Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd to revive La Boheme as part of Le Grand Depart celebrations

The Launch of Opera North's Benjamin Britten season at Harewood House. Phyllida Lloyd with Dr Richar

The Launch of Opera North's Benjamin Britten season at Harewood House. Phyllida Lloyd with Dr Richard Mantle - General Director of Opera North. - Credit: Joan Russell

She’s the director of Mamma Mia! one of the most successful musical films of all time, and now Phyllida Lloyd returns to Yorkshire as part of the Tour de France celebrations. Andrew Vine reports

It is the perennial feel-good film, the top-grossing musical of all time, which made its director one of the world’s most in-demand. But now Phyllida Lloyd, the woman who made the Abba musical Mamma Mia! into a worldwide smash hit is swapping the film studios for the Yorkshire stage in a return to the county and the opera company which helped to set her on the path to a stellar career. Phyllida is to revive her acclaimed production of Puccini’s La Boheme for Opera North at Leeds Grand Theatre – which played to rave reviews when first staged there in 1993 and in subsequent revivals – as part of the buzz about all things French to celebrate Le Grand Depart of the Tour de France in Yorkshire next summer.

Her production, set in 1950s Paris, has become iconic. There will be 15 performances, beginning on April 29th, featuring a young and vibrant cast. Opera North, and Phyllida, are aiming to attract a new audience for opera with the production, as well as those already at home with the genre.

For Phyllida, originally from Bristol, working once more in Yorkshire will be something of a homecoming. It was in 1991 that Opera North invited her to direct her first opera, Chabrier’s L’etoile. Subsequent successes for the company have included Gloriana (1999) and Peter Grimes (2006).

‘I had no idea whether I would be able to direct opera but I felt curiously in my element straight away,’ Phyllida said. The years that followed saw her forge a warm and enduring relationship with Opera North.

‘The company believes that longer rehearsal periods make better productions and this is the most important thing to me,’ added Phyllida. ‘They treat a revival of an opera like a new production and expect you not just to shove it back up on its feet in a couple of weeks but to prove that you can make it better than it was the last time.

‘They expect you to commit your time and you do. The company is comparatively small and there is a family feeling. There are many people there who have dedicated their entire working lives to the company. There is also a wonderful chorus and orchestra. Plus, I like northern humour!’

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Reviving La Boheme is an exciting prospect. ‘I never imagined the production would be revived and I’m thrilled that it doesn’t seem to have dated. I hope it’s a great introduction to opera especially for young people. It has an anarchic energy, lots of good jokes and I hope will be very powerful. The piece itself has a timeless quality.’

Film work has made Phyllida one of the world’s most talked about directors. Besides Mamma Mia!, she won praise for her film about Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady, which featured an astonishing central performance by Meryl Streep, winning her the Oscar for best actress.

And that success in a very different medium owes much to opera. ‘I think my work in opera in particular has prepared me for film. Working with large groups of people, having to be prepared to collaborate and call upon experts in other fields and working against a huge pressure of time are all similarities.

‘I think working with actors in film is similar to in the theatre except that you have to be more economical and explicit in what you want. There’s no time for ambiguity. There is nothing like the thrill of being on a film set with great film actors and having the entire machine available to help you realise something that frankly is in your head alone.

‘But film is a massively stressful business with large numbers of vested interests and I couldn’t do it all the time. There is complete freedom when directing a play and I like that time goes more slowly or there seems to be more of it in which to adventure without fear that a detour cannot be justified.’

There’s much to do before the curtain goes up on La Boheme. Phyllida’s schedule is hectic, as she shuttles between Britain and the United States, where she has recently staged an all female production of Julius Caesar, which struck a particular chord with audiences.

She has also been working in America with actress Fiona Shaw on performing Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. Phyllida said: ‘I haven’t worked abroad for a while and it’s a great privilege to be paid to go to other countries.’

But she’s looking forward to returning to Yorkshire, reacquainting herself with our breathtaking landscapes – and also discovering new places. The lauded Sheffield-born soprano Dame Josephine Barstow introduced her to the Dales. ‘I’ve been taken on some staggering walks in the Dales near Starbotton by Dame Josephine Barstow and I think the walk from Bolton Abbey to Burnsall - especially with a pub lunch at the end - is hard to beat.

‘I’ve just discovered Staithes which is quite a remarkably unspoilt and charming place - and would make a great location for a film of Peter Grimes.’

And there’s the tantalising prospect of more collaborations between Phyllida and Opera North, but for now, all she’s saying about that is: ‘We have irons in the fire.’

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