Like most of us, my experience with opera is limited. Despite a real appreciation for classical music, and a general fascination with theatre, I find myself with not much more than the ability to hum along to ‘Nessun Dorma’. Perhaps I thought it was for the committed, die-hard fans that had done their research, been a hundred times and knew how it works. Perhaps I assumed my student budget wouldn’t allow for such decadent treats. Doubts aside, when the opportunity arose to see Opera North present ‘Peter Grimes’ at The Grand, I leapt at the chance to start my operatic education.
Set in a small English fishing village, Peter Grimes details the story of an outsider: A man never quite understood by the tight-knit community he lives amongst. Unfortunate circumstances, in tandem with Grimes’ volatile nature, lead to the loss of two apprentices, tarnishing his reputation and testing a new relationship. It’s a simple story, and one with aspects that many will be all too familiar with themselves.
I was hopeful at the prospect of a performance sung in English; perhaps I would follow the story without reading up beforehand. However, it occurred to me very quickly that I was guilty of putting opera in that very specific box; the one labelled 'wobbly voices'. This box doesn't leave space for all the other incredible elements of an Opera North stage show.
The staging was minimal but incredibly effective, with netting and wooden pallets comprising the main structures in the story, the local pub and Peter Grimes' shack. Stark, white lighting warmed subtly and the rest of the theatre disappeared… I was completely absorbed. The live orchestra told the story with Benjamin Britten’s scores alone, giving me goose bumps on more than one occasion. And, aside from having powerful voices, each singer proved to be a great actor too.
I will admit to being surprised by how much I was taken with my first opera. Central to my enjoyment, I think, was a piece of advice given to us in the pre-show talk by Phyllida Lloyd: ‘Give yourself permission not to hear every word and instead try to listen with your gut’. I agree. Of course, distinctive voices are central to opera, but there are so many elements working together to tell you the story. I’d advise not making the mistake of simply using your ears to hear what’s being sung, look and feel too. ‘Peter Grimes’ is not intended to be an intellectual challenge; it’s a story about people, for people.
By: Lydia Catterall, East Leeds FM Intern