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Presenting fully staged grand opera, sung in English

As I’m sure you are all aware, the spread of COVID-19 globally is causing a lot of changes to our day to day life, with information changing daily and measures being put in place to slow the spread of the virus and protect the most vulnerable in our society.

As such, Bristol Opera will be following guidelines set by the UK Government and the WHO around social distancing.

  • Opera rehearsals will be suspended with immediate effect until 25th June. This is subject to any changes in guideline between now and then
  • Auditions for Hugh the Drover will be delayed until further notice. We will make an announcement when a new date is arranged
  • Our production of Hugh the Drover will be postponed until September/October. This is dependent on the availability of the venue and performers
  • Subject to changes to official guidelines, we are considering rehearsing through summer, effectively bringing our summer break forward.

Arne, Graham and the rest of the committee are working hard behind the scenes to ensure we are all ready to go when restrictions are lifted. In the meantime, keep yourselves safe and we look forward to seeing you when we meet again.

Auditions for Hugh the Drover will be taking place on Thursday 26th March, at Horfield United Reformed Church between 7:30PM and 9:30PM. If you would like to audition for any of the roles below, please contact auditions@bristolopera.co.uk. Alternatively, we are still accepting new members who with to join the chorus. Please contact membership@bristolopera.co.uk or see this page for more information.

Principle Roles

Role Voice Type Role Details
Hugh the Drover Tenor The romantic lead. An outsider who won’t give up his wandering life and settle down.
Mary Soprano The girl who is about to be trapped in a loveless marriage when Hugh comes into her life.
The Constable Bass-Baritone Mary’s father. Very pompous. Thinks he can bully Mary into marrying the man of his choice.
John the Butcher Bass-Bariton A vicious thug, but the man the Constable wants Mary to marry.
Aunt Jane Mezzo-Soprano Mary’s aunt, fussy and motherly, but ultimately accepting that Mary can only be happy with Hugh.
The Turnkey Tenor A jobsworth whose love of alcohol makes him pretty useless.

Other Roles

In addition to the main roles, there are several smaller parts. Those wishing to audition for these roles may also join the chorus.
Role Role Details
The Cheap-Jack A dodgy pedlar at the fair. Can be played by a man or a woman.
The Showman Another person trying to make a living from the fair, who is very patriotic and also arranges the boxing-match between Hugh and John. Can be played by a man or a woman.
The Ballad-Seller Can be played by a man or a woman.
The Shellfish-Seller Male role
The Primrose-Seller Female role
Susan, Nancy, William and Robert An SATB Semi-Chorus
The Fool Not the village idiot, but a jester who accompanies the Morris Dancers. Can be played by a man or a woman
The Innkeeper Sings one line
The Sergeant An important part, who saves Hugh from being lynched.

If you are not yet a member of Bristol Opera, a £10 audition fee will be required. If you are successful in your audition, this fee will be put towards your membership fee for the period. Please see our membership page for information about fees,

Hugh the Drover will be performed on Saturday 20th June 2020 at Tyndale Baptist Church. This will be a semi-staged production.

Written by Alexandra Denman

We are delighted to announce that next year's production of Samson and Delilah is now fully cast, with a group of wonderful singers from Bristol and beyond.

We are pleased to welcome back many faces that regular supporters will recognise from previous productions, and we are confident that we've put together an extremely strong and talented cast:

Role Actor
Samson Richard Lloyd-Owen
Delilah Rebecca Chellappah
High Priest Niall Hoskin
Abimelech Robert Marson
Old Hebrew Steven Harris
Hebrew Messenger Clare Daly
1st Philistine Messenger Graham Billing
2nd Philistine Messenger Saul Formoso

To see them in action, come along to the performances on 20th – 22nd February 2020 at The MacKinnon Theatre, Bristol.

And if you’d like to join us in the chorus of Samson and Delilah, singing this glorious music, rehearsals start on Thursday 5th September.

Auditions for our next opera, Samson and Delilah, will be held on Thursday 4th July at 7:30PM at Horfield United Reformed Church. The opera will be performed 20th -22nd February 2020 at The Mackinnon Theatre, 1532 Performing Arts Centre.

If you are interested in auditioning for one of the roles below, or you would like to join the chorus or help out backstage, you can contact our musical director for more information. If you cannot make the initial audition date, please contact us to arrange an alternative.

