Opera North Blog

Pre-show talks: Sarah Estill looks beneath the corsets and crazy make-up to investigate each opera’s place in history

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I was thrilled when I was first asked to be involved in Opera North’s regular series of pre-performance talks – I love talking, especially about myself and what I do in the chorus at Opera North!  But what would I want to know if I was an audience member?  How could I make the talks both interesting and informative for those who are already familiar with the opera and for those who might be seeing the work for the first time? 

Programme notes can often be approached from a very particular angle and I wanted my talks to look at the work in its broader social context, at its place in the history of operatic development, as well as how it came to be created and the background to the story on which the plot is based.  It is fascinating to think that well-loved operas like Carmen and Madama Butterfly had such disastrous openings, for instance! 

The composers were often very colourful characters in real life too.  I’m a history graduate and I’ve also been lucky enough to direct a few operas myself so I always enjoy delving into the origins of a piece and seeing how it fits into our social history.  I like to chat with my audience rather than lecture at them so I tend not to use notes – this means I have to do lots of reading and research and absorb many facts and figures. 

I also try to cover the plot without giving away too many twists – or the ending!  With opera there is often so much so look at and listen to that it can be very useful to have an idea of the plot in advance, as it is more fun to focus on the stage than on the surtitles.  If the production has been updated or approached from an unusual angle then I am often in a unique position, having been through the rehearsal process as a member of the chorus, to explain the thinking behind the concept and perhaps enable an audience to view the production with more understanding. 

My favourite part of the talks is opening the floor to questions – I enjoy the challenge of being put on the spot and generally get asked some really interesting or pertinent questions – and occasionally some difficult or politically sensitive ones too!  But I enjoy being an ambassador for Opera North and for my chosen art-form; I’m passionate about what I do and I hope this comes through in my talks.  There is often some distance between performers and audience, so it is nice that audiences get this opportunity to see that beneath the corsets and crazy make-up we are just normal people (albeit with an utterly bonkers job), so I always try and throw in some back-stage anecdotes and gossip as well.  

The pre-show talks are free and are a great way to get up close and personal with the opera and with those involved in it.  I really hope to see you at my Faust talks this season!

Sarah Estill

You can hear Sarah talk about Opera North’s new production of Gounod’s Faust this season on the following dates:

23, 25, 31 October; 3 November – Leeds Grand Theatre

6, 9 November – The Lowry, Salford Quays  

13, 16 November – Theatre Royal, Newcastle

20, 23 November – Theatre Royal, Nottingham

Pre-performance talks are free, but places are limited and tickets must be booked in advance at the Box Office.

Opera North’s series of pre-performance talks are generously supported by the Friends of Opera North

Photo: Juanita Lascarro (Marguerite) and Peter Auty (Faust). Credit: Tristram Kenton

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