Connecting Voices, Opera North and Leeds Playhouse, at Leeds Playhouse, October 17
COLLABORATIONS between Opera North and Leeds Playhouse in recent years have been proving increasingly fruitful.
This latest, a four-show programme in different locations throughout the Playhouse, was just what the doctor ordered: its umbrella title Connecting Voices homed in on the social interactions we have all been craving.
It was designed to “examine the power and expression of the solo voice” and ranged the gamut from pure opera to straight theatre.
Poulenc’s monodrama La Voix Humaine, in the Barber Studio, led the way. In Sameena Husain’s production, Gillene Butterfield poured her heart and voice into Elle’s desperate efforts to repair her faltering romance, using telephones from three different eras.
Plus ça change! She might as well have been on Zoom, so vivid were her emotions, made more so by superb diction and – a rarity among sopranos in my experience – beautifully differentiated vowels.
Annette Saunders’ piano was ideally attuned, blasting out jagged darts whenever Elle listened, calm when she spoke. The two of them combined to notable effect in the nostalgic waltz that follows Elle’s highest outburst.
Opera North was involved in two of the remaining items. Under its Resonance programme for Black and Asian musicians, Reflections: Dead And Wake explored the Caribbean funerary tradition of Nine-Nights from a specifically Jamaican perspective.
Alongside ethnic choruses, sounding perhaps more African than Caribbean, Paulette Morris caressed her solo songs lovingly. The recurring soundscape of Jamaican voices by the director Khadijah Ibrahiim was not especially intelligible, but certainly added atmosphere.
Among similar non-native sounds was the powerful contribution of the rapper Testament (aka Andy Brooks), in the title role of Orpheus In The Record Shop, injecting much sardonic humour while doubling as composer and writer.
Aletta Collins’ production gradually introduced eight members of the Opera North orchestra and the excellent wordless mezzo of Helen Évora, to bring an optimistic conclusion as bankruptcy loomed. Definitely a tale for our times.
The other riveting voice was that of Niall Buggy, raging and cackling against the dying of the light and his own misspent years in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, directed by Dominic Hill. Like the Poulenc, it was written in 1958.
These days, theatre staff are front-line workers too. The small army of stewards here, totally tuned in and extremely helpful, deserve a final word of thanks.
OPERA North and Leeds Playhouse are collaborating on a celebration of the power and expressiveness of the human voice that will bring audiences back into the Quarry Hill theatre next month for the first time since the March lockdown.
They will co-produce Connecting Voices: six new and existing 40-minute pieces of live performance staged safely and Covid-securely in four areas of the Playhouse, played over three weekends in October, fusing classic and contemporary theatre on themes of isolation and connection, resilience and reflection
Leeds rapper, writer and world record-holding beatboxer Testament has been commissioned to explore the power of the solo voice within a communal space and the relationship between performer and audience, while freelance artists Matthew Eberhardt and Khadijah Ibrahiim will be devising new work together with musicians, poets, actors and young people
Running from October 2 to 17, Connecting Voices will mark the reopening of Leeds Playhouse six months after lockdown began by “partnering with the wider arts industry to find new and innovative ways of reintroducing audiences to live theatre, in a safe and secure environment, contributing to the life and vibrancy of the Leeds city region”.
Orpheus In The Record Store, written by Testament and directedby Aletta Collins, will fuse spoken word and beatboxing with players from the Orchestra of Opera North in a collaboration in the Quarry Theatre that gives the Greek myth of Orpheus a contemporary Yorkshire twist.
“I’m so excited to be back at Leeds Playhouse with Opera North, especially after this turbulent period,” says Testament. “To be commissioned to create a new piece of work is a massive honour.
“The Playhouse was one of the first organisations to take a chance on me as a theatre maker and it feels like home; their help and support has been invaluable to my growth as an artist. And only last year I got to work with Opera North as an artist on their Resonance programme, which opened my eyes to new possibilities as a composer.”
Looking forward to live performances returning to Leeds Playhouse, Testament says: “There is much to say and share right now, and I passionately believe theatre has an almost spiritual role in making the direction we wish to go in as a society tangible.
“I can’t wait to be back in front of an actual audience – being together enjoying worlds that we make together in those moments of live connection.”
What can next month’s audiences expect? “Right now, I’m in the lab creating, pushing buttons, and I’ve got something planned as a beatboxer that has never been like this way before,” says Testament. “I am also super-excited about connecting with Opera North musicians: we are planning to take the crowd on an epic journey with music, spoken word and live theatre.”
Playing alongside Orpheus In The Record Store will be topical re-awakenings of two pieces from 1958 that present characters isolated from others and struggling to connect again through technology.
The first is Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s monologue Krapp’s Last Tape, to be performed by Niall Buggy in the Bramall Rock Void, directed by Dominic Hill.This will be counterpointed by Francis Poulenc’sshort opera La Voix Humaine, performed by Opera North soprano Gillene Butterfield in the Barber Studio, directed by Leeds Playhouse’s Sameena Hussain.
In the Courtyard Theatre, each of the three weekends will see a different and newly devised piece of work from Leeds spoken-word artist Khadijah Ibrahiim and two pieces by freelance director Matthew Eberhardt, whose credits include Opera North’s Street Scene.