Role Voice Type
Samson Tenor
Delilah Mezzo-Soprano
High Priest of Dagon Baritone
Abimélech satrap of Gaza Bass
First Philistine Tenor
Second Philistine Bass
Old Hebrew Tenor
Philistine Messsenger Tenor

Samson and Delilah is being performed 20th – 22nd February at the MacKinnon Theatre.

Written by Graham Billing, co-director of La Belle Hélène.

Time is running out now and we’re already at the beginning of show week and in the throes of our get-in at the theatre. I promised one more blog before the performances, and here it is.

I’ve already endeavoured to talk you through the extended finales of the first two acts, so it only remains for me to pass on some information about the end of Act Three without including any spoilers. With the current Greek crisis – which has meant that marital infidelity has reached positively pandemic proportions – the ineffectual King Menelaus has issued an invitation to no less an expert than the High Priest of Venus to make an official visit and sort out the country’s problems. It is taken for granted by everyone that the whole erotic brouhaha is the result of Venus, the goddess of love, being displeased with the people of Greece.

The finale is therefore devoted to the arrival of the said High Priest and his oracular pronouncements. The chorus is excited at seeing the «galley» which brings the High Priest to the seaside resort where everyone is holidaying. I put «galley» in inverted commas, because Bristol Opera’s boat might be best described by a different term, but you’ll have to wait until the performances to see what I mean by that. As I said: no spoilers!

It’s not really a spoiler though to report that when the High Priest does heave into view, he is not impressed by the prayer with which he is greeted. He is very much concerned to lighten the mood and does so by doing something which no one would expect to find in either Ancient Greece or Second Empire France. He yodels, in a cheeky little song which throws out a challenge to any tenor.

He then presents his solution to the problem – Helen is to take a little trip on his galley as far as the island of Cithera, which is sacred to Venus. That doesn’t seem to be a big issue – but is Venus’ High Priest really who he says he is? Now, if I were to answer that question, it really would be a spoiler. You need to buy your tickets to find that out.

So – this is your final call! Some tickets are still available for Bristol Opera’s wacky production of an even wackier show, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday of this week. Full details about tickets sales and our performance venue are readily available on

Written by Graham Billing, co-director of La Belle Hélène.

The Act Two Finale of La Belle Hélène continues – after the bizarre sequence in which the main characters imitate musical instruments – with the tables being turned on poor old Menelaus. Helen launches into an attack on her feckless husband for not being discreet or sensitive enough to hang back from barging in on her when she was entertaining her gentleman caller. This attack takes the form of a jaunty little song in two verses, very much in the tradition of the music-hall.

After that, however, Offenbach ratchets up this finale into a large-scale ensemble for the whole company, as everyone except Helen turns against the insolent interloper Paris and orders him to leave Sparta. Act Two, like Act One, ends with a major character being hustled out of the action, but this time the mood is much darker and edgier. Helen is of course keen for Paris to stay but regretfully tells him that it is politically tactful for him to disappear. She expresses her emotions in one of Offenbach’s most seductive tunes, a ravishing waltz which forms the basis of the musical structure that concludes the act.

Offenbach though, like Sullivan after him, had the great gift of being able to introduce a totally different melody and then dazzle the audience by proving that it is perfectly possible to sing both tunes at the same time. Those of you who know your G&S may well recall the great scene in HMS Pinafore in which the ship’s crew sing a jolly shanty at the same time as their lady visitors simper a demure little polka-like chorus. That sort of effect would not have been possible had not the practice been established by Offenbach in scenes like this one. Agamemnon changes the musical and dramatic mood by singing a spiky little number very much like a G&S patter song and the other characters antagonistic to Paris join in. It is not long before this is pitted against Helen’s silky waltz and it is also not long before the 3/4 time gives way to a final section in a more urgent 4/4. The finale this comes to a spectacular close.

It is still not too late to grab your tickets for Bristol Opera’s La Belle Hélène. Rehearsals are really hotting up now, but before performance week look out for some more information on this site about the operetta’s third and final act.       

Written by Graham Billing, co-director of La Belle Hélène.

Last time I was telling you about the first of the three grandiose finales with which ends each of the acts of Bristol Opera’s latest challenge, La Belle Hélène. After the bizarre ensemble in which Helen recognises Prince Paris as her would-be seducer, the «chap with the apple», Paris is needless to say keen to get Helen’s wretched husband Menelaus out of the way and enlists the support of Calchas the High Priest of Jupiter. Calchas has the opportunity to try out his thunder machine and the music becomes appropriately dramatic as he sets up a scam to persuade Menelaus that he is the oracle through which Jupiter is issuing a decree.

