The creative partnerships shaping theatre in Yorkshire

James Brining, artistic director at Leeds Playhouse, is directing his first opera with Opera North. (Tony Johnson).
James Brining, artistic director at Leeds Playhouse, is directing his first opera with Opera North. (Tony Johnson).
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Next week sees the opening of The Magic Flute, a co-production between Leeds Playhouse and Opera North. Nick Ahad reports.

Everything feels familiar, but at the same time it feels different.

I’m interviewing James Brining, Leeds Playhouse artistic director, something I’ve done many times before, but this time I walk past the theatre he leads – where we might normally meet – and head towards the centre of Leeds and Opera North in its home at Leeds Grand Theatre. It’s a venue I’ve visited countless times to interview all manner of creatives, but never Brining.

This sense of ‘same but different’ is something Brining himself is experiencing, he tells me, as we sit down for lunch early in the new year.

He has been working as a professional theatre director all of his adult life. He’s staged epic musicals like Sunshine on Leith, modern classics like Alan Bennett’s Enjoy and all kinds of new writing at theatres across the nation. This year, however, he is directing opera for the first time. The Magic Flute is the opening production of Opera North’s 2019 season.

“On the surface it’s not that different,” he says. “For me it’s about getting the performers to find the truth of what they are singing about and to tell the story they are telling in the most engaging way. As a theatre director your job is to try and work out what story it is you are trying to tell. In this situation you are like the auteur of the story and the question you always ask is how can we tell the story as truthfully, as honestly as possible.”

It is heartening to see Brining at this venue. It speaks to a new sense of collaboration between the arts and the artists in the city of Leeds, something which has emerged over the past few years as the city combined to submit its bid to be the European Capital of Culture in 2023. Ultimately the bid failed, largely because of the political machinations behind Brexit, but out of that failure came new successes, new partnerships and a new energy for culture in the city. This collaboration, between Brining and Opera North, is a perfect manifestation of that new energy.

“Leeds Playhouse and Opera North have so many creative ambitions in common. As the creative leader of the Playhouse I am in a position where I want to collaborate with the other organisations in the city and this seemed like the perfect moment,” says Brining.

The Playhouse is currently undergoing a major redevelopment. This autumn a new £16m theatre will be opened to the public. It means the timing is perfect for Brining to take on directing a production for Opera North. “We’ve been looking for a project to work together on since we collaborated on Into the Woods and this all just came together perfectly.”

Into the Woods was the production helmed by Brining in 2016. The Sondheim musical is a big, demanding piece of work and the production being supported by Opera North, which lent the show its chorus, made it possible.

“It was a production we wouldn’t have been able to do ourselves as the Playhouse,” says Brining. “Opera North bringing its resources allowed us to put it on and it was a happy partnership, so we’ve been looking for something to work on together since then.”

The Magic Flute is one of Mozart’s best-loved but most complex operas, it tells the story of Prince Tamino. He is on a quest to rescue Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night, held captive by Sarastro, the Priest of the Sun. Tamino is accompanied by Papageno, a bird-catcher, who is also on a quest – to find himself a wife, his Papagena. But their mission soon becomes a journey of discovery, for nothing is quite as it first appears. Brining says: “I only ever want to make a piece of work if it has something to say about here and now because otherwise what’s the point? If it doesn’t do that, you’re not in a theatre, you’re in a museum.

“This piece has a lot of challenges, not least in the problematic attitudes of the day when it was written, but they are just challenges I need to solve. My biggest ambition is to make it clear, make it readable to a contemporary audience.”

Brining then talks about the themes he is uncovering in the play. There are not many interviews with opera directors that go into the idea of a production referencing Doctor Who and The Handmaid’s Tale, being in a first person computer game and tackling the ideas of reason versus science, of the French Revolution and a patriarchy which pits male as good and female as bad. There’s also the notion of what culture is for and the nature of deities, spiritualism and how those things are in opposition to or harmony 
with each other.

It is going to make for a fascinating production and, given the excitement around the show, it feels like another step in a creative friendship that is going to continue to bring a lot of benefits to all of us.

Exciting artistic collaborations

The Magic Flute isn’t the only collaboration in Opera North’s season that should excite theatre audiences. The company is also collaborating for the first time with the Leeds-based, internationally renowned Phoenix Dance Theatre in a new production of The Rite of Spring. The Stravinsky piece was premiered in Paris in 1913 with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky. This new production will be choreographed by internationally-acclaimed Haitian choreographer Jeanguy Saintus with dancers from Phoenix.

The Magic Flute premieres on January 19 and the Rite of Spring on February 16. Full details www.operanorth.co.uk