On the road with Lancashire's Heritage Opera Company

Lancashire's hugely successful opera company is about to hit the road

There are rustlings in the undergrowth at Browsholme Hall, the ancient family home of the Parker family near Clitheroe. Singers from Heritage Opera, Lancashire’s own professional touring opera company, are stepping out from behind the bushes after changing into historical costumes for a photo shoot with Lancashire Life.

Tenor Nicholas Sales is having trouble tying his 18th Century necktie, or ‘stock’ as it’s known in the profession. His partner, Liverpool-born soprano Sarah Helsby Hughes sighs patiently as he starts the complicated process again.

He should be used to the intricacies of historical dressing by now, as he has been singing with Heritage Opera since meeting Helsby Hughes in 2009. She recalls: ‘Nick was singing full-time in Germany, but it so happened that we needed a tenor for our production of Don Giovanni. It’s one of his favourite roles, so he came on board in spring 2010, and has sung in every production since.’

Heritage Opera productions are known for their beautiful historical garb.‘I am a complete costume nut,’ says Sarah. ‘I am one of those annoying people who get quite agitated by anomalies in period costume. The others laugh at me because of my never-ending vendetta against zip fasteners. Really authentic costume is an expensive business, but it’s a necessary luxury for us and our audiences love it.’

Heritage Opera began in Leyland in 2006 when conductor Chris Gill arranged a short tour of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte, which visited several Lancastrian venues. The tour went well, and he arranged and conducted at least three opera tours a year until 2011.

His wife, soprano Serenna Wagner, is still a company member but Gill decided to concentrate more on his teaching career and he handed over the reins to Sarah and Nick, who have been running the company ever since.

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Chris is still musical director and he is the chairman of the charity that runs the company. He remembers: ‘I’d always wanted to put on Cosi, as it was my favourite opera, but I didn’t really think past that point. When it was a great success, Serenna and I thought we should carry on, so we decided to produce Eugene Onegin. That’s when Tom Thomas, one of our regular baritone leads, joined. The company really took off, and we produced another three operas the following year.’

Gill was also far-sighted enough to realise that producing operas in small stately homes, while a pleasant occupation that brought pleasure to many, would not put the name of Heritage Opera on the musical map. He had the audacious idea of commissioning a new opera, conceived for just their type of country house performance, and he approached arguably the foremost opera composer in the UK today, the �ber-cool Jonathan Dove to write it for him.

The world premi�re of Mansfield Park, based on the Jane Austen novel, was given at Boughton House, the home of the Duke of Buccleugh, in summer 2011.

It toured Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cheshire, and eventually appeared at the trendy London opera festival, Grimeborn, to rave reviews from the national press. Chris Gill’s ambition to make Heritage Opera ‘an artistic force to be reckoned with’ had paid off, and Heritage Opera is now regularly invited to play at top stately homes, large theatres, festivals and for corporate entertainment.

One of the reasons for Heritage Opera’s continued success lies in their uncompromising musical standards. They use only professional singers and try wherever possible to employ performers with a link to Lancashire, and this season they are delighted to have secured the services of John Anthony Cunningham.

This Wigan lad, who was born and raised in the Gidlow area of the town, is now making quite a stir in opera circles. John studied to be a chartered librarian, and worked in the local library service after qualifying at the Manchester College of Commerce.

Taking private singing lessons at the Royal Northern College of Music, John started performing with local amateur societies in the Wigan area, appearing with Wigan Gilbert & Sullivan Society and Hindley & Abram Operatic Society. He also remembers singing as a guest soloist with Wigan Ladies’ Choir in one of his first professionally paid concerts.

John’s boss at the library encouraged his blossoming talent, and he took holidays to audition for professional opera companies, eventually being offered a contract at English National Opera. His job at the library was kept open for him for a year, but he never looked back, and he has since performed as a soloist all over the world.

But John hasn’t forgotten his roots.‘I am particularly excited to be singing in my home town once again,’ he said. Heritage Opera’s summer show – The Marriage of Figaro - will visit Haigh Hall on the August 1.

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