Opera North, the Leeds-based company who’ve been bringing opera to the North and Midlands since 1977 (often in urgently contemporary productions), are returning to Liverpool. In recent years, they’ve staged everything from Wagner’s Ring Cycle (which earned them two Royal Philharmonic Society awards from BBC Radio 3 last month) to new commissions such as Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna, and the Armando Iannucci-penned Skin Deep. This time round, they’re performing Puccini’s deadly oriental romance Turandot, with their touring orchestra and a chorus featuring schoolchildren from In Harmony, a branch of the same music outreach initiative which has had great success in Everton schools over the last 8 years. Stuart Miles O’Hara caught up with director Annabel Arden ahead of their date at the Philharmonic this Thursday.
Nessun Dorma‘s probably the most famous operatic aria in the world, not just in pop culture, but it’s only 4 minutes of a 2-hour opera. What else happens? Could you talk us through the setting and plot?
Turandot is Puccini’s last opera and is a kind of macabre fairy tale about a beautiful ice princess who sets impossible riddles and beheads her suitors when they fail to guess the answer. The twist is that she is doing this in revenge for the rape of a woman in her family. When Prince Calaf (who sings Nessun Dorma) guesses her riddles, she is duty-bound to marry him. However, he then offers her a chance to win again. All she has to do is to guess his true name. Princess Turandot tortures another woman, servant girl Liu, to death in a bid to find out, but she still fails. Eventually, Calaf tells her himself – at which point she is moved to forgive and accept him.
It’s a brutal story but also a very emotional one, and I’ve told it from the point of view of both women more than is often done. There’s also a crazy comic aspect to the story as the princess has three ministers who come from the Italian theatre tradition of Commedia dell’ Arte and comment ironically on this very cruel world.
In a nutshell, it’s a story about tyranny – first a female tyranny, and then a male tyranny. There’s a possible glimmer of equality later on, but it was written in 1926 by a dying man and I’m afraid you can feel the shadow of European fascism at the end. So I would say it’s totally contemporary for anyone today! The sexual politics are fascinating.
With classical music being so fixed by the score, how do you direct an opera? Is it just telling the singers where to move onstage?
No – the director first collaborates with a designer to create an entire visual world and a context which often needs to be both realistic and symbolic, or at least able to represent the emotional world of the opera very strongly. In this special staging of Turandot for Opera North, for example, Joanna Parker (the designer) and I concentrated on the emotional narrative rather than trying to represent anything conventionally Chinese.
You then need to work with the singers so that they understand your vision and believe in what you’re saying. Singers are the only musicians who use language to express the music. A violin or flute has no words. When you are able to embody the text through the music, then the physicality, relationships and possession of space become easier to articulate.
Opera’s a very visual art form, so how do you adapt something so theatrical to a simpler platform like the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall?
First of all, you must remember that the orchestra is a thrilling thing to watch! All its movements are fascinating and the instruments are beautiful. We have costumed and lit this as well as we would have done for a fully-staged production, and the reduced space for the singers is a strength because it concentrates the images and action.
You’re taking this opera to Hull, Gateshead, Nottingham, amongst other destinations and Opera North is based in Leeds. What’s the state of opera outside of London in the UK? And why is touring important?
In my opinion, the North is blessed with the finest opera company in the UK. I’ve worked with Opera North since 1993 and seen it go from strength to strength. And that’s partly because Opera North’s dedication to touring has made it a truly resilient company whose artists know how to reach out and communicate to audiences. And the audiences are wonderful because they have grown, and continue to grow, with the Company. You can actually feel the thrill of people experimenting with this amazing art form alongside people who are already aficionados.
Your acclaimed production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle was broadcast on BBC4 recently. What else is Opera North doing to draw new audiences to opera? Is it a case of making the productions more accessible, or simply signposting music that, though appealing, might not be on everyone’s radar?
Operas are often more accessible than people think, with surtitles being used to translate all of the words not sung in English. That’s not to say that the story is always easy fare, but the heightened emotion displayed on stage is what makes opera such a fascinating art-form. Opera North’s next season, which opens in September, is called The Little Greats and is a series of six short, compact operas which all last for around an hour and yet contain all the ingredients for which opera is known. Forget stuffy opera with big sets and costumes, this is story-telling through music, while moving the audience to tears – and laughter.
There’s a fantastic range of styles and subject matter from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, which proves that ordinary people can have opera-sized emotions, and Leoncavallo’s masterpiece, Pagliacci, set among a troupe of theatrical players, to Trouble in Tahiti, Bernstein’s stylish yet searing portrayal of a 1950s marriage struggling under the weight of the American Dream, and Trial by Jury, Gilbert & Sullivan’s hilarious courtroom farce. The two operas in the season which I’m returning to Opera North to direct are L’enfant et les sortilèges and Osud, which are very different but equally fascinating works.
Ravel’s darkly magical portrayal of a naughty child whose furniture comes to life around him has astonishing music – comic, touching, romantic, jazzy, graphic and overwhelming at times. At its heart is everyone’s story: how can we grow from being governed by our destructive primal child into a more mature, empathetic being, one who can admit their own mistakes and accept love? Osud meanwhile is Janáček’s tragic tale of a composer and his obsessive, tormented, and ultimately thwarted love. It’s full of wonderful song melodies and dance rhythms and is very modern as well as romantic. The drama of feelings is extreme, and it often feels like a film.
It’s a bit of a cliche to refer to opera as the pop music of its day. Is there any truth in that?
Opera was indeed popular music and is still amazingly easy to listen to. I always tell people that the big tunes are fantastic – like being at any pop concert – and lots of the other music is much more accessible than people think. Don’t worry if you don’t completely understand everything. Let it flow over you and it will affect you emotionally. In fact, it’s sometimes like dreaming.
Opera North bring Turandot to Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on 18th May. Tickets are available here.