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Ian McMillan

Local artists create world's first Northern opera

It may seem an unlikely pairing, but Yorkshire’s famous lilting brogue will unite with opera next year, as poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan creates the world’s first ‘Northern opera’.

The Arsonists will be sung in McMillan’s native Barnsley accent and dialect – the first ever opera to portray a Northern identity through the singing voice.

The work is being produced in collaboration with the University of Salford’s School of Arts and Media, and has seen McMillan team up with Alan Williams, the university’s professor of collaborative composition, and linguist Philip Tipton.

Speaking at Salford’s Peel Hall last week, the trio presented their unique project and the challenges they’ve faced.

Based on McMillan’s poetry, The Arsonists takes its inspiration from the real-life arson attack on the Yorkshire warehouse of internet clothing giant ASOS.

Some songs are dark and sinister, like Bow Tie and Smoke Drifts at Shift Change, while others are more light-hearted and comedic, such as Like Me Dad. What they all have in common are those notoriously short and restrictive Northern vowels.

Lyrics in Tears like a Bust Pipe, in which one character laments that he will never be able to perform like a classically trained opera singer, include:

‘As’ll nivver be a singer.
Ah’ll be silent as a stick in’t
Bucket in’t coal oil
As’ll nivver catch fire
That’s why ah’m rooarin.’

Traditionally opera is sung in received pronunciation (RP), regarded as the UK’s ‘standard accent’, with long open vowels, explained Williams.

“It is assumed that RP has the best vowels with which to produce an operatic singing sound,” he said. “That’s the position we started from. When I spoke to people in opera training, quite a few said it simply can’t be done – to sing in English, in the operatic voice, but project a Northern identity.”

The group overcame this challenge by systematically translating the original poems into phonetic language to guide the cast in this completely new way of singing.

“It’s much harder to do certain notes on certain vowels – for instance in the word ‘aria’,” said Williams. “To get a trained singer to sing a Northern ‘A’ is very difficult! I originally wanted the soprano to sing that vowel in a low note, ascending right up the scale. But we found out that it’s physically impossible for the larynx to shift like that. So in the process of creating the opera we have discovered a few things about the voice by asking the singers to sing vowels they wouldn’t normally.”

Linguist Philip Tipton added: “We have based the opera on Ian’s dialect and accent, which of course is just one of many – so the wider question we faced was, what does it mean to be Northern? What does it mean to sound Northern? Our goal was not to create a Northern pastiche, but to represent things faithfully, so the linguistics are important.”

“When writing the work what we always came up against is the terrible tyranny of the t apostrophe,” laughed McMillan. “That’s very hard to represent in song, but we have done it!”

The Arsonists will be staged next year.


Main image courtesy of Adrian Mealing.