Soprano takes on dual role for challenging opera by Christopher Morley

Singer shares her insights into playing the part of the druid priestess in Bellini's Norma as well as directing the new production by Midland Opera.
Never mind taking on the demanding title-role of the Druid Priestess in Bellini’s Norma, soprano Sarah Helsby-Hughes is also directing this new production of the bel canto opera for Midland Opera.
How has it been, supervising rehearsals as well as observing yourself playing this major part, I ask Sarah, one of the many operatic graduates of Birmingham Conservatoire who have gone on to great success?.
“Hopefully, the rehearsals operate like a well-oiled machine, and I have enough teacher-vision to know what’s going on around me,” she replies, adding that her work (which includes her artistic directorship of Heritage Opera) involves a 50 per cent division of herself between feet-on-the-ground devising and actual singing.
Sarah is based in Sandbach in Cheshire, but comes down willingly on a regular basis to Birmingham in order to rehearse with Midland Opera. Norma will be her sixth staging with them, and will be the company’s second residency in the city’s Old Repertory Theatre, after a successful presentation of the well-loved Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci double-bill there a year ago.
Norma was chosen for this year’s Midland Opera offering after a careful consideration of works which would give adequate exposure to the company’s estimable chorus. Mozart’s Idomeneo was on the shortlist, as was Verdi’s Otello, but casting considerations intervened, and it was Norma which got the white smoke.
Norma, a Priestess in Gaul, is a character very much in the vein of the near-contemporanous Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni in East Anglia, both urged to overthrow their Roman occupiers. Sarah tells me of her insights into the character.
“She’s human, a human version of Euripides’ Medea, on the edge of reason and veering wildly in the space of two bars. She’s undergone years of secrecy, years with her children...
“I toyed with the idea of updating, such as to the hackneyed resort to Occupied France under the Nazis, but I decided to go back to the essence, a woman who is in charge of the spiritual wellbeing of her people.
“This was a matriarchal society, with no parallel in today’s western society. You can see the reactions in the chorus when you give women the power! The men grumble good-naturedly.”
Continuing with her interpretation of Norma, Sarah talks about the character’s yearning for domesticity.
“Norma is despotic in her own way, but longs to settle down in a cottage somewhere. But at the same time she would kill you as soon as look at you, just like Boudicca.”
Malcolm Oakes, a long-serving member of Midland Opera and a past co-chairman takes up the discussion.
“The story behind Norma is quite a nuanced approach, and we were so much hoping Sarah, as well as directing, would put in for the role!
“And there’s a lot of laughter in rehearsal when Sarah’s around.”
What lies behind these gusts of pleasure when Sarah is working with untrained amateurs?
“It’s their ‘me-time’, something which they are doing for love, and that doesn’t mean dumbing-down.
“And there’s no-one in this production who’s going to have to look like Ben-Hur!”
One of the joys of operatic presentations is the presence of a live orchestra, something which in many amateur offerings has been replaced by synthesised pre-recorded music. Midland Opera continues in the tradition established by its founder Arthur Street (when it was then known as the Midland Music Makers Grand Opera Society, and making a huge contribution to this country’s musical life, including giving the British premiere, with a specially-commissioned translation, of Wagner’s early opera Die Feen in 1969) and subsequently the awesome Colin Lee, of performing with real musicians in the pit.
In the past with Midland Music it used to be an orchestra of a full scored-for complement, but economic exigencies, as well as the lack of availability of adequately-sized venues, has led to the need for a pared-down version. And music director James Longstaffe, whose conducting credentials involve work with many ensembles in Oxford, as well as being involved in Leamington’s massively successful Presto Music retail business, has come up trumps, rescoring Norma for 14 orchestral musicians.
“We’re so blessed to have top-class musicians playing for us,” says Malcolm Oakes. And then modestly adds that his own grandchildren are appearing in the show.

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