Three of the young stars of Skellig, the opera, tell David Whetstone about a world first for Gateshead.
THERE may be excitement on Broadway tonight with the New York premiere of Billy Elliot: The Musical, but on Tyneside another North East story is preparing for musical lift-off.
We are days away from the world premiere of Skellig, the opera, at The Sage Gateshead – and at least one New York couple will be flying in for the occasion.
They will be the mother and stepfather of Merrin Lazyan, the young American soprano who sings the role of Mina in the opera version of David Almond’s magical tale.
Their visit will coincide with Thanksgiving on November 27 – date of the third of the five fully-staged performances of Skellig in Hall One – but Merrin is confident it will prove worthwhile.
During a rehearsal break this week, she and two of her young co-stars agree that they have been having a fantastic time – even if they are still having to imagine the orchestra, the youth chorus and the sets that will adorn the fully fledged production.
Skellig tells of a boy called Michael whose parents move to a new house. It’s a stressful time because his mother, who is expecting a baby, is in hospital suffering from complications. Meanwhile, he finds that the garage has a mysterious and rather revolting winged occupant, Skellig.
Merrin, who is 25, read the book after learning about the auditions at the Royal College of Music.
“I loved it. The word ‘extraordinary’ is used a lot in the book and the opera, but it really is extraordinary,” she says. “It’s about renewal and rebirth and it really is just a beautiful story, captivating throughout. I think the opera captures everything about it.” Michael is played by 23-year-old Londoner Matthew Long, who graduated two years ago from York University with a degree in music and has sung with several celebrated choirs. It is to Merrin, who graduated from the Royal College of Music in the summer, that he owes his starring role. “They were having difficulty finding a boy who could look young enough for the role but could sing well enough to do a full contemporary opera,” she explains.
“I got together a list of people in London that I knew and one of them suggested Matthew.”
Merrin explains that the part of Mina, Michael’s friend, seemed tailor-made for her.
“They gave a very brief description of the character and it felt very much like me.
“They described her as a tomboy, which I can relate to. I’m smart and a bit self-righteous and, in the book, it describes her as small, dark haired and dark eyed.”
Matthew says: “When we met Merrin for the first time she matched how we imagined Mina to be.”
Cast as Leakey, another of Michael’s young friends, is 21-year-old Adam Welsh, from Spennymoor, who attended the Chorister School in Durham, was one of the original members of the Gala Theatre Stage School in the city and recently graduated with first-class honours from a London theatre arts academy.
The son of John and Melanie Welsh, who own a jewellery shop in Spennymoor, Adam was advised by his agent to attend an audition and to prepare some Benjamin Britten, acting and musical theatre being more his forte than opera.
“The first day, when I heard these guys sing, I thought: what the hell am I doing here?” he says candidly.
Matthew chips in: “Then we saw him acting and thought: what the hell are we doing here?”
“I’d heard of the book because I’m local,” continues Adam.
“I’d read it years ago but I re-read it and thought it was something I’d really like to do.
“For me and Coot (another friend, played by Kyle McPhail) they needed a couple of actors who could sing and read music. Our scene is actually quite physical.”
Braham Murray, revered artistic director of Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, is directing Skellig.
David Almond adapted his tale to form the libretto and the music is by American composer Tod Machover, who is known for championing electronic music.
This sounds perfect for Skellig, a tale with a supernatural air, but the choir and the Northern Sinfonia will provide a classical counterpoint to Tod’s gizmos.
Merrin says she lived and studied for five years in Boston, a 15-minute journey from Tod’s home, and their paths never crossed. It has taken a trip to Gateshead to unite them.
Musically, she says, Skellig is “very exciting. It’s not a traditional opera but hopefully it will change people’s opinion of what an opera actually is. There’s certainly a crowd of people here who think it’s pretty incredible.”
Skellig, which was commissioned by The Sage Gateshead and culture10, is in Hall One on November 24, 25, 27, 28 and 29.
For tickets tel (0191) 443-4661 or go online at www.thesagegateshead.org/ skellig