Confessions of a First Time Opera-goer

“You should go to the opera; it’s just one of those things you have to do!” Heard often enough, but very rarely acted upon, well, by students at least! But what does ‘going to the opera’ actually entail? Prior to the return of Opera North to Nottingham’s Theatre Royal this week, Impact’s Lauren Wilson shares her musings on experiencing opera for the first time…

I had been considering booking an opera ticket for some time so when an opportunity arose to see Opera North’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta Ruddigore I had no excuse not to catch the ‘Y36’ to the Theatre Royal and discover what I was missing out on. I found that whoever said the above was right; going to the opera is definitely something you should do, and not just to tick it off the bucket list!

As a first time opera-goer, I have to admit that I was nervous. Would I be able to understand the libretto and follow the plot? Would I be able to relate to the characters? Or would the whole experience leave me feeling more distanced from Pavarotti and Puccini than before? It is true; going to the opera is a unique experience. The atmosphere is refined; perhaps partly due to the fact that the average age of the audience is generally higher. However, this should not necessarily be off-putting for a student audience member. Who doesn’t like to feel a sense of occasion every now and again?

Through their excellent student discount tickets, Opera North are increasingly appealing to a younger, more modern, audience and striving to dispel the elitist label associated with this type of theatre. Their website notes their aim to ‘create opportunities for everyone to engage with the arts, regardless of their social or economic circumstances’ and, at just £10 for a student, it appears that they are fully embracing their aim. Based in Leeds, the company provide audiences in Manchester, Leeds, Nottingham, Dublin and Newcastle with the chance to see a professional opera performance outside of the congestion zone. Current touring performances include Madama Butterfly, Giulio Cesare and Norma, showing that there really is a performance to inspire any audience member. Opera North are constantly working to engage communities and challenge pre-conceptions. As well as their touring shows, the company actively work with a wide range of people, from the homeless to school children, to really bring what was once thought of as an elitist art to as many people as possible.

Aware of these endeavours and the company’s inclusive outlook, I looked forward to seeing what a younger audience member could take from an opera performance, in particular that of the Victorian, comic opera Ruddigore. The plot and characters of Ruddigore leant themselves completely to the student willing to take a leap into the unknown and experience opera for the first time. Amy Freston’s charming Rose Maybud, a young woman fixated with conforming to the social norms noted in her book on etiquette, was reminiscent of a modern young woman living her life according to the pages of a glossy magazine. The stereotypical villainous but lovable rogue ‘Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd’, expressively played by Grant Doyle, and the aptly named hero, ‘Old Adam Goodheart’, played by Richard Angas, both enhanced the plot of romance, deceit, guilt and eventual happiness which made for an exciting and relevant two acts.

As with any film or piece of theatre, being a member of an audience allows you to escape the real world and become immersed in that of another time or place and this was especially true of Jo Davies’ Ruddigore. The elegant atmosphere created outside of the auditorium due to the presence of a baby grand piano continued into the ornate and majestic performance space.  A sense of the past was further evoked within the first five minutes of the opera as the orchestra struck up to accompany a projected, black and white 1920s silent movie which gave a clear background explanation to what was an occasionally confusing plot. Gabrielle Dalton’s costumes together with Kay Shepherd’s choreography added 1920s glamour and a flavour of Charleston to the Victorian melodrama of events. In addition to this, the timeless humour delivered by the actors, notably in Heather Shipp’s presentation of ‘Mad Margaret’, filled the theatre with laughter.

Contrary to popular pre-conceptions about the genre, I found that the fast-moving pace of opera demanded my constant attention. Sullivan’s score, lovingly played by the skilled orchestra under the solid conduction of John Wilson, carried swift and effective scene changes, which moved seamlessly from a seaside Punch and Judy show to a Church with pews. The music also beautifully evoked the tension and happiness experienced by each of the characters throughout. With regards to set, special mention should be given to Richard Hudson’s room of paintings. Whilst his angling of the set evokes audience sympathy for the damned Baronet, his paintings of the cursed ancestors quite literally brought this scene to life!

From the first entrance of the gaggle of bridesmaids through to the melodramatic appreciation of a certain southern English town, enigmatic performances of Gilbert’s libretto added life to a story of love and its obstacles. Although you could probably spend an evening watching two Hollywood actors attempt to muddle their way through a script containing similar themes, I’d recommend that you experience it in a new way and immerse yourself in the timelessness of opera. My experience of Ruddigore opened my eyes to a new type of theatricality; a flowing performance narrated by the live orchestral sound track and containing themes which were fully accessible to any audience member. The engaging nature of this outstanding performance points to the high standard of Opera North’s other works too. Dare to try opera and you can expect to see a highly relevant piece of dramatic performance in an atmosphere which echoes the polished nature of the work; it is something that should be experienced by everyone, if only just the once.

Lauren Wilson

Opera North are returning to Nottingham Theatre Royal this week from the 21st till the 25th of February with Madame Buttterfly, Norma and Giuilio Cesare.


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