Monthly Archives: May 2012

Opera North: It Takes Two

I’ve been thinking about attending my first opera for a while now, but the cost, combined with my uncertainty that I’d enjoy a full two hours of a story that I possibly wouldn’t be able to follow or understand, put me off a bit. When Opera North tweeted about their free summer event It Takes Two: Opera’s Greatest Duets, I leapt at the chance to sample a little opera without breaking the bank – which is remarkably easily done, this close to the end of the month!

The Howard Assembly Room was set out beautifully; a simple space in the centre of the room held a piano and a white armchair, and was surrounded by rows of eclectic wooden chairs and benches for the audience. We were all handed programmes on the way in, listing the ten duets that would be performed, with a few details about the operas that they come from. There were also voiceovers or introductions before each song, giving some background about the storyline, and what the song was about. Obviously in the low key setting, there were no subtitles, but as each performance was just four or five minutes long, so the background explanation was enough to keep me engaged.

The whole experience was fantastic: the four performers acted as well as they sang, and dashes of humour had the audience laughing out loud several times. There was a great variety of duets, trios and quartets, sung in English, French and Italian. The Flower Duet from Lakme was a real highlight as one of the few female only performances, and the Quartet of the Defeated from Paul Bunyan was incredibly atmospheric. The pianist was jaw droppingly good – his fingers flew across the keys in a total blur. In a smiling nod to the perceived inaccessibility of opera, the last number saw three of the singers each holding up a sign to convey the essence of what they were singing; one read simply, “Well, that couldn’t have gone worse.”

If you think you’d like to try a taster opera session, then I can’t recommend Opera North’s events enough. Keep an eye out on their events page for details of upcoming performances. If you’re expecting 300-pound singers and people dressed in ballgowns, think again!

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Call Lane Social: Tiki Hideaway

You can’t really miss Call Lane Social: it’s the newest addition to the Call Lanebar scene and its name is literally in lights. Bright red lights. Thanks to The Culture Vulture, aka the best blog in the North, a few bloggers were invited down there recently (ish, my blogging hasn’t been especially timely of late) for a mysteriously titled ‘mixology event’ where we would check out the bar and have a go at mixing our own cocktails.

On arrival, after a quick catch up with a few awesome blogger folk, I got chance to check out my surroundings. The space was dark, the walls exposed brick, the seating and bar sleek and black. So far, so trendy Call Lane. The last thing I expected was what happened next, which was that we were whisked upstairs, up a narrow, dark staircase, and into a completely different world. The bamboo walls, the pufferfish lightbulbs, the treasure map of themed cocktails: it was like being transported to a beach bar in Hawaii.

After a few minutes to explore, we took our seats at the bar and began our cocktail lesson, led by Andy, the talented and incredibly knowledgeable barman, pictured below. We started off with one of their best sellers, the Amputated Zombie (so named because just two or three of them will reduce you to a similar state), and as one of the first ‘volunteers’ I took my place behind the bar, surrounded by fragile looking bottles and fruit displays, to shake, layer and pour my masterpiece.

A rather blurry picture of Andy, mixologist extraordinaire

Under Andy’s expert instruction, I combined no less than three increasingly potent varieties of rum with a blend of tropical fruit juices, ice, and the garnishes of my choice. The enormous, chunky Aztec style glasses are a nice touch; they add to the ambience whilst making sure you get great value for money. The final flair, though, was a slice of lime, topped with a rum soaked sugar cube. Suddenly, Andy produced, as if from nowhere, a vicious little blowtorch, and ignited the sugar cube. It was obviously a little more flammable than I expected, as instead of the gentle glow I anticipated, a billowing flame shot up, threatening to melt my straw.

Voila!

After the flames had subsided, I got to work tasting my work of art. The blend of sweet fruit juices was the perfect counterpoint to the spicy heat of the rum; the drink was obviously strong, but it tasted sweet, fruity and spicy, with just a kick of alcohol at the end.

I watched a few other people make their Amputated Zombies, but unfortunately I had to leave shortly after this to attend a birthday dinner. It was the perfect start to my evening out, even if I did feel a little deflated stepping out on to the grey, drizzly Call Lane after such an exotic experience.

Call Lane Social’s Tiki Hideaway is open from 9pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and if you fancy holding a private function there, you can book it up until 9pm on those nights.

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Carousel at Opera North: The Sitzprobe

If the brightly coloured, ethereal posters around town haven’t alerted you to the fact, Opera North are right in the middle of a two week run of Carousel, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical voted as the best of the 20th century by Time Magazine. A week or so before the opening night, I was lucky to be able to attend the sitzprobe, a seated rehearsal which is the first time that the orchestra and the singers rehearse together. This particular one was held in the Howard Assembly Room, which many of you will know as a remarkably versatile venue, and which turned out to be a beautiful space in which to enjoy this experience.

As we waited to go into the Howard Assembly Room, the musical director, Tim, spoke to us a little bit about where the cast and crew were at in the rehearsal process, what the sitzprobe would involve and why the show was going to be so good. It was all incredibly interesting, but one moment stood out for me. A blogger asked why someone who wasn’t interested in musical theatre at all, and would rather watch X Factor on a Saturday night, would be interested in going to see a musical by an Opera company. Tim described that moment that people get when watching X Factor, when someone opens their mouth and starts singing, and it’s so beautiful that your hair just stands on end, and goosebumps blossom on your arms. He explained that this would be like that, only better. About a thousand times better, I added in my head, because these are extensively trained, incredibly talented singers that have honed their craft professionally for years.

We filed into the Howard Assembly Room and took our seats down one side of the balcony to watch the set up. At the end, in the gallery, sat the chorus, and opposite us were the main cast members. Below us, the main room was teeming with people, setting up double basses taller than me, lugging in drums that took two people to carry and arranging more chairs than I imagined could ever be necessary. Disappointingly, there was no triangle player – the keyboard player had to multitask. The trills and scales as the players tuned their instruments and warmed them up were divine – I had to just take a quiet moment to soak it in and bask in the presence of all that sheer talent.

Soon it was time to get started and the orchestra launched into their opening number, the instrumental Carousel Waltz. The sound of a whole orchestra filling the room was incredible, and I felt absolutely privileged to be in the room for this experience. They played the piece straight through, and I felt transported away from the rainy Leeds day and straight to a 19th century fairground in a seaside town in Maine. It was absolutely beautiful, and couldn’t be improved upon in any way. Or, so I thought – turns out the conductor had other ideas. He barked a few instructions to the flautists, and painstakingly went through the whole piece again, stopping regularly to discard a pianissimo or throw in a mezzo forte. I had thought the piece was impeccable before, but it just got better and better as we listened, and I left with a brand new appreciation for the work and the vision that goes in to productions like this.

Next, we moved on to one of the big numbers, June is Bustin’ Out All Over. This was the first time we heard the singers at work, and it was worth the wait. The chorus, a group of about fifty people populating the gallery, suddenly stood and started singing, and it was just a wall of exquisite sound that blew me away. The individual cast members were just as impressive, with voices that effortlessly spanned the octaves and produced notes that thrilled when they could just as easily have chilled.

At this point we were summoned; 3.30 had arrived and it was time to leave. As we left I felt resentful that we’d been dragged out after just two songs, but actually tit was perfect – I was left desperately wanting more.

Carousel is running at Leeds Grand Theatre until 19th May. Tickets are available here.

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