Opera North Blog

Experiences of a first-time extra chorus member at Opera North: Ivan Sharpe


A new intendant at a Dutch opera house in the late 1990’s said that the essential component to a successful, productive and creative opera company is a happy chorus. Through the eyes of this first-time extra chorister in a new production of Verdi’s Otello in 2013, Opera North appear to have this component well installed.

I can say from experience that in many opera companies integration from outsider to one of the fold can take weeks or even months. Not so here. On Day 1, (which always feels alarmingly like your first day at a new school) this chorus take the trouble to find and personally greet each newcomer before the rehearsal and, supplied with an extremely helpful headshot photosheet, we are all able to rapidly establish first name familiarity.

I take longer to conquer the complex ups and downs and acrosses of Leeds Grand Theatre’s and Opera North’s bi-part building but with the aid of encouraging group texts and concise information from the excellent chorus management I never feel entirely lost. Indeed communication and approachability are evidently two of this company’s strong points.

The rehearsals themselves are also immediately rewarding. Next to no painful note-bashing is necessary in contrast with my experience of some continental houses and we are very swiftly into musical detail and specifics of vocal colour.

Is there any job in music tougher than an opera house chorus master? Imagine going to school where every day the subject is the same for every class, taught by the same teacher…and he has to keep our interest and enthusiasm which is not always the easiest task with the singer breed! Only top-class musicians get the job, presumably with all the attendant performance passions that come with that level of talent and yet, just when he has prepared us to a professional performance level, we are taken off his hands and he has to suffer hearing the conductor asking us to do the exact same things he has been insisting on for weeks…frustrating or what! Anyway, Tim Burke manages this extraordinarily multi –tasked role with humour, patience and aplomb and, if that Dutch intendant is right, then the quality of chorus master is the single most essential component to the essential component!

The production is modern and the set design a touch bleached for my taste but as a chorus we are satisfyingly involved… none of the “walk on stage as a block, sing, and walk off as a block” school of chorus directing. We are an integral part of the story telling and Tim Albery’s directing is energised and gimmick-free so that the Verdi/Boito/Shakespeare masterpiece is well revealed. It is immediately apparent that from Director through Conductor through Stage Manager through Cast of Principals there is no uncomfortably inflated ego….we are not yelled at, there are no tantrums and we meld happily with the soloists…in opera this is rare! Being a first-timer I can’t say if this is a regular status quo at Opera North but I can say, with the first night in Newcastle just a day away and the rest of  tour to follow, that artistically, professionally and socially this has been an all-round positive and pleasurable experience.

Ivan Sharpe

Otello opened at Leeds Grand Theatre on 16th January 2013. There is a performance at Newcastle Theatre Royal tomorrow, Wednesday 27th February, and on Saturday 2nd March. The production will then tour to the Grand Opera House in Belfast, The Lowry at Salford Quays and the Theatre Royal in Nottingham.

Top photo credit: Clive Barda

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