Carousel at Opera North: The Sitzprobe

If the brightly coloured, ethereal posters around town haven’t alerted you to the fact, Opera North are right in the middle of a two week run of Carousel, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical voted as the best of the 20th century by Time Magazine. A week or so before the opening night, I was lucky to be able to attend the sitzprobe, a seated rehearsal which is the first time that the orchestra and the singers rehearse together. This particular one was held in the Howard Assembly Room, which many of you will know as a remarkably versatile venue, and which turned out to be a beautiful space in which to enjoy this experience.

As we waited to go into the Howard Assembly Room, the musical director, Tim, spoke to us a little bit about where the cast and crew were at in the rehearsal process, what the sitzprobe would involve and why the show was going to be so good. It was all incredibly interesting, but one moment stood out for me. A blogger asked why someone who wasn’t interested in musical theatre at all, and would rather watch X Factor on a Saturday night, would be interested in going to see a musical by an Opera company. Tim described that moment that people get when watching X Factor, when someone opens their mouth and starts singing, and it’s so beautiful that your hair just stands on end, and goosebumps blossom on your arms. He explained that this would be like that, only better. About a thousand times better, I added in my head, because these are extensively trained, incredibly talented singers that have honed their craft professionally for years.

We filed into the Howard Assembly Room and took our seats down one side of the balcony to watch the set up. At the end, in the gallery, sat the chorus, and opposite us were the main cast members. Below us, the main room was teeming with people, setting up double basses taller than me, lugging in drums that took two people to carry and arranging more chairs than I imagined could ever be necessary. Disappointingly, there was no triangle player – the keyboard player had to multitask. The trills and scales as the players tuned their instruments and warmed them up were divine – I had to just take a quiet moment to soak it in and bask in the presence of all that sheer talent.

Soon it was time to get started and the orchestra launched into their opening number, the instrumental Carousel Waltz. The sound of a whole orchestra filling the room was incredible, and I felt absolutely privileged to be in the room for this experience. They played the piece straight through, and I felt transported away from the rainy Leeds day and straight to a 19th century fairground in a seaside town in Maine. It was absolutely beautiful, and couldn’t be improved upon in any way. Or, so I thought – turns out the conductor had other ideas. He barked a few instructions to the flautists, and painstakingly went through the whole piece again, stopping regularly to discard a pianissimo or throw in a mezzo forte. I had thought the piece was impeccable before, but it just got better and better as we listened, and I left with a brand new appreciation for the work and the vision that goes in to productions like this.

Next, we moved on to one of the big numbers, June is Bustin’ Out All Over. This was the first time we heard the singers at work, and it was worth the wait. The chorus, a group of about fifty people populating the gallery, suddenly stood and started singing, and it was just a wall of exquisite sound that blew me away. The individual cast members were just as impressive, with voices that effortlessly spanned the octaves and produced notes that thrilled when they could just as easily have chilled.

At this point we were summoned; 3.30 had arrived and it was time to leave. As we left I felt resentful that we’d been dragged out after just two songs, but actually tit was perfect – I was left desperately wanting more.

Carousel is running at Leeds Grand Theatre until 19th May. Tickets are available here.

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