York Opera hits the high notes

Michael Foster as Strephon in Iolanthe
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Michael Foster as Strephon in Iolanthe

Michael Foster as Strephon in Iolanthe

As their latest production hits the Theatre Royal, York Opera chairman Hilary Dyson offers a guide to its stars and shows

York Opera is a charity founded in 1966, and over the years has produced a wide range of operas, from well-known favourites such as Bizet’s Carmen, to rarely seen works such as Britten’s Peter Grimes.

Referred to by David Denton in the Yorkshire Post as “one of the UK’s most highly regarded amateur companies” it has staged many operas that would not otherwise have been seen in the city, and given countless amateur singers of all ages the opportunity to participate.

We consider ourselves very lucky to be able to attract not just high calibre soloists but also singers of all ages and all abilities who want to sing and perform for pleasure.

We are a group of extremely talented amateurs with a passionate love of music. Most of our group are not trained singers, but with inspiring musical and stage direction we achieve results that we are proud to share with the public.

I found a definition of opera on a children’s website: “lots of emotion, lots of women singing very loud & high, lots of main characters dying”. Some might say that’s opera in a nutshell – but York Opera are on a mission to prove that opera can be for everyone.

Meet the stars

James Wood as Antonio in The Marriage of Figaro

James Wood as Antonio in The Marriage of Figaro

Recent recruits include Michael Foster, who played Strephon in Iolanthe last year. “Opera combines drama and excitement, using music to convey emotion as well as telling a story,” Michael says.

“Over the years I have enjoyed performing all different sorts of music. I have sung with York Light Opera, taking roles in musicals, and performed in a folk band.

“But there is nothing like the excitement of singing with a full orchestra – no microphones! – surrounded by a talented chorus, to a packed audience.”

James Wood first performed with York Opera whilst still at school – as do many of the younger performers – and has returned to sing with the group again now he is working in the city.

He played the role of the gardener in extracts from The Marriage Of Figaro in May 2013. He says: “I’ve always enjoyed opera – it’s engaging, technically challenging, and involves so many different aspects of performance.

“For me, the great thing about being one of the younger ones is being able to bring in new ideas, as well as the opportunities presented by casting.

“I stand out because of my voice, and because I am suitable for parts which some other members aren’t. Currently I am understudying one of the lead roles in Nabucco – I have received so much support from everyone in the group, as well as having a chance to steal the limelight during rehearsals, which I am hoping will help me with my confidence for future auditions.”

Rebecca Smith is currently rehearsing for the role of Fenena in Nabucco, although as she says “my previous principal roles have been in a much lighter vein: Gilbert and Sullivan operettas playing the character parts of Mad Margaret in Ruddigore and the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe – so this role is completely different.

“Although Nabucco does have some great foot tapping tunes…”

Celebrating Verdi

Rebecca Smith as Fenena in York Opera's production of Nabucco

Rebecca Smith as Fenena in York Opera’s production of Nabucco

This year marks the bi-centenary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi, one of the most famous and celebrated musicians of the 19th century. York Opera is joining in the celebrations with our production of his opera Nabucco at York Theatre Royal.

Nabucco is set in biblical times, and is based on the story of Nebuchadnezzar as he conquers the Israelites and exiles them from their homeland. It is a unique historical backdrop for an opera filled with romantic and political themes, all weaving together to form an intense tale of redemption.

The best known theme from the opera is The Chorus Of The Hebrew Slaves, a powerful chorus number which is regularly performed and recorded to this day.

Nabucco remains a relevant and engaging piece of opera as many of the themes explored in it still exist today.

Staging grand opera is always a risk, but York Opera are confident that our production will have great appeal to those not familiar with Verdi or opera as much as it will to fans of the medium.

We would love people who might not normally consider themselves opera – or even classical music – fans to come and see the show – give it a go!


  • Nabucco is being performed at York Theatre Royal on Wednesday, October 23 and Friday, October 25 at 7.30pm, and on Saturday 26th October at 4pm
  • More details on the York Opera. To book, see the York Theatre Royal website

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