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FEATURE: The operas that go wrong

Over his nerves: the black stallion in Ellen Kent's production of Nabucco
Over his nerves: the black stallion in Ellen Kent's production of Nabucco

Opera’s success depends on so many things going right simultaneously; all the usual aspects of theatre – timing, positioning, lighting, movement etc, plus it’s all done in real time with the live performance of a musical score. On top of that the actors have to sing, without amplification, loudly enough to fill a theatre and look as if they’re somehow real people at the same time.

But when it works, opera can carry us on a wave of emotional credibility and passion to a high point no other art form can reach.

This memoir, though, is mostly about the moments it didn’t quite work, at least not as intended – some odd, some funny at the time, all drawn from performances in the North of England.

Right now, theatre outdoors is supposed to be something we can do safely. But opera in the open is, let’s face it, asking for trouble. The Chester Festival tried it in Grosvenor Park in 2000: Tosca was the choice and seemed fated from the start, with screaming feedback from the PA system and some of the cast’s backstage whispers broadcast to the world. But the best bit came just after the heroine stuck the knife into her lustful enemy, Scarpia, in the central act. As if on cue, an ambulance siren was heard approaching. Oh, how we chuckled…

“Civit Hills Opera” was a brave attempt to bring the spirit of Glyndebourne to a Cheshire farm in the late 1990s. It too was an outdoor show in practical terms, with a covered seating area for the audience, like a big bus shelter. But the stage was hardly shielded from the elements at all, and their Rigoletto of 1998, which had electronic lightning, thunder and roaring winds all prepared for the storm of the last act, was deluged by the real thing early in the performance.

Their motto was, of course, that the show must go on – and it did. The problem was getting cars up the muddy, sloping field that served as a parking lot at the end. I just made it by taking a run at it once the majority had left some space, and a lot of mud, behind!

Performing indoors should be a safer bet – but the perennial advice is to beware working with crowds, children or animals. The great Stefan Janski’s productions at the Royal Northern College of Music were notable for their crowd scenes. He was the one opera director, it seemed at times, who could manage them – and of course being an educational institution, big crowds didn't have to be paid....

There was a production of The Maid of Orleans in 1994 in which a cathedral procession seemed to go on forever. Indeed it might have, since Stefan had the people at the front nip round backstage to join the rear of the procession and keep circling.

Then there was his wonderful La Boheme of 1997 where, in the Christmas Eve scene in the latin quarter, he had so many people on stage that the gendarmes in the cast were genuine, robust policemen, to keep everyone in order.

Kurt Weill’s Street Scene has more than 50 named roles and a host of other performers and was surely made for Stefan’s talents. When he staged it as his final show at the RNCM in 2015, he also had a canine performer on stage. Oscar the dog really took to acting, and the little show-stealer managed to twine his lead completely round his mistress’s legs at one point.

But for animals on stage, few can have exceeded the imaginative production details of Ellen Kent’s import of operas from Latvia, Moldova, Ukraine and beyond. We’ve had dogs, birds, fish (one goldfish was so stagestruck in Madama Butterfly that it leapt out of its tank during the night and, according to Ellen, was found dead on stage next morning); a donkey who turned out to be a reluctant prima donna and refused to go on and, of course, horses.

The most realistic bullring evocation for Carmen was at Manchester Opera House, when the stallion brought for Escamillo’s final scene got performance nerves and deposited the contents of its digestive system backstage – everywhere – the whiff spreading slowly through the entire house, just like that of a real corrida.

Ellen was still talking to the animals when she brought her version of La Boheme back to Manchester at the beginning of 2020, with Hector the dog as a partner for Musetta, wearing a tutu (the dog, not the singer). I believe it was the first recorded example of a dog performing in opera in drag...

Opera presents challenges to any director, of course. There are singing ghosts (Britten’s The Turn of the Screw), singing demons (Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco), a singing football (Playing Away by Benedict Mason) and even a singing computer (Mysterious 44 by Kevin Malone).

Lennox Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement requires the singers to prepare a meal as they perform. Manchester Opera Ensemble’s 2017 performance was like a combination of Britain’s Got Talent and Masterchef. The amount of cutting and chopping, cheese grating and tomato-lobbing round the room the cast achieved, while singing, was truly impressive.

And you know the cliche line about performers “chewing the scenery”? I had to report of one Buxton Festival performance (of Mozart’s Lucio Silla) that one singer “almost chewed the scenery… until a bit of it fell off.”

But that could hardly eclipse the June night in 1995 when Opera North literally set the Manchester Palace stage alight in Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. The production employed dancers dashing round the stage with lighted torches, which was all very well until a smouldering ember flew from one of them on to the elaborate bit of set at the back that hadn’t been completely treated with fire retardant. It burned fitfully for a few moments, then the flames seemed to take hold. This was the only time I have ever been in a crowded theatre when somebody shouted ‘fire!’. In fact several people shouted, since the conductor and singers didn’t at first seem to be aware of the flames. Tenor Arthur Davies bravely tried to smother the small blaze with his bare hands until eventually the show was halted and the curtain lowered. Ice-cool company manager Jane Bonner came on stage to tell us all was well and things would soon resume, as indeed they did; the pearl fishers’ famous duet sounding much better than it might have if accompanied by smoke and coughing…

To even the balance, there have been a few glorious moments of discovery in my opera-going – occasionally the realisation that up there on stage a star was being born. I have been fortunate to witness several, but three stand out.

Baritone Christopher Purves – who began his career as a member of jazz harmony group Harvey and the Wallbangers, but has since conquered the Royal Opera House and many others – made what must have been one of his very earliest opera appearances as Polyphemus in a production of Handel’s Acis and Galatea, which had somehow made its way from the St Asaph Festival to Manchester Cathedral. I don’t think I’ve ever heard O Ruddier than the Cherry sung to quite such effect as by him that night, dressed as he was in half-mast jeans, boots and greased-back hair as an archetypal bovver boy. After that nothing could hold him back, and nothing has.

I also remember being struck by young RNCM graduate Alice Coote’s voice quality, from the first time I heard her. The early performance that really sticks in the mind was her Cherubino in the Opera North production of The Marriage of Figaro that premiered in Manchester in 1996, with Clive Bayley in the title role. There was a coltish quality in her portrayal of the hormonal adolescent boy (who is also required to dress in women’s clothes) that made the character both believable and fun.

But perhaps the most memorable experience of all was one night in Ashton-under-Lyne, when a young Katerina Karneus made her professional stage debut. She was a student singer with a small Welsh National Opera touring company at the time, understudying the title role in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, so she wasn’t supposed to be on stage at all. But illness struck the slated singer that night and Katerina took over – spectacularly.

Not long afterwards she won the Cardiff Singer of the World competition and today the Swedish star is one of the world’s great mezzos, with opera houses and concert halls queueing up to secure her appearances.

I was the only reviewer at the Tameside Hippodrome (sadly no longer with us) that night, and my little review may not have made the world sit up. But Katerina soon did.

I once asked her if she remembered that occasion. “Oh yes,” she said, “how could I forget it?”

Me neither.


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