Opera for less than the price of couple of pints

Dying love: Anita Hartig as the terminally ill Mimi in a freezing cold Paris in WNO's La bohème.

Picture: Catherine Ashmore


WELSH National Opera is keen for more young people to be moved by the power of classical music.  The Under 30s' ticket scheme offers hugely discounted tickets to main house operas and concerts across its touring venues. Many staff at WNO fall into that age bracket and tell Diane Parkes how opera has already transformed their lives.


Musician Sarah Thornett first picked up the violin at the age of four and went on to study music at the University of Birmingham - and yet she didn't discover opera until earlier this year.

The 24-year-old from Bournville in Birmingham, who now plays first violin with Welsh National Opera, says she just did not realise what she was missing.

“The first opera I actually watched was when I was on trial with WNO,” says Sarah who joined the Cardiff-based company in March. “I watched the dress rehearsal for Madam Butterfly.

“I was under the impression that I hated opera – I just thought it was about sitting for hours and hours listening to people wailing. I just thought there was something very pretentious around opera.”

But for Sarah, who also took a Masters in music at Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, that first performance was a revelation.

“I thought I didn't like opera but actually that was because I had never seen it. When I went to the dress rehearsal it was really amazing. I thought I might be bored but the whole thing just flew by. It was so emotional that I was crying before anything bad had even happened.

And now a whole new world has opened up to her.

“I recommend opera now to lots of people. When WNO were in Birmingham in the summer I got some tickets for some people there who had never seen an opera – and they loved it too.”

For Sarah, it is all about giving opera a chance.

“I have had people say to me they wouldn't understand it because it is all in a foreign language but there are surtitles so that isn't really a problem. When you go you just become totally involved in it.”

Sarah is now looking to tick off a few more operas.

“It isn't easy to see the operas when you are actually playing in them. You hear them and can see a bit from the pit but you don't have the time to watch them because you are playing. But I would really like to see La bohème. It is the classic love story that everyone knows. I was in a concert performance of it with City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and Andris Nelsons at Birmingham Symphony Hall and I could hear it all and knew something heart-wrenching was going on but I would really love to see the full production.

“And WNO are doing Tosca this autumn which I am really looking forward to. It is a really exciting time for me and I am looking forward to each new season and learning all of the new operas that we will be doing.

 Serena Farnocchia (Anne Boleyn) in WNO's Anna Bolena. Picture: Robert Workman

Most of the orchestra know a lot of these works inside-out but for me, most of it is still so new. It is nice to still be learning.”

Sarah believes education is also the key to encouraging other young people to give opera a go.

“I am a real fan of going into schools and community groups and demonstrating what goes on in an opera. A part of it is giving opera street cred. Some young people may feel they can't say ‘I'm going to go and watch an opera' because it wouldn't be a cool thing to do. But if they all get introduced to opera, and understand it, they will feel differently about it.

“People just need to be exposed to it. Even though I started playing the violin at four I thought I hated classical music until I was about 14 when I learned more about it. Then I said I hated all contemporary music until I was about 18 and learned more about it. And then it was the same with opera.

“If we take it into schools and other places where people are active they will be exposed to it. The sooner someone has heard the music and seen everything that is going on onstage then they will like it.”

WNO assistant stage manager Karly Hill, aged 26, admits to being another company member who initially missed the attraction of opera.

“I had always been involved in theatre and did lots of am-dram stuff and did musical theatre in college,” she says. “After college I did normal jobs, working in call centres, but still went to see a lot of theatre, musicals and ballet – but never opera though. I can't really say why not – I think I had a preconceived idea of opera being for older people.

“Then I applied for a technical theatre apprenticeship with the Wales Millennium Centre and Welsh National Opera and did that for a year. That was my first real opera experience and I got to see it from every aspect.”

And it was here that Karly, of Barry in South Wales, discovered a new love.

“I saw La traviata in my first season. I cried at that at the end of the studio run – before we had even got into the theatre! Turandot was the first time I heard the whole chorus sing and we had extra chorus for that so it was amazing. Then I loved La bohème. Being into musicals I already knew Rent, which is based on that story, so I found I wasn't watching the surtitles I was just watching what was going on. And that show really looked like a musical because it had projection.

“The whole opera experience with a big orchestra can be so much greater than musical theatre where they only have a small number of musicians. The sound of opera is so amazing. I have been with WNO for a year and a half but I still get butterflies from hearing that sound. It is live and the singing is for real, they are not using mics or miming because they are doing ridiculous dancing routines. It is a totally live experience.”

Judith Howarth (Mary Stuart) and Rebecca Afonwy-Jones (Anna Kennedy) in WNO's Maria Stuarda. Picture: Robert Workman

Like Sarah, Karly believes education has a role to play in encouraging young people into opera.

“The thing is young people are often not taught about opera. I think I assumed it would be big fat people singing really loud!” she says. “You go on school trips to see theatre and ballet but you don't go on school trips to see opera. Actually I am not sure why because really opera and musical theatre are not that far apart. Now I know more about it, I would just as easily go to an opera as musical theatre.

“I would say to anyone to give it a go. Some people are worried about language barriers but since I have been here we have done lots of opera in English and those that aren't in English have surtitles. You shouldn't let any of that get in the way. I think things that would have put me off until I gave it a go I then realised don't matter. When you watch an opera you don't worry about the language.”

And she is spreading that enthusiasm with people still to discover opera.

