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‘Opera by the Lake’ with Sir Thomas Allen

In May 2019 I received the first email about Opera by the Lake and in the following October was invited to a meeting at Van Mildert College with the Deputy Principal, Dr Victoria Brown, and the college’s Arts Fellow, Matthew Morgan. This was to be the beginning of a nine-month project which was to culminate in an outstanding ‘Opera Gala’ in the Ann Dobson Hall at Van Mildert College with a chorus of students, staff, and local music enthusiasts, an orchestra of local professionals, a selection of the finest of alumnae soloists, and Durham University’s Chancellor, Sir Thomas Allen.

As I joined the project, Vicky and Matthew along with the College Principal, Dave Harper, had already formulated and established the aims and trajectory. The college was to put on an Opera Gala of epic proportions to be enjoyed by all, drawing together students, staff, alumni, and those outside of the university to make music of the highest standard. We were very fortunate that the University Chancellor and world renowned operatic baritone, Sir Thomas Allen, was as enthusiastic about the project as we were, and had already agreed to both compere Opera by the Lake and to perform as one of our soloists. Further soloists were drawn from the extraordinary talent of the university’s alumni community. Each having very fond memories of their time at the university and with links to Van Mildert College, sopranos Eleanor Penfold, Sarah Baillie, and Bridget Tomlinson agreed to join us and display their vocal prowess. Our trio of virtuosos are now all professional musicians in their daily lives with countless accolades and honours to their names; it was safe to say that we had a quality-assured line-up!

Planning the programme

Sir Tom had a selection of favourite show-stoppers lined up, and each of our soloists added their own specialities to the programme. In addition, we added two overtures to keep Matthew Morgan and myself, who were to conduct the evening, on our toes, and some classic chorus numbers. The musical feast included Monteverdi, Handel, Beethoven, Verdi, Puccini, and even Con te Partiró as made famous by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman. Much of the music was hired, and that which was public domain was printed, collated, and bound into booklets by myself and Matthew, a process lasting a few weeks in total. A suitable arrangement for Con te Partiró however was particularly difficult to find, and so supplied with the vocal score, I took it upon myself to arrange it for our orchestral forces. It was a lot of work, but it is not often that you get to conduct your own arrangement of a well-known piece performed by a fifty-piece orchestra and two professional singers!

Forming a choir

Music sorted; we needed a choir. Invitations were sent out to Van Mildert College students, staff, alumni and friends of the college and to contacts across the wider north east community. Every Tuesday evening in the lead up to the performance, the chorus gathered in college and with Matthew as our conductor as I took on the role of répétiteur at the piano. There was a range of staff, students, and locals who joined us, some being seasoned singers, and some not reading music at all; ability didn’t matter and as a chorus we ploughed through some wonderful music, feeling confident and in control by the time of the concert.

On-song success!

Many weeks, many emails, many rehearsals, and many firsts (have you ever asked to borrow two anvils and safety goggles for a concert?) later and it was showtime! Chorus prepared, orchestra in shape, anvils borrowed, conductors prepped. The Ann Dobson Hall had been transformed by the incredible team of College Porters (who were also central to the sourcing of anvils!) and with the enormous dedication and tireless admin of Vicky and all of the staff in Van Mildert College, there was a buzz in the air and a real feeling of anticipation. The concert opened with the College Principal, Professor David Harper, and Sir Thomas Allen addressing the audience, which numbered over 300 people. Mozart’s Overture to ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ kicked off the music and we were underway. I was fortunate enough to conduct ‘Avant de quiter ces lieux’ from Gounod’s Faust, with Sir Tom as our soloist, Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture and ‘Mir Ist so Wunderbar,’ Handel’s ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes’ from Judas Maccabeus to name but a few. The concert finished with all of the soloists and Chorus joining in a rousing rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ from Carousel and was a huge success!

An inspiring evening

This project was a massive undertaking and credit must go to everyone at Van Mildert College, including Vicky and Matthew, for realising the vision and working tirelessly behind the scenes to make everything run so smoothly. The social and experiential transcendental aspects of music have really been revealed in this project; those who don’t often make music have inspired to make more, and the more seasoned of us are reminded why we do what we do, and why we love it. Music is thrilling, music is educational, music is binding, and no one gets left behind. The liminality of Opera by the Lake was deeply moving, and the sheer quality of music and musicians involved have helped make it an experience I won’t easily forget.

Matthew McCullough

I read music at Durham University on a Vice-Chancellor’s Scholarship, with a Choral Scholarship at Durham Cathedral and graduated in July 2019 with First Class Honours. I'm now studying for a Masters in Musicology while I also sing as a Lay Clerk at Newcastle Cathedral, work as a freelance conductor, accompanist and singer. I currently hold an offer to undertake a PhD researching the effect of personal psychiatric trauma on artistic creativity and music’s role as a secular theological sanctuary from post-traumatic stress, through an examination of the mind and music of Gerald Finzi.
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