Whoever is curating the programme for this first post-pandemic season at Opera North is playing a blinder. They are making it so easy for those new to the genre, and also hardened opera buffs, to slide effortlessly back into ‘normal’ life. In addition this production is the perfect opportunity for an audience to experience modern dance, something which might not have been on their bucket list. Conversely it has given dance fans a sample of one of the more accessible operatic works to whet their appetite.
To make things even more inviting the two musical scores, and the words in the case of the opera, have been written by Leonard Bernstein so any barriers which might have existed would already be beginning to fall. Because everybody knows at least one of Bernstein’s tunes, if you couldn’t get on with the opera, or the dance, at least the music would keep you entertained for the evening. Especially when played by the magnificent Orchestra of Opera North who were on their usual brilliant form. There was also another twist which I will come to later.
The evening started with Opera North performing Trouble in Tahiti, which was first staged in 1952 so precedes West Side Story by a few years. I recognised a couple of short phrases which sounded as though they had been enhanced and incorporated in the later work. It is the story of the breakdown of the marriage of a well-to-do couple who don’t communicate any more, especially so with the young son who is almost totally ignored throughout the piece. A theme which seems to recur in seemingly every tv series at the moment.
It is described as an opera in seven scenes, each of which is linked by a vocal trio of the kind which would perform advertising jingles at the time on American radio. This worked well and gave the scene-shifters a chance to do their job. Speaking of scenery, the house interior set is made up of large posters advertising household goods of the day. A radio studio magically appears to facilitate the trio. There are also sections to house the other scenes, notably the changing room of the gym which has a poster urging those using the facilities to act like a man. A mantra which is at the root of the breakdown.
Essentially Sam, the husband, is a go-getter both at work and in his handball team which he prioritises over his family. This leaves the wife, Dinah, bored and neglected. She spends her days either at the therapist or the cinema. The title of the opera is also that of the film she sees on the day of the action.
This is the second time I have seen the opera performed live and both times it has been wonderfully sung and acted, here by Sandra Piques Eddy as Dinah and Quirijn de Lang as Sam, as well as the trio comprising Laura Kelly-McInroy, Joseph Shovelton and Nicholas Butterfield. The son, Junior, played by Isaac Sarsfield, has no vocal input but is an integral part of the action and came across very well as someone who has to make his own amusement whilst his parents bicker and argue, he was also imaginatively used to link the opera and the dance sections.
I have always admitted to not being an aficionado when it comes to opera, although obviously the more I go the more I learn. I write for people like myself who might think about going to a production but want to know if it will suit them before they part with their hard-earned readies. If that is the case for opera, I have absolutely no previous whatsoever when it comes to modern dance. Until this evening my main exposure to the art form has been watching Pan’s People in the Sixties and Seventies on Top Of The Pops, and the performances of Christine and the Queens, on whom I am totally hooked after seeing their appearances on Later with Jools Holland.
After a longer interval than normal, I assume to facilitate the changing of the set, I settled down to see what the second half had in store. The answer came almost instantaneously in the form of a 10 minute piece called Halfway and Beyond. It had been written, and spoken – yes, spoken – by Khadijah Ibrahim. This was the first time it had been performed and I presume, judging by the title, that it had been commissioned to transport us from what had been to what was to come. This transformation was also aided by the figure of Junior, the kid in Trouble in Tahiti, walking through the set before the dancers took to the stage and taking a position at the front again to silently witness the action.
Art, in whatever form, is a means of communicating ideas and, as such, the different methods of doing so are not always totally understood by the intended recipient, although with a bit of effort the gist, and sometimes quite a lot more, can be gleaned. It is a bit like going to a country where no one speaks your language and you don’t speak theirs. After a short time you can get your point across, and they, their’s and shortly after that your beer arrives! Well, my drink was served in very short order here as I got more and more into the piece. There were eleven dancers interpreting the words and so it was a bit overwhelming at times for a newbie who didn’t quite know where to aim his gaze. At this point I decided that I would ignore the details relating to the design, set, sound and lighting which normally require a tad of concentration so as to be commented on in my writing, and just settle back and let the dance speak to me as best it could, albeit in an alien form. I also didn’t read the programme as I wanted to see the work through my own eyes rather than have any background information or being offered someone else’s interpretation, no matter how learned. I will leave that until next time.
As a dance virgin I could not imagine that people could dance to the spoken word, unless it was rap or something similar but this poetry was sublime, as was the physical interpretation of it by Phoenix Dance Theatre. I, and the members of the audience around me, were transfixed by the work.
All too soon this piece ended and, after a short pause, the Orchestra of Opera North, conducted by Anthony Hermus, as it had been in Trouble in Tahiti, struck up the familiar strains of the numbers from West Side Story.
I was prepared for the dancers to replicate the dances from the film or stage version of the work, but Phoenix gave us a total reimagining. There were the basic themes of love, violence and tribal ritual which went all the way back to the original source of the piece, Romeo and Juliet, but there were several twists in the tale making it much more relevant to today’s society. The choreography by Dane Hurst was both aesthetically and practically stunning with the dancers not only interpreting the story, but rotating the large pieces of scenery without breaking step. Once again I was mesmerised.
The physical fitness, strength and suppleness shown by the dancers was mind blowing. The co-ordination when engaged in mass brawl scenes and the climbing up and down the scenery had to be perfectly synchronised or injury would surely have been inevitable.
Again, I decided that I would settle back and take in the experience as a whole and I am so glad that I did. I enjoyed every minute of the work and was so wrapped up in it that I can say with authority that, although not having analysed each element separately, the sound, lighting, direction and design must all have been spot on to provide such a great experience.
The list of cast and creatives is fairly lengthy so rather than itemise them all here I would ask you to follow this link where you will be able to find more about both them and the production as a whole. https://www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on/bernstein-double-bill-2021/ This next link will take you to the bookings page, which I would recommend you to use as this is a great introduction to whichever of the mediums you are unfamiliar with. After Leeds the production moves on to Newcastle, Salford Quays and Nottingham. https://www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on/bernstein-double-bill-2021/#book
For more information about Phoenix Dance Theatre who are celebrating their 40th Birthday, please go to https://www.phoenixdancetheatre.co.uk/
All images provided by Opera North