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Opera North’s Otello at Leeds Grand Theatre

Ronald Samm as Otello and David Kempster as Iago. Photo by Clive Barda

Ronald Samm as Otello and David Kempster as Iago. Photo by Clive Barda

Well, lately I’ve been a pretty shoddy blogger. Since I changed jobs, I find that working evenings and weekends is incredibly prohibitive when it comes to covering the kind of things I love to write about. There’s also a temptation to relish my few evenings in, especially over winter, by shutting myself in the flat with the heating on full and a stack of books. But, when Emma, aka the Culture Vulture tweeted about the event she was running in conjunction with Opera North for bloggers to see their production of Otello, which was on my night off, I forced myself to sign up.

I’ve dabbled in opera before, having  attended a night of opera duets, which I loved, and a new opera that I wasn’t so keen on. This was my first full length, ‘classic’ opera, and if I’m honest I completely loved it. Everyone I spoke from the PR at Opera North to the lady I was sat next to for the performance said it was the perfect opera for a beginner and I agree. Because I knew the story, I didn’t have to focus too much on the subtitles (which can be distracting, and sometimes read a little strangely after translation) and I could enjoy the music, which was gorgeous.

The opening act is huge, with about thirty performers on stage, blending their voices to create a wall of sound that’s beautifully controlled. The second and third acts see Iago capitalising on every possible opportunity to act upon his scheme to drive Othello crazy and usurp his power. They’re full of intense solos that perfectly capture the character’s mood, as well as a few confrontations that were acted as well as they were sang. The fourth and final act was a complete contrast to the first, featuring Desdemona, alone in her marital bed, singing a heartbreaking song that her mother’s servant used to sing after she was abandoned by her lover, praying, and then being confronted and killed by Otello. These final scenes were an absolute highlight and so moving that I did find myself blinking really hard.

At the time I felt I’d enjoyed the performance, but not exactly been wowed by it. As time has progressed, though, I’ve found myself dwelling on it a lot, and realised I really loved the experience. I loved the way the story was compressed but still full of emotion and narrative, and the gorgeous staging really helped. I actually thought this was more accessible than watching a Shakespeare play, thanks to the plain English subtitles and streamlined plot. I’d liken it to a good film adaptation of a book – tailored perfectly to the medium, taking the key scenes that will work best in opera and making the most of them.

I’d absolutely recommend Otello to anyone who thinks they might be interested, as I had a fantastic time and can’t wait for my next Opera North production. I’m thinking it might be their upcoming double bill of Dido and Aeneas/La Voix Humaine which looks fab!

Here are opinions from a few other of the attendees from the blogger event, if you fancy reading a few different views:

@junrussell: ‘It started with a bang and ended in tears.’

@emglobetrotter: ‘I felt myself literally on the edge of my seat’

@craftyblueberry: ‘would I go to the opera again? I’m quite surprised to find that yes, I would’

@jon_cronshaw: ‘something really needs to be done about the shushers and the tutters’

@leedsjourno: ‘I never fail to be amazed by the three-dimensional nature of live opera’

@jamesagrayson: ‘opera and theatre organisations need to look at attracting younger faces’

@salliex: ‘I found it inaccessible and outdated’

@littletinykate: ‘To enjoy opera, you’ve got to like the music and I just don’t, really’

@theotleyguide: ‘too much bitter scheming, death and anguish and not enough sweetness’

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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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Five Truths at the Howard Assembly Rooms

Sometimes, when at the theatre, I can get a little distracted. You see, I find the concept of acting endlessly fascinating, and there are times when I’m just staring at the person on the stage, wondering what they’re thinking, why they chose to use that tone of voice, whose idea it was to add the pause before that word, and how long it took them to perfect that twitch. When I see the understudy in a role, I wonder whether I’m getting the same experience as I would have the night before, and find myself inwardly cheering them on as they enjoy their moment in the spotlight.

Last night, the BAFTAs were on TV, and Viola Davis presented the award for Production Design. (Yes, I know, I’m getting to Five Truths, I promise.) She said something along the lines of, creating the overall look and feel of a film is an enormously difficult task and those who do it are incredibly talented and deserve recognition. And I thought, yes! Yes, they do! The mood of a film is vitally important, and as well as production design, there’s lighting designers, costume designers, make up artists, location scouts, set designers, special effects…they all contribute to that. It just hit me how many different elements are involved in my experience of watching something, and that a few little decisions here and there can hugely affect the end product.

The thing is, you’ll very rarely know how, will you? Because they don’t make two versions of films, one with an easy listening soundtrack and one set to heavy metal, or one filmed entirely in the rain and one on a summer’s day. The closest you’ll get is remakes, or seeing two productions of the same play, or going to see the same production several times. Nine times out of ten, it’s not going to happen.

And this is where Five Truths comes in.

It’s an installation. A large box, essentially, you can get thirty or so people in there comfortably. On the walls are five pairs of screens of varying sizes, and each pair is showing a version of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, going mad and then drowning. Each version is in the style of a great theatre director of the twentieth century; there’s Brook, Artaud, Stanislavski, Brecht and Grotowski. I was a bit reticent to blog about this, because I knew I would have to admit that I’ve never seen, read or studied Hamlet, and I’m a bit defensive about that sort of thing. I’ll get to it, I’ve read loads of good stuff and tons of Shakespeare, I just don’t happen to have got to that particular one just yet, okay? I considered reading it at the weekend to get up to speed, but on reflection I decided to go in to the experience with only my basic knowledge, and experience Ophelia as a performance rather than words on a page.

Anyway, the screens play on a ten minute loop, and as luck would have it, we walked in just at the beginning of a loop. It was disorientating at first; with so many screens and so many different things happening, I didn’t know where to look. At first I decided to take the screens one at a time, but I soon realised it wasn’t going to work like that. At different moments, different Ophelias grab your attention. It’s fascinating: the same actress, following the same script, but creating a vastly different experience.

The most believable to me was Grotowski’s; a broken, grieving woman huddled under a table, whose words are little more than guttural cries. The Brechtian interpretation, though, was arresting; she stared coolly into the camera, and sang her sorrow in a creepily catchy ditty that I found myself humming whilst doing the washing up later. Honestly, eeriest ear worm ever. In the corner is Artaud’s Ophelia; she wears her fathers glasses and pulls faces at an indifferent goldfish.

It’s what you might call an immersive experience, and several hours later the images are still echoing around in my head. The performances from Michelle Terry are absorbing and enchanting, and left me with so many questions. How did Shakespeare intend us to see Ophelia? Does it matter? Are there five truths on display here? Which performance is the most true? Why? Which Ophelia do I identify with the most? What does that say about me? What do the interpretations tell us about the directors?

I can’t recommend this enough. It’s free, so you’re not losing anything, and you can walk in, try it for five minutes and leave if you don’t like it. It’s running from 2pm to 8pm daily until Saturday 25th February (closed Sundays) at the Howard Assembly Rooms.

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