The boundary-defying nature of opera is nowhere better illustrated than in Opera North’s new production of Verdi’s La Traviata – set in Paris, sung in Italian and with South Korean singers in the leading roles.
“It’s a great show, absolutely beautiful, and with some amazing singing,” says tenor Daniel Norman who is English and grew up in Shropshire.
“Hye Youn Lee and Ji-Min Park are both wonderful singers and it’s interesting to hear conversations in Korean going on in the corridors.”
Hye Youn Lee, the soprano, plays Violetta, the sickly courtesan who falls into an ill-fated love affair with young suitor Alfredo (Ji-Min Park).
Daniel sings the part of Gastone, Alfredo’s friend, who introduces the couple.
Audience reaction after the first few performances has been fantastic, says Daniel.
It augurs well for the Newcastle run of this first new Opera North production of La Traviata for 15 years, although it has been a box office banker ever since its shaky first performance in Venice in 1853 when the audience jeered at a Violetta they considered too old and plump to be playing a woman dying of tuberculosis.
The production, directed by Alessandro Talevi and designed by Madeleleine Boyd, will be performed twice at Newcastle Theatre Royal next week (returning in March next year) along with productions of The Bartered Bride (Smetana) and The Coronation of Poppea (Monteverdi).
If you are not a fan you might think this is all pretty rarefied stuff but Daniel is keen for as many people as possible to get a taste for opera. He is father to boys aged 10, eight and six and has no qualms about taking the older pair to the opera.
“People worry about taking their kids to opera, and it is expensive, but I try to get mine to see everything. If you can make it work, it’s amazing what kids will respond to.
“It can be difficult. You can almost see people thinking ‘Oh, God’ when you come in with the kids, but if you can find them a seat on the end of the row, it’s worth it. They’re the next audience. The current audience needs to take some responsibility for developing the future audience otherwise there won’t be anything for anybody to see.”
Daniel comes from a musical household, his mother teaching piano and violin and his father a keen amateur pianist. At the age of eight he became a chorister at Lichfield Cathedral where he developed a taste for ensemble singing which has never left him.
“The experience of singing with other people in a choir or group satisfies quite a primal instinct,” he says. “Think of a crowd singing at a football match or mourners at a funeral. Singing with other people you are tapping into a very deep human need.”
Daniel went to Oxford as a choral scholar and sung in the New College Choir. He was a founder member of an opera company which is still going strong . But his degree subject was engineering.
“I knew I loved singing but at 18 it’s hard to make these choices. Engineering was really enjoyable but after leaving Oxford I moved to London and started singing in Westminster Abbey and Cathedral and also with the Monteverdi Choir. At the same time I was doing a bit of solo singing.”
He also had periods studying music in Canada and the United States, all the time finding role models and people in positions to provide sound advice.
Despite his love of choral singing, the time came when he decided he had to start putting himself forward as a soloist. As an operatic career started to take shape, he sung the part of Peter Quint in The Turn of the Screw in a touring production from Glyndebourne and made his Covent Garden debut is Borsa in Rigoletto.
Now in his forties, he returns to Opera North having previously sung in productions of Madame Butterfly, Norma and Queen of Spades.
La Traviata, he agrees, is seen as an operatic archetype. “If you have a Hollywood movie where people are at the opera, that’s generally what they go to see, La Traviata or La Bohème. It is what people tend to think of when they think of opera on stage.
“In one sense it makes it easier to get an audience to come along but there’s also a danger of alienating people who think opera is a lot of stuffed shirts, pretty frocks, chandeliers and wobbly singing.
“The challenge in producing this opera is to keep the people who want a more traditional experience happy while also coming up with something which has something to say about contemporary life. If you are producing a piece of art it has to have some relevance, otherwise what’s the point?
“In this production I think they have come up with a really good balance. It’s very beautiful, set in Belle Époque Paris and with lovely costumes, but at the same time it doesn’t pull any punches.”
Daniel also puts in a good word for The Coronation of Poppea, in which he sings the part of Liberto.
“In a way it’s the polar opposite, in terms of what people expect to see when they go to the opera. It was one of the first operas ever written and it calls for a very special group of instruments, including harpsichord and viola da gamba, which you will see on stage.
“It gives the viewer a totally different sound world and it is also quite glamorous. It’s set in the 1960s and it’s like Mad Men meets The Sopranos with very dangerous characters and a lot of people on edge, not knowing if they’re going to live or die.
“It is the world of the Emperor Nero but updated – a really great piece of theatre and a fantastic thing to be involved in.”
Daniel is looking forward to returning to the North East. Not only has he performed at the Theatre Royal with Opera North before, but he also went there recently as an audience member to see Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, which he thoroughly enjoyed
At the time he had been performing over the river, at Sage Gateshead, in one of the Best of Bach concerts with harpsichordist Laurence Cummings who is also musical director on The Coronation of Poppea.
Looking ahead to next year, Daniel relishes the prospect of singing the coveted role of Captain Vere in Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd for a company in Holland.
First, though, we get to hear him at the Theatre Royal. Opera North are in residence from November 11-15. For tickets tel. 08448 112121 or buy online at www.theatreroyal.co.uk