Opera North Perform Strauss’ Sprach Zarathustra From Home In Isolation

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Opera North Isolation Odyssey

When the Orchestra of Opera North’s concert performances of Strauss’ ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ were cancelled as the coronavirus pandemic intensified, two members of the ensemble decided that the show must go on. Virtually.

Richard Strauss’ 1896 ‘tone poem’ is one of the most famous pieces of music of all time. Stanley Kubrick’s use of its blazing opening fanfare in 2001: A Space Odyssey is well known. And it’s been borrowed since then by everyone from Elvis Presley to the World Wrestling Federation. Its celebration of humanity’s questing, resourceful nature took on a special resonance for Opera North’s Acting Section Principal Cello Daniel Bull and Principal Viola No 2 Lourenço Macedo Sampaio, as they worked out how they could bring forty of their colleagues together, in sync and under social distancing restrictions, to perform its opening five minutes.

They got in touch with Swedish conductor Tobias Ringborg. He had been due to take the podium for the concerts at Huddersfield and Leeds Town Halls. And they wanted to see if he would be able to help.

“Rather crazy”

“The idea sounded rather crazy”, says Tobias. “But it kind of fitted in with how crazy the world is right now. So I thought we had to make it happen. But how could I, here in Sweden, go about conducting a large orchestra in England? With each member recording their parts individually?

“I contacted my dear friend and chamber music partner of almost 30 years, the extraodinary pianist Bengt Forsberg. We met in a gorgeous little wooden church in Stockholm, where Bengt runs a chamber music series, and did a couple of takes with my phone camera turned on me as I conducted him on the piano. I sent the film back to Opera North, and wished them luck!”

Daniel and Lourenço sent that footage out to 40 of their colleagues. And each of them donned full concert dress and recorded their parts individually at home, in time with Tobias’ baton. They filmed themselves in kitchens, spare rooms and gardens. Percussionist Chris Bradley even took part during his daily exercise.

“They sent their recordings back to us. And we added instrument by instrument, part by part, until this amazing ‘performance’ took shape”, Daniel says. “It has really felt like watching a huge building being constructed. And with Tobias’ musical vision as a starting point, the resemblance to the creative process of an actual rehearsal and concert has been remarkable.

Opera North Isolation Odyssey

“Incredibly meaningful”

“After the iconic and very famous opening fanfare, there is a hymn-like section played by the strings which ends in a sublime resolution involving 17 independent string lines, which seemed like an appropriate conclusion for our excerpt.

“It’s not been short of its challenges. But in these challenging times, it has meant that we’ve all been in regular contact. And that we are still able to make music together, even when sitting at home in our living rooms!”

“Also Sprach Zarathustra is my favourite piece of all time”, says Lourenço. “I’d been looking forward to playing it since the dates were announced about a year ago. And I just couldn’t have it taken away like that. So when Dan told me about this idea I jumped at the opportunity!

“This project has been incredibly meaningful to me as I have been away from my home country for a long time now. And in these circumstances, I still don’t know when I will be able to visit my family back in Portugal.

“It just brightens my day to feel that Opera North as a company is fighting this challenge and doing so together. The reason we all make music is to connect with one another and with our audiences. And it couldn’t feel more empowering to continue doing what we love most in these unprecedented and difficult times.”

“Determination and ingenuity”

Richard Mantle, General Director, Opera North, said “In such challenging times for the country, for individuals, and for our industry, Opera North is committed to responding to the ongoing crisis with creativity and resilience. We will continue to bring music to people’s lives in whatever way we can through the coming weeks and months – as proved by the determination and ingenuity of so many of our wonderful musicians working together virtually, even while we are all physically isolated. This extraordinary initiative came directly from our musicians. And I am incredibly proud of what they have achieved with the support of our brilliant AV team. We hope that those who watch it will feel the same sense of connection through music as a powerful shared experience, that we have felt in creating it.”

Opera North at Home

The coronavirus crisis has led Opera North to cancel or postpone all of its public activity. And it’ll beat least the end of June before they can consider returning to anything near normal.

The Company’s productions currently available for streaming include its entire landmark 2016 Ring cycle, available for free via operanorth.co.uk/watch-online.  The final edit of a film of Opera North’s recent production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, livestreamed from Leeds Grand Theatre in February 2020, is now available for free in partnership with OperaVision.

Other Opera North productions currently available through a range of partners include Bernstein’s short American opera Trouble in Tahiti, which can currently be watched via Now TV and Sky on-demand services, Jonathan Dove’s family opera The Adventures of Pinocchio, available via Marquee TV, and Don Giovanni, available via Digital Theatre.

A performance of Opera North’s acclaimed new production of Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, recorded in February, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 this Saturday 11 April, and will be available for 30 days through BBC Sounds.

For more information and the latest digital releases, visit operanorth.co.uk 

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