Modest in opera terms but a near perfect fit

“The inner sanctum,” someone says quietly as we are led from the theatre’s stage door up an ornate Victorian staircase, across a modern glass bridge and finally into the meeting room of Opera North’s education team.

Things are moving quickly on the Batley opera idea. Andrew and his colleagues, Ruth and Richard from the Batley Business Association are here, together with Simon Thirkill, a SceneMaker from Heckmondwike.

This Monday evening they are meeting Jacqui Cameron, education director of Opera North who has just led us through the labyrinth.

CS_160215_0015-Edit“Batley is probably not one of the top opera towns,” begins Andrew, explaining again how the rather unorthodox suggestion came about.

“It’s pretty much a blank page,” he says as Jacqui asks how far the idea has progressed, “other than wanting to bring something to the town that local people would not normally experience. If we could build a project that involves schools and community groups then all the better.”

Andrew’s aspirations – in opera terms – are relatively modest: a stage out in a public place, a few performers, musicians, some well-known tunes. Enough to put on an ‘opera experience’.

“There is something that might fit,” says Jacqui. “Next year we are experimenting with a project called Whistle Stop Opera. We’re devising a shortened version of one of our main stage operas which might only be up to half an hour long with three musicians, three singers and a narrator.

“From each of our touring theatres we’ll also visit community venues such as care homes or museums and perform to those who might not necessarily come to the main performance. Would something like that be of interest?”

“That’s almost exactly what we were thinking of doing,” says Andrew from the edge of his seat.

“It’s quite easy and effective to do,” continues Jacqui. “You don’t need any scenery, probably just a handful of props.”

“Fantastic. And could we programme some work with schools around it?” asks Andrew. “Maybe the young people could hear about the background of a particular piece, about the composer, or even learn to sing some of it?”

For Opera North’s education team this is bread and butter. Jacqui says that this year they’ve been working with 15 secondaries and seven primaries as well as an immersive project with one particular school in south Leeds where all 450 kids get to play a classical instrument.

I can almost see Andrew’s cogs whirring. Hosting the ready-made Whistle Stop Opera sounds ideal; linking with local schools seems straight forward enough. But there are other considerations he needs to explore.

“In Batley we have a varied ethnic community,” he says, “is there any way of taking a very traditional musical form and putting a spin on it?”

It’s a challenge the professionals are familiar with and, Jacqui explains, although they don’t like to mess with Mozart’s or Verdi’s compositions, they do make other attempts at making opera relevant to different audiences.

“I know the Whistle Stop team are considering contemporary costumes, for instance,” she says.

“If the ‘opera experience’ is the centrepiece of an evening of performances,” suggests Ruth, “then maybe we can wrap other types of music around it.”

I’m beginning to visualise a programme here: one type of audience might come for the opera but experience bangra or hip-hop by default and a different audience might get the opposite. Perfect.

Andrew and his team are this evening invited to the dress rehearsal of an opera double bill: Gianni Schicchi and La vida breve. It starts shortly and so there’s a brief discussion about programming. Opera North has a packed schedule and a single performance in Batley would have to fit in. March next year is suggested but that would scupper the aspiration of an outdoor event.

CS_160215_0024-Edit“Maybe I could investigate late summer 2016,” suggests Jacqui, helpfully. “Once we’ve done it on our tour, replicating it again could be quite easy.”

It’s been a productive meeting and already there’s more than a skeleton of an idea that Andrew and his colleagues can work with. As Jacqui leads us across the bridge again and back into the entrance of the Grand Theatre they agree to talk again soon and keep the ball rolling.

Large ladies with horns on their heads

“Wouldn’t it be great to stage a free opera in Batley’s Market Place one Saturday night?”

It was a question that Andrew Marsden and his colleagues at Batley Business Association posed a few years back. And then put on the back burner.

CS_300115_0004-EditAndrew, a solicitor in the town and now a SceneMaker, has since resurrected the proposal. “Creative Scene has picked up on it quite quickly,” he says. “Hopefully, with fingers crossed, we might be able to make it happen.”

Which is why I’m interviewing him in the dress circle bar of the Leeds Grand Theatre before tonight’s performance of The Marriage of Figaro. He’s come for some creative inspiration and, at the interval, to introduce himself to the Opera North people.

“Why an opera?” I ask, thinking it wouldn’t be a lot of people’s first choice for a night out. A dozen or so young people, resplendent in best frocks and dickie bows enter the bar, as if to challenge my assumptions.

“Oh, lots of reasons,” replies Andrew, “not least because it is the least obvious thing you would do. I could fairly easily drum up some acts and stage a mini pop concert… but the majority of people would never choose to see an opera.”

“So, you’re imposing it on them?” I suggest, playing devil’s advocate.

“Yes, why not?” says Andrew. “People could try it and if they don’t like it, then that’s fine. But you shouldn’t say you don’t like something before you’ve given it a chance.”

And why not indeed. Andrew reminds me that we’re already familiar with many of opera’s most famous songs, as they’ve crept into popular culture over the years.

Nessun Dorma was the theme to the World Cup TV coverage some time ago and the Flower Duet from Lakme was featured in that British Airways ad,” he says. “And then there’s Toreador from Carman: everyone would recognise it but not realise where it came from.”

“And if it did happen in Batley,” I ask, “are we talking about professionals parachuting in and doing it to the community or would local people be involved?”

“That’s currently a blank page,” he says. “Ideally I think the main performance should be by professionals. Simply, if you’re going to do this at its best then you want the best doing it.

“However, it would be great to involve as many people from the community as possible.
Maybe local groups could help with set-staging or lighting and sound. Local singing groups could possibly get involved with the backing. I imagine there’d be lots of opportunities.

CS_300115_0017-Edit“Don’t get me wrong,” he says, “I’m not some fanatical opera buff. And opera isn’t just about large ladies singing in German with horns on their heads. It’s not. We could maybe tweak a traditional opera and make it hip-hop or bangra… we could really explore what opera is about.”

Sure enough, after we’ve heard the first half of Mozart’s 230-year-old musical comedy Andrew meets the company manager who outlines some of Opera North’s extensive community programme. There’s no shortage of enthusiasm for Andrew’s idea but, as ever, finances would be an issue.

As we return to our seats I suggest that Creative Scene – with its expertise, contacts and, not least, funding – may have opened up a window of opportunity for the Batley opera idea.

“I guess you’d be really pleased if this came off,” I say.

“I’d be delighted,” says Andrew.