My First Concert is a series of blogs that takes leading music-makers back to their childhoods to recall the formative experiences that led them to a life in music. Next up, baritone and Chorus of Opera North mainstay Jeremy Peaker’s path leads from glam rock, via coal mining, to his lifelong love: Gilbert and Sullivan.
“Like most people I had done music in school, singing in assembly and in the school choir, but it never excited me that much to be honest. I also had singing and piano lessons with a very fine teacher in the Barnsley area called Gordon Pearce, and I won quite a few local music festivals as a boy soprano. But I suppose I was the usual teenage lad at the time – I was well into my pop music, mainly the groups Darts, Queen, Abba, Slade, ELO, Wizard etc… I know, a 70s pop music guy!
At school I used to do the lighting for plays, and when a Barnsley children’s theatre company visited, the guy who ran it, Roger Walton, said they were looking for people to join Barnsley Junior Operatics to do a similar thing, so I went along. Having been told we all had to sing in the chorus, after a few weeks I found myself completely immersed in the world of Gilbert and Sullivan, as this was what the company was famous for performing.
I don’t know why but this music and the fun of being part of it with people of a similar age to myself gave me the feeling that I really wanted to perform. The very first classical Gilbert and Sullivan show that I did was Iolanthe, and I loved it. It was a great introduction into the world of performing music. I’d seen my uncle many times in amateur productions of operettas like The Merry Widow and The White Horse Inn in the Barnsley area, and I suddenly realised why he did it: it was thrilling to do!
The next year we did Cox and Box and The Pirates of Penzance and I was given my first roles, Cox in Cox and Box and Samuel in Pirates. This was a new experience beyond belief for me, learning the music and performing it – and acting too, it really took over my whole life and gave me a sense as to where I wanted to be.
I was working as a coal miner by now and music was my life away from the mine. I re-acquainted myself with music festivals and other repertoires of music, and I joined other groups to get more experience, including Huddersfield Choral Society and South Yorkshire Opera, which opened up new musical worlds including oratorio and grand opera.
So by the time the miners’ strike came along in 1984 I decided to get some opinions on my voice and attained scholarship offers from three major music colleges. After three years at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama I joined The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. Would you believe it, the first production I did with them as a professional singer was Iolanthe – it was meant to be!
In 1988 I joined Opera North as an extra chorister, becoming full time in 1994, and I have been with the company for 30 years now. Alongside the grand operas, Ring Cycles and large-scale concert stagings, I’ve had the chance to return to my first love with Gilbert and Sullivan operas including Ruddigore and last year’s Trial by Jury, as well as Bite-Sized Gilbert and Sullivan, which returns to Dewsbury for its third year as part of the next Kirklees Concert Season.”