nicola sings to the back of his head.

“Brilliant,” says Omar. “We must put that in the final piece.”

More familiar with Les Misérables or Cats, I can’t believe how quickly these four singers get to grips with the opera snippets in just two hours. “Can we devise a heart shape?” asks Omar as they each sculpt their arms. “And can we get it to beat?”

Heart01Before they finish Omar invites them to suggest what Adina might have said to Nemorino to spurn his advances. Within minutes they have some lines of lyrics that are put to music. It’s spontaneous stuff.

“It was fun, different from what we’re used to,” says James as they pack up.

“He’s ace, I like him,” says Jordan heading for the door to buy a sandwich. I imagine him singing an aria as he walks across the car park.

Music to their ears

I can’t believe how quickly this idea is moving forward and I think SceneMakers Andrew and Simon are surprised too.

A few weeks ago they were guests of Opera North’s education director Jacqui Cameron, sitting around a meeting table at the Grand Theatre in Leeds, discussing the possibility of what has now been dubbed ‘The Batley Opera’.

Tonight it’s Dewsbury’s turn to host and the group has now added Nancy Barrett, Creative Scene’s director and Tim Pottier from Opera North who apparently knows a thing or two about staging performances in unconventional venues.

CS_130415_0032-EditThe town hall clock chimes seven as Nancy welcomes the visitors: “We’re tasked with finding new ways of engaging North Kirklees audiences with the arts. Traditionally there has been a low take-up of arts opportunities in this area.

“Andrew and Simon are two of our brilliant SceneMakers, local people who act as art ambassadors to help us develop our programme,” she says, “They’ve got going much quicker than I anticipated and I’m really keen to support them.”

Next Andrew gets Tim up to speed. He tells him how the original off-the-wall idea has developed and, after subsequent meetings, looks closer to becoming a reality. “We’re currently thinking of the Frontier nightclub on Bradford Road.”

When it opened in 1967 Batley Variety Club was often dubbed the Vegas of the North, attracting big name musical talent and popular comedians. Headliners included Shirley Bassey, Louis Armstrong, The Hollies, The Three Degrees, Tommy Cooper and dozens more. In 1978 the club was taken over and re-named The Frontier to cater for a different style of entertainment. There’s a darts evening with rugby league players advertised on its website just now.

“… it would be an evening that celebrates opera,” says Andrew. “Hopefully working with local schools and groups, a free event for people who wouldn’t normally experience it.”

Tim is enthusiastic and admits to enjoying the challenges of putting on performances in different venues.

CS_130415_0013-EditAt their last meeting Andrew and his colleagues heard about Opera North’s Whistle Stop Opera, a mini version of the real thing with just a handful of musicians and performers.

“Could we build our evening around the Whistle Stop?” he asks.

“Yes, we could,” says Jacqui. “And we have workshop leaders that go into schools. So there’s a good fit there as well.”

“The Whistle Stop Opera is an idea that is built to go into unusual locations,” says Tim. “So in that sense it would work very well. But it’s very self contained and I think you’re looking for entertainment over a whole evening. The Whistle Stop would only be a 20- or 30-minute element.

“It’d be better to be more organic and have everyone involved,” he continues. “Maybe one of the actors from the Whistle Stop could link the evening together, play different parts and get people interacting.”

CS_130415_0024-EditTim helpfully describes other projects he’s been involved in that might offer some inspiration. The Batley Opera proposal seems to be evolving into an evening that combines professional, amateur and school performances.

“And in an unusual location the audience can travel around the performing location, there can be several different stages,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be a fixed performing position. I quite like performances that travel around a building.”

“The Frontier lends itself to that,” says Simon, “it’s a huge venue. There’s a stage that extends, and a dance floor with elevated DJ area.”

The group talks about school workshops, venue capacity, timescales, lighting, costumes and the possibility of including local groups.

“There are a lot of amateur dramatic, choral societies and voluntary arts groups that are very active in our area,” says Nancy. “It would be good if some could get involved.”

Andrew asks the visitors for an idea of costs. When it comes to it Creative Scene will be paying the bills but Nancy isn’t daunted.

“I think it’s a great idea,” she says, “so I would urge you to think big.”

“It’s good to have a blank canvas,” says Tim. “We can be really creative and produce something very exciting.”

“Great,” says Nancy as the town hall clock strikes eight.