Research and Development
Written by David Ward (Artistic Director)
Through our partnership with Leeds School of Arts, we had the rare privilege of three days of research and development on ‘Sherlock Holmes’ in January.
Following an audition workshop with their undergraduate Performing Arts students, we selected 7 to join us for the process. We’ve always enjoyed working with creatives who may have limited, or no, previous experience of opera – in an industry that can sometimes be a little insular, it brings fresh ideas and ways of working into Northern Opera Group (especially useful in an R&D process!)
Led by our designer, Caitlin Mawhinney, and me, the students explored several scenes from the opera, with a focus on (1) the role of the chorus and (2) the various vehicles that appear in the story.
The chorus are a narratorial presence in ‘The Sign of Four’, and we wanted to explore some key questions – such as ‘who are they?’ ‘why do they know what they know?’ and ‘why do they care?!’
We started with the idea that they were avid readers of the Sherlock Holmes adventures (written by Dr Watson and published in The Strand magazine). Whilst this worked well in the opening scene, it was difficult to keep this going throughout the opera – particularly as I wanted the chorus to be heavily involved in things like scene changes, where they needed to be active and take on a number of different roles and responsibilities.
What emerged, therefore, as we progressed through the score was more the idea of the chorus as an ominous and suspicious presence. Thinking about Sherlock’s own Baker Street Irregulars (a gang of street urchins who can move silently throughout the city, gathering information that no one else can access) and Moriarty’s complex web of criminals constantly evading the law, our chorus are shady citizens of London; any of whom could be hiding a secret, or be victims of a crime in need of Sherlock’s help.
(I had also just read Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’, in which a group of seemingly unassuming and unconnected people were all capable of murder! Christie’s gang of 10 were the perfect inspiration for our own ‘Sign of Four’ chorus)
In keeping with the score’s fluid and fast-moving nature, we also wanted to look at how much we could use people and found objects to create the opera’s set pieces; including the hansom cab (a horse drawn taxi) and the police boat used in the climactic chase scene. The students threw themselves in to creating the vehicles, exploring things such as how to create the feeling of movement, and use of shadow imagery to create suspense (and the thrill of the chase!)
Whilst the R&D days were not about creating the fully formed scenes you’ll see in the finished production, they were hugely useful in exploring the ideas and approaches that we’ll use come rehearsals in August. They also helped form the main stage design concept which we look forward to sharing very soon …