Tragedy – no, not a documentary about the BeeGees in their disco phase, but one about the less glamorous aspects of an Opera North production.

I have to say that I have been a little disappointed by some of the streamed theatre and opera productions during lockdown. A couple of them which I have loved in their ‘live’ state have not been presented very well. The problem is that when you go to the theatre the whole of the stage, the cast and the scenery are there for you to peruse as you feel but with a film you are shown only what the director wants you to see. That works fine, as screenplays are written differently from theatre scripts, nevertheless the directors who have been in charge of the streamed plays don’t seem to be able simply to show the full stage for the duration of the piece but insist on homing in on an actor or a section of the tableau which, in a couple of instances, has ruined the effect totally. 

Having publicised and recommended these shows on this website I feel as though I have let my readers down somewhat and for that I apologise. The way these things work is that a few days or weeks before the broadcast I get a press release which lets me know what is happening and the details of the production. I am only too happy to help as companies need all the support they can muster during these difficult times, but I am working blind as I haven’t seen the finished product. Thankfully I have no such qualms about Tragedy because, not only is it shot as a film but it is already on the BBC iPlayer so I have seen it before writing this post.

As part of the BBC Arts in Quarantine season this film by Lynne Marsh looks at Verdi’s opera La traviata from a totally new angle, unless you work for Opera North of course. The documentary was made in 2015 and is a fly-on-the-wall account of what everyone does behind the scenes to present the production to the paying public. It is shot in real time and, although you don’t see any of the actual performance, the wonderful music acts as a soundtrack to the film.

This is the only time that most of us will get to see what each member of the backstage staff does and I must admit that I will be a lot more aware of the process the next time I am invited to review one of their productions, assuming I am ever asked again! The whole opera is co-ordinated by a woman in a dimly lit booth with the calmness and precision of an air traffic controller. There are numerous others who are concerned with the music, costumes and props who seem not to be doing much but when they are needed they deal with their jobs quickly and efficiently. It was like watching a Formula One pit crew. 

I realise that I am not a life-long operagoer so there were a few things which came as a surprise to me. The main one was the presence of a second set of musicians in addition to those in the orchestra pit. They are in a small room and add occasional passages as the score dictates, coming and going as needed. There are all sorts of corridors and rooms behind and under the stage where nothing much seems to be going on for ages but then everything springs into life and they become packed. I don’t know whether these areas have been redecorated since 2015 but they reminded me of old factories with the paint flaking off the brickwork. That resemblance was shattered when the corridors were filled with the cast dressed in their finery to go to the ball, a strange juxtaposition. 

Some of the cameras used for the film appeared to be hand-held whilst others were fixed in the manner of CCTV. One thing I found to be a little disconcerting was that the one in the control room was static and must have been next to a monitor or a crib sheet as the controller would occasionally glance in its direction making me feel as though I had been caught spying on her. I suppose I had really.

When I first began to watch Tragedy I didn’t think that I would last the course as the lingering shots at the beginning of the cast waiting in darkness in the wings made it seem as though nothing was ever going to happen, but from the moment the overture came to an end and they began to take to the stage I was engrossed.

Lynne Marsh made this film beautifully and captured the hard work, and periods of boredom, experienced by the staff of the Grand. It was reassuringly like a lot of other workplaces with breakout rooms and snippets of gossip between co-workers. One of the cameras also revealed the identity of the phantom Haribo thief who nicked a sweetie as he came off stage. Every office has one!

Tragedy is available on BBC iPlayer until 26th July and this time I am happy to recommend it safe in the knowledge that it is brilliant.

All photographs provided by Opera North

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