THE winds of change are blowing through Sheffield City Opera…
The organisation, formed out of the ashes of South Yorkshire Opera in 1999, has a lot of members who have been singing in productions for decades, but now has had an infusion of new blood from some young members who are stepping forward into key roles.
And, far from having their noses put out of joint, the older generation couldn’t be more pleased. They are really enjoying being put through their paces by the two Gavins, director Magenty and conductor Usher, as they rehearse a production of Gounod’s opera Faust at Wesley Methodist Hall in Crookes.
The story of the ageing academic who sells his soul to the Devil for eternal youth and the lovely Marguerite is an ambitious one for an amateur group – coincidentally, it is being put on by Opera North in Leeds as well.
Longstanding member Christine Ayres said: “We’ve got a faithful following. Now with our new production it’s time to appeal to a new audience as well.”
Co-chair of the group, University of Sheffield history professor Helen Mathers, said: “We always aim to bring on young talent in singing and direction. A lot of singers have started off with us, like Elizabeth Watts. She sang with us in Sheffield while she was doing an archaeology degree at the university and working at Virgin.”
Soprano Elizabeth is now much in demand from opera houses and orchestras around the world and is recognised as a fast-rising star.
Other notable past members in recent years include Debbie Norman, Andrea Tweedale and Matthew Palmer.
Christine added: “We are genuinely keen to work with young people and encourage them. It is stimulating having young people with lots of energy and new ideas. It is great working with them.”
Director Gavin Magenty said: “We started last year when we did The Magic Flute. We’re trying to incorporate new ideas.
“Instead of the standard opera we’re doing it in a new way. This has that element of fantasy with the Devil. We’re just trying to focus on what we felt was the most important aspect of the story, which is very well known. We’re doing a bit of chopping and changing with the bits we leave in the story and what we take away as it’s a very long opera.
“I was interested by Faust and his weakness. He ends up with what he thought he wanted after he makes his pact with Mephistopheles but it wasn’t what he thought it would be. He lost himself in the process.
“We’re trying to make it a bit more relevant to the present day as it was set in 17th-century Germany. We’ve set it in England and modernised it a bit. Downton Abbey’s popular at the moment, so we’ve set it around that period with Edwardian costumes.
“We’re trying to make the whole thing look like a sepia photograph. Then anything the Devil touches gets colour added to it. He will have white make-up and red lips, so he is really going to stand out.”
“The whole chorus are really forward-thinking. They want to try new things and excite new audiences.”
“We’re also bringing some acting back into opera. Singers are used to coming to ‘park and bark’ as it’s known. Opera is such a hard, technical way of singing, they’ve always got away with it and been excused.”
Musical director and conductor Gavin Usher added: “Most of them are used to doing it in a certain way. To move, sing and think in a different brain is quite challenging but they do rise to a bit of a challenge.”
Gavin said it was exciting for young singers and musicians to be involved with Sheffield City Opera as there are so few chances to perform opera outside the big professional companies.
Co-chair Lynda Glover said: “We’ve been in the doldrums for a while and we’re getting revived again.”
Faust is at the Montgomery Theatre from November 1-3 at 7.30pm with a Saturday matinee at 2pm. Tickets are £10/£13. To book, call 0114 269 4958 or go to www.sheffieldcityopera.co.uk