Eeh, By Gum, It’s Rossini, But Don't Worry About It, Yer Daft 'Apeth'
(L-R)Director Alex Chisholm, conductor Ben Crick, baritone Oscar Castellino and Ian McMillan - Barber of Seville
Ey up, ow do.
‘Ave tha heard that, as part of the inaugural Bradford Opera Festival, there’s to be the premiere of Yorkshire poet, playwright, and broadcaster Ian McMillian’s new adaptation into the Yorkshire dialect of Rossini’s comical masterpiece The Barber of Seville
Rossini’s opera tells the story of Count Almaviva as he sets his sights on the beautiful Rosina and enlists Figaro—a barber, fixer, and all-round man of action—to help woo her. And this will be no easy feat for Rosina’s guardian, Doctor Bartolo, who keeps her under lock and key with the intention of marrying her himself.
I caught up with the conductor of the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra, Ben Crick, and singers Bradford bass baritone Julian Close, who is cast as Basilio, plus Milana Sarukhanyan (Bertha), a Bradford (Saltaire)-based Ukrainian classical singer, improviser, and vocal coach.
I started, to hoots of laughter, by asking Ben why?
Baritone Oscar Castellino and Ian McMillian
Ben explained that the reason opera is in Italian is because it was written for Italians.
“Let’s not forget that it was created to be entertainment for the people that watched it, not to detach them from the general populace.
"So, why not, as we are in God’s own country, perform the opera in Yorkshire and sound like how the people of the county talk? That was the idea behind it. To make it accessible, entertaining, and immediate.”
Having interviewed Ben in the past, I know he has been chelping on about it for many years. Along with the Marriage of Figaro,
it is part of a Figaro trilogy by Pierre Beaumarchais, the third being the rarely revived The Guilty Mother;
Ben has aspirations to create a new opera based on that play in Yorkshire and ultimately do all three on consecutive nights.
Something that Julian gets excited about: “It would be really amusing. The Barber of Seville
is really funny and lends itself to the Yorkshire dialect and accent, and like them all, we can play with the comedy.”
Milana agrees, saying, “No one has ever done the three of them, and it is all about bringing new material to the opera world.”
Ben, Julian, and Milana are certainly singing from the same score because they want to transform the cultural scene in the north.
“For me, there is a story to tell of the post-industrial north, one that is aware of the traditions of the north but looks to the future. I want to create the cultural institutions that can tell that story and make the cultural scene as vibrant as possible here. I am fed up with going to London for gigs.
"That is my raison d’être for being in the north, and anything I can contribute means I am in,” Ben tells me, adamantly.
Julian, who has given up a gig in New York to perform in this special production, concurs, wondering how and why things have changed since his dad was a little lad growing up in Low Moor, not too far from the centre of Bradford: “The north has not kept up with the times."
They are all hoping that this new adaptation will engage the public. All three are all too aware that attention spans are not what they used to be 20 years ago: “Something very beneficial to the art form has been lost, and what we are doing is wider than the opera, and while I would say we do need to be led by modern society, we should also offer modern society something that is missing at the moment. It is a two-way process,” Ben says.
Ben is driven by a willingness for the industry to meet the audience halfway. He is not interested in seeing an opera reduced to four minutes with everyone on their phones: “We don’t need to destroy what our industry is, but some of the vehicles that surround the art, such as the behaviour expected in concert halls and the quasi-religious sort of atmosphere, can all go. The art itself can speak to anyone.”
Baritone Oscar Castellino
Julian believes there is a particular reluctance in Britain for some people to engage with opera because of the perceived class associated with it, which is not the same in Germany or America: “I have relatives in Sheffield who would not dream of going to anything classical, but they have plenty of money to go to the football or the pub. It is not money because shows cost an absolute mint to go to in London’s West End or Manchester.”
Making opera accessible is the philosophy behind Bradford’s new opera festival, and Ben is on a mission to find and train the opera talent of the future. They will be running workshops for families and young people in Bradford and creating a series of 'chota' operas' — little operas created by and for children and community groups.
Interestingly, Julian trained as a physicist, gaining a PhD and working for the government in Leeds; one day he went by accident to an Opera North production and was hooked: “I was astonished, so I joined the Leeds Festival Chorus and West Riding Opera. There was so much opportunity that it changed the course of my life. I was nervous and too shy, and opera gave me confidence in being able to present and express myself."
As we talk, a recurring theme raises its head. With less music in schools, we are further abstracting it from people’s everyday lives. We need to bridge that gap.
Milana is confident that delving into the Yorkshire vernacular gives the performers the intensity to believe in what they are doing, which the audience will hopefully pick up on and get a better understanding of what is happening.
Both singers have fine pedigrees, and I can’t help wondering about technique and flat vowels especially how they are coping with the Ts and Hs and forming a glottal stop sound. Both singers don’t have a problem telling me how it is aiding their overall performances.
Julian begins to explain - “I have relished doing this. I sing in all sorts of languages: Hungarian, Russian, French, and Italian, but because of my Yorkshire genes, I have actually thrown myself into the project and revelled in it. It’s how my father and my relatives used to speak.”
“It means so much to me to engage with the public in this way. Really telling the story, not in a preformatted, prescribed, or regimented tidy way, but as it is a comedy, there is a lot of room for toying with things. It has a lot of social history and expression. My slimy, obsequious character plays with words all the time, so it gives me more freedom.
“It is something I have been wanting to do for a long time, and it should be sung in a vernacular. Any sort of opera makes sense for it to be relatable to the audience.“
For Milana, the connection is really tangible: "When I started working on the language, I suddenly realised that I started forming the vowels within my normal speaking and was able to feel it within my skin.”
Sensing my perplexed look, they explain that when speaking in the Yorkshire dialect, the body and face change and everything has more expression. Milana finds she can get into character much quicker.
According to Julian, northern vowels are much closer to the Italianate way of singing than southern English vowels which are often dark and restrained: “I initially sang Ian’s translation in higher English, then moved into Yorkshire vowels, and they actually sit in very similar places. We have to be careful though; when I first sung this to my coach, some of it was incomprehensible to him, so from a singing perspective, we have to make sure we take a little more time and not necessarily run the words together so closely, to make sure the words are audible to the audience.”
Both feel much more liberated and able to express themselves physically and vocally.
Well, it seems that the performers are enjoying it, but will the audience? Julian is emphatic about how the opera will relate because the audience will be engaged with the language and the dialect, believing it will talk to them on their wavelength: “It is a more accessible presentation with the original story and music.”
Milana hopes the audience will get the sense they can be open-minded to different interpretations of the same works, which are repeated from century to century, and offers them an opportunity to relate them to more modern times. After all, as they point out, a lot of the country’s top comedians are northern, Peter Kay and the late great Les Dawson, are two examples of entertainers who let language and dialect inhabit their bodies to create engaging acts.
Whatever happens, everyone is looking forward to opening night, and Milana is urging people to come along and listen: “People must hear it everywhere. This is what art is about, and the Barber works the best—ludicrously over the top coupled with fantastic music.
That’s reyt good, tha knows.
Ian McMillan's adaptation of The Barber of Seville
is a co-production between Bradford Opera Festival, Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra and Bradford Festival Choral Society. The festival is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, as well as Bradford Council.
It will be performed at 7.30pm on Thursday 23 November at St George's Hall in Bradford. Tickets available from the Bradford Theatre Box office on 01302 432000 or online click here