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Young people on trial

This summer, the Opera North Youth Company tackled Gilbert & Sullivan’s high-spirited opera Trial by Jury, opening at the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds before touring to the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival at Buxton.

The young people were conducted by Youth Chorus Master Nicholas Shaw and were joined by professional musicians who played alongside members of the Opera North Youth Orchestra and mezzo-soprano Amy J. Payne who sang the part of The Judge. Two DARE interns from the University of Leeds also joined in the fun, assisting with the direction and design.

Director Emma Doherty explains their approach to the piece: “Trial by Jury is quite a problematic piece in many ways when it’s done in its original form, so we had a lot of fun trying to recreate it and adapt it to make it more relevant for an audience today, and also to ensure that the young people understood and enjoyed it. The character who plays The Plaintiff is the jilted bride and usually it’s a case of her taking her fiancé to court to sue him, because he doesn’t want to marry her anymore. In our production, we changed it slightly, so that she’s rallied all her friends and family and has created this sham trial to humiliate him and get her own back.”

Hazel Read as The Plaintiff, holding the broccoli bouquet, with Members of the Jury © Tom Arber

With Opera North’s Green Season due to open this autumn, the team creatively reused and repurposed all kinds of things for the set and props.

Designer Hugo Aguirre loved tackling the environmental challenges with the input of the young performers: “We just wanted to make it loads of fun. We definitely tried to be sustainable where possible. The chairs are all from the Company’s Stores and we used a lot of charity shop stuff. We also made use of unconventional materials, including creating The Plaintiff Angelina’s wedding bouquet out of a head of broccoli. It was green, eco friendly and biodegradable!”

Emma adds: “We managed to find new uses for loads of household objects. We still incorporated all the classic things you’d find in the opera like the gavel, the judge’s wig and the bride’s dress, but we made them out of a camping mallet, popcorn and bubble wrap respectively.”

Members of the cast of Trial by Jury performed by the Opera North Youth Company with Amy J. Payne as The Judge © Tom Arber

The young people were central to the piece, coming up with their own creative ideas and suggestions while perfecting their performances. Emma continues: “It’s been great working with young people. It’s quite an interesting process, because you come in as a new person and then you spend a week working very intensely together. We did some drama games and exercises to bring out their silliness, for what is, after all, a fun piece – but we also tried to get them to have real ownership over the production, asking them to come up with word changes or to think about ways of staging things that felt more relevant to them. Luckily, they’re an amazing group and offered lots of ideas.

“I believe it’s so important for young people to do a project like this. Hugo and I really wanted to have their language, their style, and their ideas in the show because, from previous experiences I’ve had in youth theatre, I know it can be really empowering to have your say over how things are made and the story you’re telling. It was amazing seeing the difference in confidence. That jump from the first day when everyone’s a bit nervous to where we ended up was a massive transformation – and that’s all credit to the Youth Company members themselves.”

Trial by Jury Assistant Designer Kayleigh Corbin, Director Emma Doherty, Designer Hugo Aguirre and Assistant Director Harriet Ormston © Tom Arber

Emily and Hugo were joined by two students who had applied for an internship through the DARE programme, a pioneering partnership between the University of Leeds and Opera North. Harriet Ormston took on the role of Assistant Director: “I heard about the opportunity through university. I hadn’t done any directing before as I study maths, but the experience has been amazing. It’s been so much fun. I had never been involved in opera before, so it’s definitely been a big learning curve. Having said that, it’s great to come to something that you know nothing about and just get thrown in.

“Having done this internship, I’d love to get more into directing, maybe within the film and TV industry. I already liked music and theatre, but seeing opera up close has made me realise that it isn’t as terrifying as I thought, so the experience has really opened some doors for me.”

Kayleigh Corbin joined the creative team as Assistant Designer: “I’ve always wanted to do something with kids. I study English and Theatre at university so it’s been really nice to blend those two things together and see how they could work as a career. Also, Opera North is a very cool company, so that’s been really great.

“I have friends who are classically trained so I knew a little bit about opera, but I never thought of it as a thing young people do. It’s been incredible just seeing how committed the Youth Company are – and they sound amazing. This internship has definitely changed my perspective on opera to the point where I’m going to be doing an Opera North module at the University of Leeds now, so I can learn more about it.”

Counsel for The Plaintiff Oliver Trowsdale with Bryn Mashburn as the Defendant © Tom Arber

As the curtain closed on the Youth Company’s performance at the Gilbert & Sullivan Festival, Emma had nothing but praise for everyone involved: “It’s been great simply celebrating young people and creating a production that really reflects their creativity and talent.”

Anyone wishing to join the Opera North Youth Company can register an interest online to ensure they receive details of taster sessions and auditions.

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