Blog: Helen Harrison

The music director and conductor for Preston Opera says if you love soaps, you should try opera

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While working on Bellini’s opera Norma for the last few months it hasn’t failed to strike us all in rehearsals for the production how the stories the opera explores haven’t changed in nearly 200 years. If you think you haven’t heard any of his music think again, as the most famous number from the opera Casta Diva featured in an ad for a very famous brand of perfume in the ubiquitous Christmas ad push!

Like the news and storylines that fill our mobile phone, tablet and TV screens today, Bellini’s opera explores the dramatic themes of countries under occupation, communities under threat and facing intimidation. But like all the best dramas Bellini uses the personal lives of the characters in his story to make sure we relate to the impact on their daily lives. Attraction and passion trigger forbidden love between warring communities, resulting in complex love triangles and divided families. A love rat is ready to abandon his children for his next adventure in the bedroom while a strong friendship between two women is at the core of the drama; this kind of dramatic material screams soap opera!

Working in opera, we have all the ingredients that EastEnders and Corrie have and then we add in the excitement of a live performance in a theatre to a live audience and, of course, the key ingredient – fabulous and beautiful music. With stunning singing and a live orchestra underpinning the storyline the music tells a story beyond the words and speaks to us on entirely emotional level.

Back to the storyline and it can be too easy to let the names of the characters distance us from the drama. If you see past the unusual names (that were probably not even popular choices in the 1830s top baby names list!), Norma, Adalgisa and Pollione, the characters and their choices are just the same as the Kat Slaters, David Platts and those we see on our screens today.

Norma, Bellini’s title role, is not a superhuman operatic heroine but a real woman struggling with problems we can all recognise. She’s a working mum, providing for two children, holding down a responsible job and a prominent leadership role in her community.

As soon as we meet her we know she is struggling as she juggles her loyalty for her community against her illicit love for the hated leader of the enemy, Pollione. Without giving away too many spoilers, before too long she realises that he is about to abandon her and their two secret children to return home. To rub salt in the wound, he is going take his new lover with him, leaving her with the day-to-day challenges of raising two children.

It’s an age-old story – Norma has been prepared to sacrifice everything for the love of her man but for what?

Even worse, she then discovers that she has been cheated on by her younger best friend and colleague Adalgisa, with love rat Pollione. In her defence, Adalgisa, being a trusting type, had no idea Pollione was still sleeping with Norma when she fell for him.

It’s an age-old story – Norma has been prepared to sacrifice everything for the love of her man but for what? She faces being an outcast from her society – not only has she had an affair with the enemy but she has two children by the wrong man and she knows only too well what that will mean for the future of her children in her community. Her final act of the drama is truly tragic. Skip this to avoid spoilers – but she pays the ultimate price for loving the wrong man and the wrong man.

Norma’s plight highlights the reality and struggles of people being occupied by a foreign power and losing their rights to autonomy and self-governance, and the tensions this brings. Personal love stories suddenly become complex and tragic affairs just because of the different sides people find themselves on. It’s an all too familiar story we see unfolding on our news feeds day after day.

After all of this though fundamentally opera is entertainment, just like TV dramas, however hard-hitting the issues may be. A key part of my role as the conductor is making sure that the audience is going to be carried along in the moment and enjoy its night out. If you like going to watch live music events with a great storyline thrown in for good measure then go on – give opera a go!

Preston Opera production of Bellini’s Norma is at Preston’s Charter Theatre at Preston Guild Hall, 7-9 June. Performances start at 7.15pm. Tickets from £17.50. Special offer: Buy three tickets get fourth free. Preston Guild Hall box office: 01772 80 44 44, Follow us on Facebook: Preston Opera, @PrestonOpera and

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