Sheffield's Kelham Island Museum to host Opera on Location's The Prodigal Son

Opera on Location perform site-specific productions in Sheffield; their latest, The Prodigal Son, takes place this weekend. Yvette Huddleston reports.

A dynamic and exciting artform, opera is still sometimes unfairly regarded as stuffy and elitist. It is this misconception that Sheffield-based company Opera on Location seek to challenge.

Founded in 2013 by co-artistic directors Gareth Lloyd and Kathryn Gasic, who met while studying music at Sheffield University, the company stages site-specific opera productions in unusual settings.

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They have put on a range of well known, popular operas such as La traviata, Carmen, Tosca, Don Giovanni and La bohème. Some of the venues they have performed in over the years include an art gallery, a bookshop, a ballroom, a chapel and a brewery. Their latest production, Debussy’s The Prodigal Son, comes to the Courtyard of Kelham Island Industrial Museum this weekend.

Sheffield's Opera on Location are performing at Kelham Island Museum. Pictured: Andrea Tweedale, Chloe Saywell, Gareth Lloyd, Aiden Edwards and Matthew Palmer as they prepared for a performance of Puccini’s classic opera, La Bohème at the Graves Gallery in 2014. Picture: Marisa Cashill

Their first production was Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which they performed in Sheffield’s Winter Garden, one of the largest glasshouses in the UK.

“It was only supposed to be a one-off thing but we got a really good response,” says Lloyd. “We sold out which was fantastic and we thought there is clearly a market for it. So we set up the company and we have been performing site-specific shows ever since. We take interesting operas, sing them in English, modernise them to make them more accessible for today’s audiences and perform them in unexpected locations. And we work with young singers who are on the verge of great careers.”

Although all their productions are performed in Sheffield, The Prodigal Son has a particular connection with the city. After winning the 1884 Prix de Rome, it was re-orchestrated before receiving its world premiere as part of the Sheffield Music Festival in 1908.

“It was one of a few short operas were looking at and when we found out about the connection, it felt obvious that we should do it,” says Lloyd. They commissioned local conductor and arranger George Morton to create a new orchestration.

“It feels fitting that it will also be premiered in Sheffield, in 2021,” says Gasic. Alongside running Opera on Location, both co-directors have full-time jobs – Gasic is projects officer at Opera North in Leeds and Lloyd is a freelance singer, singing teacher and musical director based in Sheffield. The past year and a half during the pandemic has given them the opportunity to evaluate and plan. Over that time they secured funding for two productions and in June 2020 they became a registered charity.

“The company is small, we have no overheads so we could have just shut up shop and ridden through it,” says Gasic. “But we felt we had a duty to keep going and adapt, not only for our audiences but also for the artists we work with who are all freelance and who suddenly lost all their work.”

They put on a digital family-friendly production of Pauline Viardot’s Cinderella last December which was available to watch online and streamed to Sheffield Children’s Hospital and schools in the city. “Opera is our passion,” says Gasic. “As an organisation we are committed to keeping it alive, making it relevant and fun, and as accessible to as many people as possible.”

New libretto to modernise performance

The latest show from Opera on Location will be taking place this weekend in the Courtyard at Sheffield’s Kelham Island Museum.

Debussy’s The Prodigal Son has been modernised with a new libretto by director Ashley Pearson and is set on a hot summer’s day as Lia prepares to celebrate her 50th birthday. As she waits for her guests to arrive, she laments the breakdown of her family, reflecting on the rift that has existed between her husband Siméon and their son Azaël since Azaël left home ten years earlier after his parents rejected him when he came out.

However, at this special milestone in his mother’s life, Azaël has decided it is time to return and confront his parents. While Lia is overjoyed to have her son back home, both she and Azaël are worried about what Siméon’s reaction might be to his return.

“Azaël is coming to confront is parents but also to see if there might be a reconciliation,” says Lloyd. “There is some tension, but it all ends happily.” It feels like a timely story to be telling. “Over the past year and a half so many families have been separated for so long, we thought that the narrative of a gathering for a birthday party with people you haven’t seen for a long time would really resonate with our audiences,” says Gasic.

At Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield on August 15, 12.30pm, 2.30pm, 4.30pm, 6.30pm. Tickets £13. The performance will also be available online soon after the live production. Tickets £6. For details and to book The Yorkshire Post and become a subscriber today. Your subscription will help us to continue to bring quality news to the people of Yorkshire. In return, you'll see fewer ads on site, get free access to our app and receive exclusive members-only offers. Click here to subscribe.