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27 January 2013

Raw Passion

This post is about a night at the opera. Not the seminal Queen album from 1975, but an evening spent watching Otello.

My regular radio followers should, however, continue reading as there are interesting parallels between an experiment to reach new arts audiences now, with social media, and what we did with arts programmes on Pennine Radio in the early 80s.

Ah, '235 Weekend - with Nigel Schofield and Richard Horsman'.

I can still remember the drop, voiced by the wonderful Redvers Kyle, the announcer who was in its glory days the very personification of Yorkshire Television. One day, when the south east of England is under water and the capital has relocated to the slopes of the Pennines, I want to see the 'Yorkshire TV March' adopted as the new national anthem.

'235 Weekend' was hated by just about everyone. It was an IBA contractual obligation to cover the arts. The show probably had fewer listeners than I now have Twitter followers. It went out for half an hour on a Friday evening ahead of the all-screaming, goal-orgasmic, groin-strain-obsessed Pennine Sports Preview hosted by Tony Delahunty. He blamed me for destroying any chance of a handover audience. He may have had a point.

However, 235 Weekend was a labour of love for Nigel and I, and we had some good times. The show's heyday co-incided with Bradford's sadly short-lived cultural renaissance and we covered events at the shiny new National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, the refurbishment of the Alhambra, and we were live at the premiere (in Leeds) of Alan Bennett's film 'A Private Function'.

We also teamed up with Opera North for a feature we called 'the opera virgins'. A group of Pennine listeners who'd never seen an opera were invited to the best seats in the Leeds Grand Theatre to watch Tchaikovsky's 'Eugene Onegin'. We recorded their feelings before, during and after.

Fast forward 29 years and I'm back at the Grand, this time as part of an eclectic group assembled by Opera North and the Leeds Culture Vulture website as a 21st-century experiment in outreach and widening participation.

I say eclectic. I'm in the company of a printmaker, an alternative therapist, a green campaigner and several others, all united by the fact that we write about stuff online. Yep, we're bloggers. In my case I have the additional role of tutor-cum-taxi driver for a group of Leeds Trinity Journalism postgraduates, none of whom has seen an opera before.

Some things have changed in nearly three decades. Back then, whilst the well brought up young ladies in the press office were passionate about outreach, the performers I met tended towards the aloof. They were certainly wary of the young lad from commercial radio. They were happier with Radio 3.

Today, the stars are more approachable. Aloof is not a term anyone could apply to David Kempster, a big Welsh lad from a family tradition of male voice choirs whose personality as Iago (for me) dominated the Grand Theatre stage over the tormented Otello (Ronald Samm) and the fragile, wounded Desdemona (Elena Kelessidi).

During the pre-show on-stage briefing for the opera virgins a rumble of laughter, prompted by an attempt to extract a quote on the relative merits of opera and musical theatre, gave a hint of the big voice to come.

After the show David was spotted by a fellow blogger relaxing in the Wrens' over the road in New Briggate; clearly not a man for a lie down and a cup of jasmin tea. He acknowledged playful 'boos' at his curtain call, earned for his role in destroying the lovers, with a huge grin and a chuckle. The applause was heartfelt.

I never fail to be amazed by the three-dimensional nature of live opera, its blending of live action on the stage, live musicians in the pit, and the passion of the singers.

This production is a lean, mean version of Othello - I had to study every line of Shakespeare's tale for A level, and so appreciated the stripped-down raw passion of Verdi's version, as did Leeds Trinity postgrad (and sports writer) James Grayson:
"I really enjoyed Otello. You have to also appreciate the talent of the performers. In sport, surprisingly I admire Rugby League players more than footballers. Rugby League players put their bodies on the line each week and must walk away from matches so heavily battered and bruised. Operatic singers have to really work their bodies to be able to belt out such wonderful tones. Opera stars even have special individual warm-ups and cannot perform every day because their voices need a rest."
 However James' classmate Kate Russell didn't think much to the simplified storyline:
"It was mightily impressive, yes, but also kind of distracting. [..] Maybe if it hadn’t been the story of Shakespeare’s Othello. It’s such a fantastic story with such great characters, and as a first opera it’s a good one because it’s so accessible. But I love the play. The subtle character traits that make it what it is were completely stifled. It was too wham bam, hilariously so at times."
ArtFist blogger Jon Cronshaw, also doing a PGDip in Journalism this year at Leeds Trinity, loved the show but took issue with a few in the audience:
"As the music dropped, a handful of people began to clap. This was met by a few dozen tuts and shushes which took me out of the performance. The show wasn’t ruined by spontaneous appreciation from a few moved patrons; it was spoiled by a vocal minority of eye-rolling, snobbish elitists. I’m sure that the people who were uncultured enough not to be aware of an arbitrary convention of the genre went away with a bitter taste in their mouths – I know I did."
Whilst trainee journo Sallie Gregson was left unimpressed with the whole idea of 'outreach' to new audiences:
All the opera virgins enjoyed - or at least appreciated - the performance, and the PR team should be happy at the 'word of mouse' they've generated in Leeds, officially one of the UK's most digitally connected cities.

There's no doubt for me that Opera North has a brilliant, enthralling and emotionally powerful product, albeit one that's expensive. A full orchestra, great singers and a spare but evocative set don't come cheap.

If I hadn't been the guest of Opera North and the Leeds Culture Vulture my Dress Circle ticket would have cost over £60 even with a Leeds Card, and that's a lot.

That said, tickets are available from just £15, and a 60-quid ticket appears a bargain when compared to Elton John going through a tired 'greatest hits' recital at the new Leeds Arena in September. Tickets for that are on offer at over £120 and up when I Googled the show just now.

Yer pays yer money ...

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