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Sherlock Holmes

The idea ...

Written by David Ward (Artistic Director)

In our mission to bring new operatic experiences to audiences we’ve often gone into the big bag of obscure repertoire to find some hidden gems.


But the more I’ve been thinking about how we present operas that appeal to new audiences, and offer exciting experiences to existing audiences, the more I’ve been drawn to the idea of commissioning new works. We’ll of course continue to find those neglected operatic treasures from the past, but creating new operas provides us with the opportunity to push the art forward in different ways; including embracing opera’s centuries-old affinity with adapting popular stories for the stage.


Back in 2020 – when we all had much more time on our hands than we were used to – I sat down finally to watch the most recent BBC ‘Sherlock’ series (pictured). For whatever reason I’d never really engaged with the Sherlock universe before this (despite the many novels, hundreds of TV and film adaptations, video games, plays, exhibitions …) but I loved the series, and, in particular, I loved the theatrical nature of it all. Whilst Sherlock is often thought of as introspective and closed off, he’s actually highly performative – he loves going out in disguise, in playing a part, and he revels in the reveals of his intellect and of the perpetrators of the crimes he solves.


This led me to read (all of) the original novels and short stories and begin to wonder … what might a Sherlock opera look (and sound) like? As well as potentially opening up a whole new audience to opera who were fans of Conan Doyle’s detective, it promised to explore new ways of telling a different kind of story through opera – a fast-paced, narrative driven detective drama.


How could music create the ‘sound’ of deduction? How could a contemporary sound world complement the smog-filled streets of Victorian London? And how could we create a crime scene dramatically and musically that would keep audiences on the edge of their seats?


Shortly before the first lockdown of March 2020 I attended the premiere of Lliam Paterson’s ‘The Angel Esmerelda’ (pictured) at the Guildhall School in London. As well as enjoying an entertaining and thought-provoking performance, I was struck by Lliam’s musical and dramatic skill. He had musically created a host of compelling characters, and weaved together a complicated story in a way that made for a gripping drama. Lliam was surely the composer to bring Sherlock to the operatic stage for the first time!


Fortunately, Lliam was also very interested in this idea, and we began to explore which Sherlock story to adapt. Whilst many of the short stories have fascinating and familiar characters, ultimately we felt that they all lacked enough narrative to fill an evening’s opera; this meant that it was a case of seeing if any of the novels could work.


There are actually only four full Sherlock Holmes novels, of which ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ is by far the most famous. As tempting as it was to adapt this iconic story, we decided in the end on ‘The Sign of Four’.


There were many things going for this novel compared to the others. Rare for Holmes, it contains a love story; there are many classic elements including murder, mystery, and stolen treasure; and it contains some great set pieces, including a boat chase across the River Thames.


We’ll go into more detail of what to expect from the opera in future blogs, but needless to say that we’re embracing what has made these stories so popular with readers and audiences for well over 100 years – an abundance of intrigue and mystery, but never forgetting their sense of fun and adventure …

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