You really have to hand it to Opera North. While most companies rely staunchly on operatic war horses to keep the budget ticking over, their newly-announced 2008-09 season includes only one work, Puccini's Tosca, from the standard repertoire. The rest is so exciting and innovative that it's slightly difficult to pick out the highlights; almost every production has the potential to succeed.
For me, perhaps the greatest interest lies in the company's return to American musical theatre in the form of not one but two productions of Gershwin masterpieces. The American composer might be best remembered for individual show tunes, or perhaps Porgy and Bess and Rhapsody in Blue, but he was also a master of political satire. To coincide with the American presidential elections in 2008, Opera North will present new productions of both Of Thee I Sing and its sequel, Let 'em Eat Cake. The former will be presented in the autumn 2008 tour, while the latter will receive its British premiere in the spring, when both works will be presented in one day on Saturdays in every tour venue (including London's Sadler's Wells in February 2009). Caroline Gawn directed a well-received semi-staged version of Of Thee I Sing for the company in 1998 and will now return to direct both shows, which include fine talent such as Richard Suart and Heather Shipp. In the same vein, David Pountney's 2001 English-language version of Shostakovich's operetta Paradise Moscow (Cheryomushki), which also deals with political corruption in a light-hearted manner, will return in early 2009 under the baton of James Holmes. In a season where ENO appears to have given up both operetta and musical comedy, it's up to Opera North to show what can be done with these other genres.
Italian opera is also extremely well-served. As well as the season-opening revival of Christopher Alden's Tosca, which features Robert Hayward as Scarpia, Tim Albery's production of Verdi's Don Carlo returns with an all-star cast under the baton of Music Director, Richard Farnes. Janice Watson and Susannah Glanville share the role of Elisabetta, Julian Gavin reprises a role I heard him sing with great distinction with the Royal Opera at the Edinburgh Festival in 1998, and Alastair Miles will play Phillip II. I'm a little sad that the work is to be sung in English, but it's good to hear that Chandos will be recording the production with help from the Peter Moores Foundation.
Another strong piece of planning involves the new production of Bellini's I Capuleti e I Montecchi – his take on Romeo and Juliet – which will conclude the company's Shakespeare Season. In a remarkable piece of casting, Sarah Connolly and Sarah Tynan will play the lovers, only months after their pairing in ENO's new Rosenkavalier which opens in a couple of weeks' time. Orpha Phelan will make her directorial debut with the production, which will be sung in Italian.
Following on from the phenomenal success of the world premiere of The Adventures of Pinocchio in December 2007, Opera North will devote its considerable artistic resources to another new work in January 2009: David Sawer's Skin Deep. No less a figure than Richard Jones will direct the production, while Richard Farnes will conduct a cast that includes Geoffrey Dolton, Mark Stone and Janis Kelly. I'm not sure what qualifications Armando Iannucci, the famous writer and broadcaster, has for writing an opera libretto, but he's certainly well placed in terms of understanding the contemporary themes of the piece. The press release describes it in these terms: 'Set in the clinic of cosmetic surgery genius Doktor Needlemeier (slogan: 'Putting Right what Nature Got Wrong'), Skin Deep is a darkly brilliant, up-to-the-minute satire about a world where staying young and beautiful is all that matters, whatever the cost.'
Completing the staged productions of the season is a new production of Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio conducted by Rory Macdonald; formerly a member of the Royal Opera's Young Artists Programme, Macdonald has an impressive season ahead of him, including L'elisir d'amore at WNO and The Barber of Seville (which he has conducted at Covent Garden) at ENO. This Seraglio is a new English version by Tim Hopkins and Nicholas Ridout using Amanda Holden's existing English lyrics. The cast includes Clive Bayley and Elena Xanthoudakis.
To coincide with the centenary of the premiere of Strauss' Elektra in January 2009, Richard Farnes will conduct concert performances of the piece at Leeds Town Hall, The Sage Gateshead and Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. Susan Bullock, who will have just sung the role at Covent Garden, will play Elektra. In addition, the Orchestra of Opera North will present the usual range of concerts around the North of England, with conductors including Andrew Parrott, Carlo Rizzi and Roland Böer. Another date of interest is a performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah on 9 May at Leeds Town Hall, which includes the ravishing young Welsh soprano Sarah-Jane Davies and tenor Andrew Kennedy (another graduate of the ROH Young Artists Programme). Other musical events include 'Mercy and Grand: The Tom Waits Project', which is described as 'a concert that evokes the heart of Tom Waits' music and places it in the contexts of the great European and American songwriting traditions'; live performances of music for silent films of the 1920s and 1930s to tie in with the Leeds International Film Festival; a range of talks and related activities at venues such as the Royal Northern College of Music and Leeds University; and educational events including performances of Hansel and Gretel for the children of thirty primary schools.
There's plenty of other good news, too. Transformation – the title given to the renovation of Leeds Grand Theatre and the creation of a permanent home for Opera North – is nearing completion. A partnership between Arts Council England, Leeds City Council, Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera North, it has seen a massive overhaul of the theatre and will be completed in November 2008 when the adjacent Assembly Room will be restored and opened to the public for the first time in over thirty years.
And the finances are in great shape. Opera North is to receive £3.5 million from the Arts Council over three years to help it meet costs related to the new property it has taken on over the redevelopment and sustain stability during a time of expansion. The company's turnover in 2007-08 was £15,186,000; expenditure was £14,866,000.
But if the money's in great shape, it's for their artistic successes that the company deserves praise. Macbeth and particularly A Midsummer Night's Dream have both enjoyed favourable reviews from the press, following on from Tim Albery's new Madama Butterfly, a baroque rarity in The Fortunes of King Croesus, excellent revivals of Matthew Warchus' Falstaff and Phyllida Lloyd's Peter Grimes and the world premiere of Pinocchio earlier in the season. With their shoestring production budgets, regional theatres in a variety of physical conditions and only a sporadic use of big-name singers, Opera North isn't about glamour. But its emphasis on ensemble and strong theatrical values has proved time and again that it's amongst the country's most relevant and effective arts institutions.
See also our preview of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden's 2008-09 season here.
See also our preview of ENO's 2008-09 season here.
See also our preview of the Opera national de Paris' 2008-09 season here.
See also our preview of the 2008 Edinburgh Festival here.
Plus our preview of the Barbican's Great Performers 2008-09 season here.
And read our preview of the London Philharmonic's 2008-09 season here.
Also see details of Welsh National Opera's 2008-09 season here.