Opera North brushes up its Shakespeare

A scene from Opera North's hugely successful Carousel. Picture: Alastair Muir
A scene from Opera North's hugely successful Carousel. Picture: Alastair Muir
  • Opera North is stepping away from its classical core to stage the classic Cole Porter musical Kiss Me Kate. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad met the creative team.
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In 2012 Opera North made the surprising announcement that its season was going to include the staging of Carousel.

At the time I spoke to the company’s chief, Richard Mantle, and suggested – before the show had been premiered – that it was a somewhat risky choice. Something that might alienate the Opera North faithful.

Mantle was having none of it. At the time he told me: “If you look at the history of the company, we have staged a number of musicals regularly as part of our programme. We have staged Sweeney Todd, Show Boat. Musicals are in our DNA.”

Any sceptics were proved wrong once Carousel opened in 2012 – and returned to the company’s repertoire this year – and was a huge success with critics, audiences, opera lovers and fans of musicals. No wonder Mantle was bullish when I questioned his judgement. He knew that if you build something of great quality, then the audiences will come.

The company is hoping lightning will strike the Leeds Grand Theatre again this month when Opera North’s latest musical, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, premieres on Monday. The company is giving itself the best chance of replicating the critical response it received for Carousel: the director Jo Davies, who created magic with the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical in 2012, has been brought back to helm this production. “I think it’s really important that a company with the resources to do something on a scale like this stages these musicals. It gives people the opportunity to remember why they are such great musicals,” says Davies. “Most audiences will have seen a slightly watered down version of this musical, because the budget requirements are huge.”

After meeting with the director, choreographer and a number of the cast, I’m taken to the Opera North rehearsal rooms, just off New Briggate in Leeds to see a rehearsal of the opening song of Act II, Too Darn Hot.

Even with the performers in T-shirts and jogging bottoms, the sheer mass of them on stage looks impressive – and the noise they are making, with one of Cole Porter’s most toe-tapping numbers, is quite spectacular. You can see why it’s expensive to make this happen, and why it’s totally worth the money.

Back upstairs, Jo Davies admits that there is one tricky aspect of working on a musical with an opera company. You have to work with opera singers, musical theatre stars and, in this production, dancers. “The truth is, they all do need slightly different things,” says Davies. “The opera singers are obviously not quite so confident when it comes to the text, so you have to work with them a little more on that. What’s interesting to see is that the performers are all learning new skills and it’s amazing to see when they realise that there is no limit to what they can do. That’s very interesting.” With a huge cast, that’s a lot of individual work for Davies to do. She agrees she’s feeling pretty tired.

Tiffany Graves and Ashley Day are two of the musical stars working for an opera company for the first time.

“It’s terrifying. Singing and dancing, acting, that’s what we do, but when you get up and have to sing in front of opera singers for the first time, it’s incredibly nerve-wracking,” admits Graves.

Day, who has appeared in many West End shows, including the hugely successful Book of Mormon, remembers an early rehearsal where he realised he was surrounded by some singers who had some serious instruments literally on the tips of their tongues.

“One of the first rehearsals it was someone’s birthday and there was a cake and everyone gathered around to sing. You’ve never heard anything like it,” says Day. Graves, who was most recently seen at Leeds Grand in the role of Ulla in The Producers, adds: “An eight part harmony of the Happy Birthday song. I remember just thinking that this was unbelievable and I was going to have to sing in front of them.” Graves and Day play Bianca and Lucentio in the musical – although they also play Lois Lane and Bill Calhoun, given the doubling that happens in Cole Porter’s story. Kiss Me Kate is set both on and off-stage during the production of a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

Porter’s musical revolves around the tempestuous love lives of actor-manager Fred Graham and his leading lady and ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi.

Thrown into the mix are Fred’s current paramour Lois Lane, her gambler boyfriend Bill – and a couple of gangsters who somehow get caught up in the show. It allows the production to skim over some of the more troublesome parts of Shakespeare’s original story – it is impossible to ignore the rampant sexism in the play – and play it purely for joy.

The music certainly helps. Porter’s jazz-influenced score, which will be played by the full orchestra of Opera North, includes songs like Another Op’nin Another Show, So in Love, Always True to You in My Fashion, Brush Up Your Shakespeare and Too Darn Hot.

The opera singers taking the lead roles of Katherine and Lilli Vanessi is Jeni Bern and starring as Fred Graham and Petruchio is Quirijn de Lang.

Bern has previously sung Tytania in Midsummer Night’s Dream for Opera North and de Lang has most recently played Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro.

Do they feel at all like they’re somehow ‘dumbing down’ by sharing the stage with ‘musical performers’.

Neither of them appear at all perturbed by the notion.

“We’re having an absolute ball,” says Bern. “We’re all learning from each other. Personally it’s great to be with people who are bringing good things into the rehearsal room.” De Lang admits he doesn’t ‘approach the work with my full-on opera voice’. “It really is great to have performers together on stage bringing such different skills. I think it really enlivens the whole production.”

OPERA NORTH is also providing plenty for lovers of traditional opera in its latest season, staging Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, and Janacek’s Jenufa as well as operas by Mozart, Wagner and Donizetti.

Kiss Me Kate will open at Leeds Grand Theatre before going on to tour to Newcastle, Salford and Nottingham.

• Leeds, September 21 and 23, previews. Opening night, September 24. There are also performances on September 25, October 3, October 21, 30 and 31.

• For more information and details of the full programme visit www.operanorth.co.uk

• Tickets for the Leeds performances are available on 0844 848 2700.