What’s the secret to surviving tearjerkers?

How do opera singers perform without microphones?

How do performers cover up a mistake on stage?

This winter, Opera North will be exploring the unspoken, the hidden and the mysterious as they return to The Lowry, Salford Quays with four compelling operas, each with a secret at its heart. What’s more, while the consequences of clandestine affairs and past wrongs unravel on stage, the Company will be revealing a few well-kept secrets of its own.


An illicit affair is the starting point for Richard Strauss’s comic masterpiece Der Rosenkavalier (The Rose-Bearer) which opens at The Lowry on Wednesday 9 November. As she faces up to the relentless passage of time, a 30-something aristocrat sets up a meeting between her toyboy lover, the 17-year-old Octavian, and a beautiful younger woman – with inevitably heartbreaking results. Der Rosenkavalier is the perfect choice for those who enjoy rom-coms, with a beguiling love story, comic twists and turns, sumptuous stage design and breathtakingly beautiful music. 

The following evening, a brand new production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, returns to Opera North after an absence of over 20 years. One of the greatest 20th century British operas, it is a haunting, deeply atmospheric and psychologically powerful work, performed by an all-male cast and a large-scale chorus. 

An aging captain in the navy reflects on events he has kept hidden for most of his life, centred around a handsome young sailor named Billy Budd, who was selected by the officers to join the crew of the HMS Indomitable. Radiating goodness, Billy attracts both the secret desires and the implacable hatred of the ship’s feared Master-At-Arms, Claggart.

Completing the Season of Secrets is a double-bill of one-act operas by Puccini which, at under an hour each, deliver two short, sharp bursts of dramatic tension and emotional power. The evening begins with the dramatic intensity of Il tabarro (The Cloak), a dark and brooding thriller set on the banks of the Seine, which charts the terrible consequences when a husband discovers that his wife is having a secret affair.

Il tabarro is paired with Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica). Puccini’s personal favourite among his operas, Suor Angelica tells the story of a young woman, living in a convent against her will, whose illegitimate child has been kept secret to preserve a powerful family’s reputation. Only after another harrowing secret has been revealed is she finally set free. This is vintage Puccini – think Tosca and Madame Butterfly, packed up small. 

As these hidden truths are revealed to often devastating effect on stage, Opera North will be celebrating its Season of Secrets by sharing a host of trade secrets, operatic know-how and backstage photos. People will be able to visit Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Playbuzz to discover, amongst other things, how many hours are spent perfecting each note before an opera even reaches the stage, how to make a wig look fantastic night after night, and the best way of achieving a truly convincing stage death.  

Opera North’s Season of Secrets will be at The Lowry between Wednesday 9 November and Saturday 12 November. After Salford Quays, all four operas will tour to Nottingham Theatre Royal. The Puccini operas and Billy Budd will also travel to Edinburgh Festival Theatre.

Top 10 secrets of the opera:

1. Incredible live music, no microphones 

There’s nothing quite like the visceral experience of hearing a singer live in the theatre, projecting their voice above a 60-piece orchestra – all completely unamplified.

“The secret to singing without a microphone is to fully support your voice – from the feet up!” according to mezzo soprano Patricia Bardon, who plays the Princess in Puccini’s Suor Angelica.

2. Keep calm and carry on 

If something has gone wrong on stage? Chorus member Sarah Estill’s secret for hiding it: “Perfect your poker face. The chances are that if you don’t show it, the audience won’t spot something has gone awry! 

3. There’s a lot of secret drinking…

Opera singers need to stay hydrated on stage, meaning water is often hidden behind props – or there can even be tiny holes for hidden straws drilled into the walls of a set.

Stage Manager Lyndsey Owen explains: “We have to hide lots of things on stage – really common secret things are bottles of water, cough sweets, tissues. Sometimes people also sneak on joke props to entertain each other – it helps to create a good atmosphere. But there’s a line that doesn’t get crossed, because the audience can’t know, or it would start to affect the performance. Everyone knows where that line is!” 

4. You don’t need to know the plot 

Lots of operas are in English, but when they’re in other languages, there is an English translation on screens at the side of the stage – just like a subtitled film.  

Editor Stuart Leeks says: “There are several secrets to doing titles well. There’s the translation for a start, and crucially, there is the timing. That’s the job of the titles operator, who sits in a hidden box, manually cueing all the titles from the music score. It’s quite an art, especially in comedies, and requires real musicality.” 

5. Zips are the enemy

When costumes need to be changed fast, buttons are definitely best. Head of Costume Stephen Rodwell’s secret tip: 

“We avoid using zips in costumes now–they are fast, but when a zip gets stuck, it’s very hard to fix. We had an incident in one show where a character was zipped into a wedding dress while she was on stage –and the zip got caught! When she came off stage for a quick change, the wardrobe supervisor had to rip the whole costume off.”

6. Flatpack the sets 

With four shows on tour at once this Autumn, backstage can be a warren of set and props. Suor Angelica set and costume designer Hannah Clark describes the secret of successful stage design for a double-bill: 

“The world of Suor Angelica is not what it seems… but the biggest challenge was practical. Because it is only one half of a double bill (with Il tabarro), there are two completely different sets. The two worlds also have to completely changed over in an interval of just over 20 minutes – set, props, everything— so we’ve built this into the design, and the walls of the Il tabarro set are actually still there during Suor Angelica, sat just off stage but still visible.” 

7. Count on tears 

Some operas are comedies, but some, such as Puccini’s Suor Angelica, have incredibly tragic plots. So what’s the secret to sensitive singers surviving performances without shedding a tear?

Chorus member Lorna James says: “One of the choristers told me to do the seven times table in my head to distract me at the end of Suor Angelica. As I was a mathematician in a previous life, I updated that to the 14 times table. It’s helping!” 

8. The secret to hitting the high notes? It’s (almost) all in the mind 

Tenor David Butt Philip, who plays Luigi in Il tabarro, reveals: “Provided you’re fit and healthy, the secrets are largely psychological. My teacher always says ‘cool head, warm heart’, which is excellent advice. Composure and confidence are critical to moments which are technically challenging. That said, there is no substitute for practice! The more times you sing a difficult passage, the easier it gets. For example, I’ve sung Rodolfo 46 times, and I become more comfortable with the famous high C every time.

9. The secret of success? Be nice.

Baritone Roderick Williams, winner of the 2016 RPS Singer of the Year Award, and singing the title role in Billy Budd, shares his secret for success:

“Apart from having an interesting and individual voice, along with a lot of determination, I think the secret to becoming a successful opera singer is to be in the right place at the right time and seize your opportunities when they come. Also, never forget that the opera world is small; how you behave around people can easily have repercussions for good or bad

10. A night at the opera is cheaper than you think

For Opera North’s shows, tickets start from just £12.50, there are £10 tickets for under 30s and students, and over 10,000 tickets each season are priced at under £30.

Performance diary: 

Wed 9 Nov | Der Rosenkavalier | 6.30pm

Thu 10 Nov | Billy Budd | 7.00pm

Fri 11 Nov | Il tabarro/ Suor Angelica | 7.00pm

Sat 12 Nov | Der Rosenkavalier | 6.30pm



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