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.

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.

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.

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.

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.