Johnny Depp couldn’t do it! Mamma Mia director brings opera to Salford and talks challenges of dealing with divas

By Eve Commander

‘Five stars’, ‘amazing’, ‘breath-taking’: This is just some of the praise critics have heaped upon Opera North, who will be performing Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes at Manchester Salford Quays this autumn.

It’s been seven years since Bristol-born Phyllida Lloyd, CBE, originally directed Opera North’s Peter Grimes, and it’s touring again in venues across the UK as part of the company’s Festival Of Britten, celebrating the composer’s centenary.

Since then Lloyd has taken her talents to Hollywood, producing the highest grossing musical of all time with Mama Mia! and scoring a major box office hit with the Margaret Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady.

She’s currently in New York, where she plans to export more of her award-winning UK productions but told MM she thinks Britten’s opera could make the transition to Tinsel-town.

“I think Grimes would make a fantastic film but you might have to get Brad Pitt to like a recording to be able to afford it,” Lloyd said.

“That’s the challenge with opera, how to square that circle. Very few people can sing Britten. It’s an extreme sport and not something that Johnny Depp could do at the drop of a hat!”

Based on current form, Lloyd’s film version of Peter Grimes would break box office records. For now Manchester audiences can experience her Midas touch at Salford Quays this November.

Charismatic tenor Jeffrey Lloyd Evans will be taking the title role, while Irish soprano Giselle Allen is returning to play Ellen Orford and conductor, Jac van Steen, joining the acclaimed crew for two performances at The Lowry.

“Half the cast are new and have brought a massive injection of ideas and energy to the production. I’ve tried not to say ‘this is how we did it last time’ but to throw it open to them to come up with something new and exciting,” Lloyd said.

“The original cast have matured – as we all have – and deepened in their roles, gaining hugely in skill and confidence.”

The opera, which explores guilt, vilification and despair in a fishing community, has three parts and two intervals and is an epic homage to wind and sea with luscious orchestration and a story worthy of a Greek tragedy.

“It is like a great pop album in which every number is a hit, literally every scene is a bulls-eye and the whole adds up to something so universal and so relevant,” said Lloyd.

It’s no wonder musical directors are attracted to the piece. Yet despite the opera’s evident appeal to industry insiders, Lloyd thinks that the art form has many issues with attracting a more diverse audience.

“I still think there’s a problem with the predictable relationship between audience and action in opera. You sit there, they act and sing there and there’s a ruddy great chasm between you,” Lloyd explained.

“On the other hand when I took part of an opera to the Glastonbury festival the audience was behind the singers and the crowd went wild!”

The outspoken director, who caused a stir by deciding to stage an all-female production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in 2012, has no fear of breaking boundaries.

Working with the likes of movie royalty Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfreid, and her triumphant cross-over to Hollywood with the genre busting musical/film Mamma Mia! is yet another example of the pioneering spirit which sets her apart from her peers.

Despite the film industry’s reputation for tricky characters she says that it’s actually opera divas who have left her bemused, admitting the behaviour of cast when she was directing Verdi’s Macbeth at Covent Garden left her reluctant to work in major international opera houses.

“My experience of the movie world is that people are staggeringly professional. They turn up on time and come to the set when they are called. That has not been my experience of international opera but perhaps I’ve been unlucky,” she said.

Fortunately the musical director has a special relationship with Opera North, their General Director Richard Mantle describing her as a ‘brilliant animator and a truly inspirational part of the company’.

Lloyd’s production of Peter Grimes will be shown alongside two other Britten operas, Death in Venice and a Midsummer Night’s Dream as part of Opera North’s Festival of Britten season.

The sheer size of the Opera Company’s celebrations, their General Director told MM, is partly due to their late patron, the Earl of Harewood knowing and championing Britten.

Mantle said that he hopes the sheer scale of the repertoire and the discounted tickets on offer for audiences deals will inspire people to throw caution to the wind and come to all three productions.

“Britten has a marmite feel, but once audiences sit and listen to him they are usually taken aback,” Richard Mantle said.

“The pieces are a kaleidoscope of music. I hope people treat it like they would Manchester or Leeds Festival and come to each.”

For Opera North the celebrations are also a memorial for Richard Angas, a talented bass and omnipresent feature of the cast of Peter Grimes who collapsed and died during rehearsal for the opera this September.

“This was a vast and shocking loss. We were like a little ship that had been torpedoed, listing and taking in water. To lose Richard’s huge presence in the room, his booming voice, extraordinary skill with words, not to mention has uproarious laugh, we were just in shock,” Lloyd explained.

“The great consolation was to come together every day to sing this extraordinary music with its fathomless beauty and mystery and to do that as a community. There were many tears, it was like an extended wake.”

Spurred on by the memories of three men, patron, performer and composer, Opera North’s stirring performances of Benjamin Britten’s three operas are an incredible tribute to one composer in his centenary year.

The three operas will feature in Opera North’s Festival of Britten series at The Lowry from November 5 to 9 .For ticket enquiries visit:

Image courtesy of Universal Studios via YouTube, with thanks

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