Scottish Opera were annual visitors to Newcastle Theatre Royal for 30 years until 1997 when their regular slot was taken by Opera North, based in Leeds.
The Glasgow-based company built up a large and loyal following before Arts Council England decided an English theatre should be served by an English company. There are still some who quibble but Opera North have had plenty of time to build up their own loyal fan base in the North East.
A few years ago they thrilled us with a sparkling production of Ruddigore, winning many plaudits for their treatment of the Gilbert and Sullivan comedy.
This week it’s nice to welcome back Scottish Opera to the Theatre Royal – with yet another operatic treatment of Gilbert and Sullivan.
It’s The Pirates of Penzance this time, a show so brilliantly barmy that the Monty Python team might have dreamt it up if the Victorian maestros hadn’t got in ahead of them.
And it sees Scottish Opera in cahoots with D’Oyly Carte, the time-honoured Gilbert and Sullivan specialists who, also, back in the mid-1990s, were toying with the idea of relocating to the Tyne Theatre & Opera House. In the end they went to London, which is where the company headquarters remains.
There was a time when proper opera companies looked down their noses at Gilbert and Sullivan. The pair – Gilbert the librettist, Sullivan the composer – wrote fluffy ‘operettas’ rather than ‘grand operas’ and not only were they usually funny but they were also sung in English. Horrors!
Their creations were left to the amateurs – who have always loved them – and to the opera company founded in 1878 by their producer, Richard D’Oyly Carte, after the roaring success of HMS Pinafore.
All that, too, is water under the bridge. Gilbert and Sullivan, it seems, are now firmly in the operatic fold.
In The Pirates of Penzance we meet Frederic who is happy because, having just turned 21, his apprenticeship to a band of pirates is at an end and he is free to marry his sweetheart, Mabel.
But there’s a problem. Because he was born on February 29 in a leap year, Frederic will not be free of his roguish masters for another 63 years.
Singing the part of Ruth in the Scottish Opera/D’Oyly Carte production is contralto Rosie Aldridge, born in Hertfordshire and an award-winning graduate of the Royal College of Music’s International Opera School.
Ruth was Frederic’s nursemaid and she it was who got him into this pickle, mishearing his father’s request that she apprentice him to a ship’s pilot.
“The thing is,” says Rosie diplomatically, “there’s always been a tradition with Gilbert and Sullivan, a wonderful tradition, that it’s been done by amateur companies, which has been great.
“But while amateur performers are often wonderful on stage, there’s not always the same emphasis on the music. I think The Pirates of Penzance has some of the best music he (Arthur Sullivan) wrote. There is some really beautiful music in it.
“I think that’s what audiences in Newcastle can expect, that while this production is really good fun it will also put great emphasis on the music.”
Rosie, whose comic performance generates much of that fun, agrees that opera companies tended to steer clear of Gilbert and Sullivan in the past.
“Some people have very strong views about it but I actually think it shows a broadness if you can do this kind of repertoire as well.
“One thing I’ve discovered is that this music is incredibly hard to sing well and anyone who thinks it’s going to be a breeze is sadly mistaken.”
There are all those words, for example. A famous example of the so-called patter song features in The Pirates of Penzance: “I am the very model of a modern major-general.”
Try delivering that while adhering to the operatic tradition of legato, meaning a smoothness of delivery.
“I’ve got a little bit of it and I can tell you that it’s not easy,” says Rosie.
She recalls her first operatic experience seeing Carmen at the Royal Albert Hall when she was eight. “I enjoyed the first half very much and fell asleep in the second. It didn’t put me off.”
See The Pirates of Penzance at Newcastle Theatre Royal from tomorrow until Saturday. Box office: 0844 811 2121.