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Opera singer Jon Stainsby finally gets to sing on home soil

A new operatic venture sees top class productions reaching places most opera companies never reach

Michael Wharley Jon Stainsby who appears as the Speaker of the Temple in Mozart's The Magic Flute
Jon Stainsby who appears as the Speaker of the Temple in Mozart's The Magic Flute

An opera singer brought up in the North East doesn’t get too many opportunities to perform on home soil, which is why Jon Stainsby is understandably delighted.

He is one of the cast of The Magic Flute, which a new Leeds-based company called Young Opera Venture is taking to places a little off the operatic beaten track.

These include Consett, Middlesbrough and Hexham, all well within striking distance of Newcastle, where Jon was born, and Ponteland, where he grew up and where his parents still live.

“I’m really looking forward to performing on stage in the North East,” said Jon after opening night in Barnsley.

“I don’t get the opportunity to be there very often but for me it’s a very special place and where it all began. My parents will be in the audience and for once they don’t need to travel too far to see me sing.”

Young Opera Venture was set up in 2012, with the great soprano Dame Felicity Lott as its patron.

Founder and artistic director Jane Anthony said: “We set out to take opera to new locations and to give young singers experience of performing to larger audiences.

“The Magic Flute is perfect for people new to opera. It’s a magical fairytale of good and evil and the performance is a stunning visual spectacle.”

Barnsley was the first stop on a tour that also includes Oldham, Wakefield, Huddersfield, Stamford and Chesterfield.

Mozart’s music has been seducing people for centuries and this production, performed by 17 young singers from across the country, is sung in English so there should be nothing mystifying about it.

Jon, who at 34 is one of the senior members of the cast, said: “I did musical things at school but I suppose my earliest musical experience was as a chorister in the cathedral choir in Newcastle.

“That was what really got me singing and got me involved in music.

“I was about nine when I joined and I think it’s exciting for kids to be doing something that feels like a professional venture – because that’s what it is. The highest standards are demanded of you.

“These days I do sometimes sing in church choirs and it’s always quite interesting to watch the boy choristers. Half the time they’re behaving like the nine-year-olds they are but then the rest of the time, in choir terms, they are really mature and on the ball.”

Jon said he doesn’t come from a professionally musical family, “but both of my parents have been quite keen amateur musicians. They’ve both been in choral societies and played the piano and they’re regular concert-goers at the Sage”.

He recalled being taken to concerts at an early age but didn’t go unthinkingly into music as a profession.

“There was a period when I thought it might be something I just did in my spare time. But I think gradually there was an irresistible draw into singing full-time.

“I started in early church music because I went to university (Caius College, Cambridge) as a choral scholar but I also sang in other choirs and played in an orchestra. Then I started to have the opportunity to be in operas and to do things on stage.”

After Cambridge he completed a doctorate in English literature at Oxford and only then started singing full-time. He studied opera at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, and is now based in London. In 2012 he won the Delius Prize, inaugurated to introduce young musicians to the British composer’s work. “It is open to students of all the UK conservatoires,” he said, before adding with a rather apologetic laugh: “It is a slightly niche interest.”

Nothing niche about Mozart or The Magic Flute, in which Jon sings the bass-baritone role of The Speaker of the Temple. It’s a proven audience-pleaser and just the thing to woo operatic newcomers.

Jon said of Young Opera Venture: “It’s a company that has a really clear sense of its purpose. It is really evangelical in taking opera to theatres and venues in towns where it’s rare to find operatic performances.

“Also, it was set up very much in the interest of young singers who are at an exciting but also difficult stage of their careers. They’ve finished their training and are just starting out and trying to get noticed.

“This offers appropriate repertoire and the chance to appear in a touring show that will be seen and possibly reviewed. It puts you in front of the public.”

But will it really reach new audiences?

“The question, I’d say, is not does it reach young people, but could it?” replied Jon.

“I think it’s only possible for opera to reach new audiences – young audiences – if it’s made available to them. That has to involve performances outside the major cultural centres. We had a good audience and a very enthusiastic response on the first night.

“A lot of people went away looking happy.”

That will surely be the case in the North East.

See The Magic Flute at Consett Empire on Friday (01207 218 171), Middlesbrough Theatre on October 8 (01642 815 181/729 729) or Queen’s Hall, Hexham, on October 24 (01434 652 477). All performances are at 7.30pm.

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