“Last summer I did the Real Princess tour which was opera for under-fives,” she says. “We did The Real Princess and it was small, one set, with three musicians and two singers. It is to encourage children to get into opera from a young age. We went to schools to try it out and the nursery children were just fascinated at the people singing. And when we toured it, it was so lovely seeing grandparents bringing their grandchildren to it. The children go and see a prince and a princess - they don't see ‘opera'. That is the way to encourage people – get them involved from a young age.”

Principal timpanist Patrick King believes companies need to be prepared to be different to attract young people into the auditorium.


“Our repertoire choice is really accessible for young people,” says the 29-year-old.  “We have the traditional stuff but also stuff from composers from the 21st century. This season is really interesting as we have The Tudors with Donizetti's Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux alongside Puccini's Tosca.

“People think opera is really expensive but with our offer it is actually cheaper than going to the cinema. It is great value for money to see live performance. A lot of my friends had never been to opera before but have tried it because of my encouragement.”

Patrick, of Great Yarmouth, says company initiatives are only part of the story.

“It is certainly our job to encourage young people to try it but I would also love to see more opera on TV. I think that would encourage more people into coming to see it. Programmes which explain it maybe – but not just necessarily on BBC4. It would be good to see snippets on The One Show or any kind of modern culture show. You look at places like Germany and more often than not you turn the television on and find a classical concert. We need to make classical music and culture more mainstream.

“Things like Classic FM and The Proms do a great job at this and companies who do initiatives help to bring young people through the door. If young people can meet and see young people in the orchestra then I think that helps. There are a lot of young people who work for WNO who are passionate about opera and about telling other people about it.”

For the 25-year-old Sophie Rashbrook, opera has certainly become a real passion. And one that she is able to share time and again by giving pre-performance talks with WNO.

Which makes it rather curious that the Nicholas John Trainee did not actually discover opera until just a few years ago.

Sophie was part way through her studies in French and Russian at Cambridge University when she undertook a year in St Petersburg. And it was there she discovered opera.

“I didn't really get into opera until my third year of university,” she recalls. “When I did my year abroad in Russia I was playing cello at the Conservatoire at St Petersburg and I had a student card which meant that I could go the Mariinsky Theatre quite cheaply and that is where I got the bug.

Mary Elizabeth Wiliams (Tosca) and Claudio Otelli (Scarpia) in WNO's Tosca

"I realised opera was the perfect combination of languages, theatre and music. I realised I either had to work in this industry or find an oligarch!”

Fortunately Sophie, of Chelmsford in Essex, was able to go for the work option.

“My languages were a route in as I assisted on a few Russian language opera productions. Then I went back to Cambridge and did a Masters where I did a bit of directing. Then this role came up at WNO and I was appointed and started in January.”

Sophie's traineeship is a three year post with mentoring from WNO Chief Executive and Artistic Director David Pountney.

“My role now is a trainee dramaturg – it literally means a ‘maker of drama'. At WNO the role involves doing pre-performance talks for pretty much all of the shows. I really love that as it is research but it is public facing and opening it up to people. People have said it can help with understanding the piece.

“I also do the surtitles. I have been doing them for Anna Bolena which is amazing. You can't believe how dramatic the text is without even hearing the music. And then I also do articles for the programmes.”

Sophie is the first to admit that cut price tickets were her route into opera. “The reason I went to opera first of all was because it was cheap,” says Sophie. “My student card made it affordable. That is a great way to get people in and get them hooked.”

Polly Graham, who is currently on a two year placement with WNO as assistant director sponsored by the Genesis Foundation, has her family to thank for introducing her to opera.

“I got taken to a WNO Madam Butterfly when I was about nine and I can just remember crying, crying and crying. My family are really into opera and they would take me to see things and I always enjoyed it. And we lived in Gloucestershire near to the RSC so I was spoon-fed the arts from a very young age.”

For Polly, knowledge is the key.

“I have done education work with ENO and I have been doing family workshops here with WNO and these are all ways to break down stigmas about opera. Once you get people into the building and into watching opera then it is fine.

“When I was working on a project in London I took a group of young people to see Madam Butterfly. Once they were there they enjoyed it. It's about education and companies have a responsibility to be pushing to get into schools and different sectors of the community and presenting what we have got and make people realise how exciting it is.

“WNO do a really good job of that. So for example, the family workshops we did for The Cunning Little Vixen in the spring were good fun. All the parents who thought they were going to have an easy time sitting in the corner did not.”

Twenty-eight-year-old Polly, who is mum to two-year-old Gabriel, adds:  “Opera is very exciting. You have got so many forces working together to express something at a sophisticated level. That is why it is such a fascinating art form and so engrossing. It is so exhilarating when you get it right.”


*WNO perform Tosca on Nov 12 and 16, Anna Bolena on Nov 13, Maria Stuarda on Nov 14, Roberto Devereux on Nov 15 at Birmingham Hippodrome. There are free pre-performance talks before all The Tudors operas and a free ‘new to opera' talk before Tosca on Nov 16. Tickets: 0844 338 5000 and www.birminghamhippodrome.com For more information see www.wno.org.uk

*The Under 30s offer runs throughout WNO's 13|14 season. To qualify for the £5 offer, you must be under 30. There are 50 tickets available at every performance for £5. Seats are located within first three price bands. ID is required for each ticket purchased and is subject to availability. 

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