By Polly Leech, mezzo-soprano 2017/18

18 December 2017


Our first term as NOS Young Artists saw us embark on a Handelian adventure with one of our partner companies, Opera North.  One of the incredible parts of being a Young Artist is that we get to take part in three week-long residencies with the associate opera companies throughout the year, each with a focus on particular repertoire. The Opera North residency was centered on Handel, and we were lucky enough to get to work with the wonderful baroque conductor David Bates. We each had a working session with him so that he could get to know our voices and see what characters might suit us.  I was immediately struck by David’s vibrant personality and his sheer love of this repertoire and couldn’t wait to get working with him on the scenes. I sang him something fast and furious and we had a great time inventing some stratospheric cadenzas! A few weeks later, we were allocated our scenes, which included arias from Orlando, Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda, and Ariodante.  I was thrilled to be cast as Ariodante in one of the most gorgeous and heart-breaking arias of all time, “Scherza, infida”, a twelve-minute epic with bassoon obbligato, in which Ariodante resigns himself to death after discovering his lover has been unfaithful. Intense stuff! 
Prior to production week, we prepared our scenes with our amazing Italian language coach, Matteo Dalle Fratte, and worked on the musical and stylistic intricacies with the vocal coaches at the Studio.    Production week commenced with music calls, during which the répétiteurs got to grips with playing harpsicord accompaniment and we all got to work on our arias and da capo ornaments with David.  In the first rehearsal with our highly-acclaimed director, Christopher Alden, we talked through the scene and what we thought of our characters.  The staging involved a huge table into which the magician Zoroastro (played by Young Artist Edmund Danon) would plunge a huge sword, which was used throughout the scenes as a metaphor for masculine power and violence towards women and to each other. 
We first staged Satriya Krisna’s aria (playing Ariodante’s brother, Lurcanio) – a plea to Ariodante to not commit suicide over his partner’s infidelity but rather live and seek revenge.  Ariodante refuses to listen and is intent on pulling the sword from the table, but to no avail.  The challenge here was to make this look like an extreme effort without actually pulling the sword out by accident!  During my aria, Chris experimented with me singing in all sorts of positions – I can’t say I’ve ever had to sing whilst crawling on my front or with all my hair obscuring my face before, but it was really liberating to investigate what was possible and push myself beyond my comfort zone. The final effect was very intense and heartfelt and definitely quashed any worries of how I was going to keep the audience with me and sustain the emotional intensity of such a long aria.  The show ended with a final chorus scene, in which Orlando (played by counter-tenor Feargal Mostyn-Williams) manages to pull the sword from the table after being cured of his ‘madness’, and love and glory win the day!
In true school-trip fashion, we journeyed up to Leeds by train on the Sunday before the residency started and all went out that evening to sample the delights of Leeds’ culinary scene.  We were all struck by the amazingly relaxed and friendly vibes and couldn’t wait for our week at Opera North. On Monday morning, we were given a tour of the (labyrinthine!) building and shown the performance space, the Howard Assembly Room, and our dressing rooms.  It was straight to work at 10:30 for those involved in the Orlando scene, giving me and soprano Carly Owen a morning to check out some of the City Centre shops!   
Wednesday afternoon was the first opportunity to get to sing with the fabulous Opera North orchestra in the ‘Sitzprobe’. It was incredible to hear the beautiful colours the orchestra could produce and, listening to my colleagues, it was clear that everyone’s singing was elevated by the orchestra to the next level.  The orchestra were situated behind the ‘stage’, so in the stage and orchestra rehearsals on Thursday we got to grips with watching David’s cues on the auditorium monitors.  Parts of the staging (mainly when my hair was covering my face!) meant that it was difficult to see the conductor’s cues, but Matteo’s meticulous Italian coaching meant that I could indicate exactly what I wanted to the orchestra by really using the text without having to rely on that contact. 
The performance on the Friday was a resounding success and I was blown away by my fellow Young Artists.  It was so great to see and hear everyone really step up their game throughout the week and deliver some wonderfully truthful renditions of their arias. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before we got to do it all again at The Regent Hall in London!  The layout of the venue was completely different to the Howard Assembly Room (including the presence of two very ornate Christmas trees and a nativity scene!), so our lovely assistant director Thomas Henderson helped us rework the staging to fit the new space. This time the répétiteurs were our orchestra, doing fabulous jobs at distilling all that orchestral colour into piano accompaniment.  Again, the performance went splendidly – this time to an audience of London-based casting directors and agents as well as opera buffs, friends and family.  This project has instilled in me such love for Handel’s music and I can’t wait to dive into more of this incredible repertoire.


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All photographs © Malcolm Johnson 2017