They will work with singers, actors, young people and musicians, including classically-trained singer Keertan Kaur Rehal, Amy J Payne and stalwart Playhouse actor Robert Pickavance, to create contemporary responses to the themes of remembrance, collaboration and the act of storytelling.
James Brining, artistic director at Leeds Playhouse, says: “Re-opening the Playhouse after six months of enforced closure and being separated from each other has made us value even more than before the act of live performance and what that means.
“Our beautifully refurbished building provides us with many opportunities to safely welcome audiences and artists back into the Playhouse. Connecting Voices is a carefully curated programme exploring isolation and connection, resilience and reflection, as well as the relationship between performer and audience member in a shared space.”
Brining is delighted to be working once again with Leeds company Opera North. “We’re pooling our resources to help the city of Leeds to get back on its feet and bring joyous and powerful communal shared experiences back to the lives of its citizens,” he says.
“As we head into our 50th year at this challenging time, it’s vital that we reconnect with audiences and communities and collaborate with bold and diverse voices from across the region. We can’t wait to welcome back artists and participants into the building safely to create and experience live theatre once again.”
Richard Mantle, Opera North’s general director, says: “Connecting Voices is a compelling exploration of the power of the human voice and the profound desire to establish meaningful ties out of experiences of isolation and loss.
“We are delighted that we are able to begin the process of welcoming audiences safely back to live performance through this collection of work in partnership with Leeds Playhouse.
“Connecting Voices brings together voices spoken and sung from across the city and wider region, and we are especially thrilled to be collaborating with such a diverse and talented group of freelance artists, singers, musicians, poets and directors who all share artistic ties to both Opera North and to Leeds Playhouse.
“Now, more than ever, it is apparent how strongly intertwined the artistic and cultural community in our region is, and how important collaboration will be in ensuring a vibrant future for the arts and audiences across the city.”
Please note, in line with Government guidelines, audiences will be of limited capacity with social distancing and temperature checking will be conducted too. Tickets will go on sale to Leeds Playhouse’s Supporters’ Club, Playhouse Pass holders and Opera North Patrons from Monday, September 14 and on general sale from 12 noon on Tuesday at leedsplayhouse.org.uk and on 0113 213 7700.
Connecting Voices: the full programme
Krapp’s Last Tape, by Samuel Beckett, directed by Dominic Hill
A 69-year-old man listens to the voice of his 39-year-old self. Looking back on his loves, failures and losses, Krapp rewinds through his life with humour and heartache. A classic Beckett play, both punchy and personal.
Performances: October 2, 9 and 16, 8pm; October 3, 10 and 17, 3.30pm and 8pm, Bramall Rock Void, Leeds Playhouse.
La Voix Humaine, by Francis Poulenc, directed by Sameena Hussain
A devastating short opera exploring the pain and fear of rejection in the rawest fashion. Through the lone voice of the woman, Poulenc expresses the full range of human emotion with a score of caressing warmth and intimacy. This powerful one-woman performance will be sung in English.
Performances: October 2, 9 and 16, 6pm, and October 3, 10 and 17, 1.30pm and 6pm, Barber Studio, Leeds Playhouse.
Orpheus In The Record Store, by Testament,directed by Aletta Collins
Orpheus is alone, playing tunes in his record shop. When an old friend arrives, music and stories collide as the ancient and contemporary merge. Testament takes inspiration from the classical Greek myth in a show that fuses spoken word and beatboxing with classical music from the Orchestra of Opera North.
Performances: October 2, 9 and 16, 9pm, and October 3, 10 and 17, 4.30pm and 9pm, Quarry Theatre, Leeds Playhouse.
Reflections: Dead And Wake, written and directed by Khadijah Ibrahiim
Experience a Jamaican “Nine Night” with literary activist and theatre maker Khadijah Ibrahiim. This thought-provoking performance explores Caribbean rituals around death through poetry, music and ghost [duppy] stories, featuring turntablist DJ NikNak and Paulette Morris. The event also includes performers from the Sunday Practise with their creative response to living through the last six months.
Performances: October 16, 7pm and October 17, 2.30pm and 7pm, Courtyard Theatre, Leeds Playhouse.
Reflections on La Voix Humaine, directed by Matthew Eberhardt
Take your seat on the stage of the Courtyard Theatre, look out into the auditorium and witness actors and musicians explore themes of isolation and connection, of resilience and reflection, through words both spoken and sung. This is a contemporary reflection on Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine and can be enjoyed either alongside the original piece or independently.
Performances: October 2 at 7pm and October 3 at 2.30pm and 7pm, Courtyard Theatre, Leeds Playhouse.
Reflections on Krapp’s Last Tape, directed by Matthew Eberhardt
Relish the power and expression of the solo voice from the stage of the Courtyard Theatre in this celebration of the return of live performance. An actor and a musician collaborate, filling the auditorium with words and music that reflect upon the themes of Samuel Beckett’s monologue Krapp’s Last Tape.
Performances: October 9 at 7pm and October 10 at 3.30pm and 7pm, Courtyard Theatre, Leeds Playhouse.
The running time for each Connecting Voices performance is 40 minutes.