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Young singers prepare for opera premiere at The Sage

A new North East opera company will be born tomorrow. David Whetstone enjoyed a preview of what’s in store

Samling Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring
Samling Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring

In Hall Two of Sage Gateshead yesterday a group of supremely-talented young singers were putting the final touches to their production of a Benjamin Britten opera.

From my perch in one of the upper galleries I enjoyed their performance of Albert Herring and felt privileged to be in at the start of something.

Karon Wright, director of the Samling charity, which nurtures young singing talent, called it “a virtuous circle”.

Seventeen years ago Samling, which is based in Hexham, organised its first masterclasses for singers with concert hall and operatic potential.

Over an intensive – yet comfortable – week, the Samling Scholars would eat, breathe and sleep music while receiving tuition from major figures in music such as Seaham-born Sir Thomas Allen.

Now Samling has moved into schools and universities, seeking the best younger singers for the Samling Academy whose members are giving three performances of the Benjamin Britten comedy this week.

That virtuous circle is complete because Samling can now call upon a growing pool of past Samling Scholars to share their expertise with members of the Samling Academy.

Miranda Wright, who is the director of Albert Herring, was a Samling Scholar back in 1999 and is now a highly sought after singing teacher in the North East.

Johnny Herford, who plays Sid, was a Samling Scholar in February, having studied at the Royal Academy of Music, while James Baillieu, pianist and music director, was a Samling Scholar in 2009 and 2010 and a Samling Academy Leader in 2012.

Samling has staged operas twice before but Albert Herring, Britten’s tongue-in-cheek look at village life, marks the debut of the Samling Academy Opera with a cast drawn from across the region.

I had met some of the young singers during an early rehearsal a couple of months ago.

There was 20-year-old Charlotte Heslop, from Spennymoor, who works for a children’s literacy charity and has sung in church choirs since she was nine. Charlotte plays Florence Pike, housekeeper to Lady Billows in Albert Herring.

Then there was 14-year-old Emily Bullock, from Teesside, who takes lessons with Miranda and was one of the pioneering girl choristers at Durham Cathedral.

Emily plays a mischievous little boy called Harry in the opera.

Her eyes forever twinkling and her hair tied up beneath a tweed cap, she makes a star of a character without a great deal of singing to do. The title role is sung by Alex Banfield, who is 23 and from Morpeth. Previously in bands, he came to Samling almost by accident after a friend introduced him to Karon Wright’s daughter.

He is perfectly cast as the supposedly simple boy who is chosen to be the May King – breaking the May Queen tradition – in a village ceremony and then sheds his ‘village simpleton’ tag after his soft drink is spiked with rum.

As well as singing beautifully, Alex has an enigmatic demeanour on stage, embodying the phrase ‘still waters run deep’.

It’s a bit of a curiosity, Albert Herring. Britten may have called it a comedy but there are some troubling forces at play which mean you sometimes don’t know whether to smile or squirm.

That there are some genuinely funny moments is as much to do with fine acting as the words in the text. Clare Tunney plays Lady Billows as puffed up as the name suggests.

The costumes and the props are very professionally done – real food in the banquet scene, no less – but above all it is the singing that impresses. Samling has really unearthed some gems from within our midst.

And that is the significance of this Albert Herring: it is performed by an opera company, Samling Academy Opera, conceived and born in the North East, a region which doesn’t actually have a professional opera company of its own.

One or two of these young performers, who all live or study in the region, will surely go on to great things.

In the meantime, Albert Herring is being performed at Saltburn Community Theatre on Wednesday (Tel. 01287 624997 for tickets) and in Hall Two of Sage Gateshead on Friday and Saturday (0191 443 4661). See it and you will be heartily entertained.

For more on Samling and its activities, visit www.samling.org.uk

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