From down the mine to Opera North stage

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Jeremy Peaker’s first job was at a South Yorkshire pit, so how did he end up on stage at Opera North? He talks to Sarah Freeman.

The fallout from the year-long bitter miners’ strike had many unintended consequences. In the months and years that followed and as the industry was brutally dismantled those who had assumed they had a job for life suddenly found themselves embarking on new, often very different, careers. Only Jeremy Peaker, though, became an opera singer.

“I grew up in Barnsley and when I left school I joined the local pit, that’s what you did. I got a job as the colliery stores manager and I was in control of this whopping great budget. For someone who had just come straight from the classroom it felt like a huge responsibility, but I loved it.”

Then came the walkout which turned once close friends into sworn enemies and which effectively sounded the death knell for British mining. The strike, which began in March 1984, lasted 12 months and while the braziers were burning and news footage was full of picket lines, Jeremy began to think of an alternative career.

“I didn’t want to leave, but it became clear that even when the strike ended and we went back to work, the future for the mining industry was going to be pretty bleak. When I told my dad I was thinking of going to music college he thought I was mad giving up a good job with decent prospects and a steady income.

“That was at the beginning of the strike and I knew he thought I was throwing a good career away. By the time I left Barnsley the summer after it ended, he absolutely thought I was doing the right thing. That’s how quickly things changed.”

Jeremy’s switch to music wasn’t entirely plucked from the clouds. While he didn’t come from a family of singers, his talent for performing had been spotted while he was still at school and he had been an active member of both Barnsley Junior Operative Society and the Huddersfield Choral Society.

He won a sought-after scholarship to the renowned Guildhall School of Music and before he had finished the course he had been offered a job with the newly reformed D’Oyly Carte Opera Company.

“I was 24 years old when I went down to London so I was a lot older than a lot of the other students,” says Jeremy, who during his time at the Guildhall became friends with fellow tenor John Hudson, also from Barnsley.

“It was hard in some ways, even though it was back in the days of no tuition fees and maintenance grants I missed having a regular wage.

“When I went to the principal to tell him I had been offered work with D’Oyly Carte I wasn’t sure how he was going to react to me leaving before the end of the course, but he couldn’t have been more understanding. He simply said that the point of the college was to get us ready for professional work and wished me all the best.”

The original D’Oyly Carte company had been set up in the 1870s by the theatrical impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte to produce and promote the work of Gilbert and Sullivan. In 1982 it had folded due to financial difficulties, but six years later it was back up and running thanks to a £1m legacy left by Richard’s daughter Bridget in her will and Jeremy starred in its first production of Iolanthe.

“To me it was a dream. I have always loved the work of Gilbert and Sullivan and as a first professional job I couldn’t have asked for anything more. When their work was first shown it was something completely fresh and new and people fell in love with their work because it was homegrown and in its own way very British. There is a certain section of the opera world which looks down a little on light opera and in particular Gilbert Sullivan, but there is no need. I guess it’s that same fate that a lot of popular entertainment suffers from. When it comes to culture, there is that sense that if lots of people like something, then it can’t somehow be good.”

While the newly formed D’Oyly Carte Company received generally favourable reviews, the Arts Council was less supportive. Gilbert and Sullivan was no long fashionable and when money proved tight, scores had to be rewritten for the downsized orchestra and the sets and costumes were done on a budget. The company did secure some private funding, but when that dried up, in 2003, it was forced to suspend productions. By then, Jeremy had already joined Opera North, arriving just as the company’s original founding chorus was starting to retire.

“That original chorus was something quite special. They had set up the company and together they had made it a success. However, while the faces have changed I think their aims and philosophy have remained the same. It is a really committed bunch of people who work really hard to bring the best of opera to the stage. We do have a very loyal audience and to keep them happy you have to stage the likes of Figaro, but if you only do those instantly recognisable, popular operas then the company as a whole becomes stuck in a rut. Opera North has always pushed the boundaries artistically and that’s what I love about it.”

Next up is Opera North’s Little Greats Festival. Featuring six new productions of both well-known and rarer pieces, each one will offer a complete operatic experience in around an hour. The hope is that it will be an accessible introduction for those who have never been to the opera before and it will also give the chorus members the chance to take centre stage. For Jeremy it’s also a chance to return to one of his first loves. He is playing the judge in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury, the operetta that launched their hugely successful career but is now rarely performed.

“The company as a whole has always been committed to giving the chorus the chance to step out of the shadows. In any production the smaller roles and the job of understudy are taken by the chorus which doesn’t necessarily happen in other companies. Last year we also worked with the West Yorkshire Playhouse on a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. That was cast entirely from the chorus and while it was a pretty steep learning curve in terms of the acting, it was hugely enjoyable. The Little Greats Festival will, I hope, be a great way of stretching out our arms to people who don’t think opera is for them. We want to say: ‘Go on, come try it, you might like it’.”

Trial by Jury follows the action of a “breach of promise of marriage” lawsuit in which the judge and legal system are the objects of light-hearted satire and like much of Gilbert and Sullivan, Jeremy says that done right it is a mini-masterpiece.

“Gilbert was a complete stickler for detail. He made sure that the costumes were historically accurate, that the set design was faultless. If you are going to stage their work you have to take care of it and treat it with respect.”

Next year, Opera North’s season includes performances of Don Giovanni, Madama Butterfly, Salome and Kiss Me Kate and for Jeremy some new collaborations. “I started off as the youngest member of the company and now I’m the oldest,” he says. “There is a lot of experience here and it’s lovely when we are joined by new, younger singers who are keen to learn. There is a generosity of spirit which means people are willing to share their knowledge.”

Opera North’s Little Greats Festival, Leeds Grand Theatre, September 16 to 22. After Leeds, a selection of the operas will be performed at Hull New Theatre from October 26 to 28.