In Jupiter’s voice he orders Menelaus to go on holiday to Crete for a month and the music works its way back into the ear-worm tune of the entry of the Kings as Helen’s put-upon spouse is bundled off on a boat.

If you thought the Act One finale was a tour de force, wait till you hear what Offenbach comes up with to round off Act Two. The Kings are all extremely lit up after an official banquet and are quite surprised to be called away from their revelling by Menelaus, who has returned from Crete unexpectedly to find Helen entertaining Paris in a totally inappropriate way! He is making a truly embarrassing scene, which erupts into the most bizarre episode in the opera. Paris, Orestes, Helen’s companion Bacchis, Calchas and the four Kings launch into an ensemble in which they all make sounds imitating musical instruments – violins, cellos, trumpets and drums. Why on earth does Offenbach make them do this? The sequence bounces them away from the plot completely and, although it is very funny, it does leave modern audiences somewhat mystified. I say modern audiences, because this was an operatic convention in the nineteenth century which composers felt obliged to observe. The master of the device, whereby the action is temporarily suspended while the soloists indulge in some wacky special vocal effects, was Offenbach’s great predecessor Rossini and it seems likely that Offenbach was deliberately following in the great man’s footsteps.

When you see Bristol Opera’s production – as I’m sure you will, tickets being currently available – listen out for the strange band in the middle of the Act Two Finale and watch this space for what happens after it.

Casting is now complete for our 2019 production of La Belle Hélène.

Role Actor
Hélène Rebecca Chellappah
Paris Thomas Edmonds
Menelaus Graham Billing
Agamemnon Timothy Allan
Calchas Matthew Deering
Orestes Clare Daly
Achilles Julian Fox
Ajax I Steve Harris
Ajax II Saul Formoso
Bacchis Ethel-Jane Cormack
Parthenis Katharine Billington
Leona Heather Ashford
Philocomos Charlotte Monk
Euthycles Elfride Harris
Lovey-Dovey Milly Goslin

La Belle Hélène is being performed 11th – 13th April at the MacKinnon Theatre. Tickets are available by phone, email, or online. See our ticket page for more information

To hear about future auditions, follow us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and information from Bristol Opera

Written by Graham Billing, co-director of La Belle Hélène.

After some general pieces about La Belle Hélène and its creators, I’m very pleased to say that this latest report is more specifically about Bristol Opera’s own current production, which is now up and running and being energetically rehearsed.

Last week we concentrated on the Finale of Offenbach’s first act. All three acts end with a large-scale scene involving all the characters and leading up to a grand climax. In the Act One Finale the scheming Prince Paris is determined to seduce the beautiful Helen – the prize awarded him by Venus, the goddess of love, for choosing her to win the beauty contest among the goddesses and giving her the golden apple as a token of his choice.

Helen is of course aware of this story and knows that the apple is the symbol of Paris’ devotion to Venus. When Paris starts the Finale by revealing his true identity, Helen cannot help exclaiming that he is – in the original French – «l’homme à la pomme»! French is lucky that «homme» and «pomme» can form a neat internal rhyme in one short phrase, so we were keen that English could provide an equally neat alternative. Luckily, it can: «chap» can rhyme with the «ap» in «apple» and create exactly the same effect as the original French words. Instead of involuntarily blurting out «l’homme à la pomme», our Helen can say «Oh dear! Chap with the apple!»

This is important because Helen does not just sing the phrase once. Oh no, she repeats it almost indefinitely in a display of increasingly spectacular vocal fireworks. Offenbach is here observing an operatic convention which no composer in the nineteenth century could ignore and get away with it. This was a device known as a largo concertato, a passage in which the action is held up while the characters express their innermost thoughts to themselves or aside to the audience. Needless to say, Offenbach takes this convention and makes fun of it as only he can. Helen repeats the phrase ever more thrillingly, but Offenbach turns it into a cheesy waltz which sucks in the other characters and the chorus to be Helen’s backing group, oompahing away underneath her stratospheric soprano line. The result is at the same time very operatic in the grand style and extremely silly – typical of the work as a whole, which demands some serious operatic singing but refuses to take itself too seriously!

More next time about what happens when the chap-with-the-apple sequence has burned itself out!

Written by Graham Billing, co-director of La Belle Hélène.

I realise that, although I have been endeavouring in these messages to explain what Offenbach and his librettists did to make their story-line so funny and so irreverent, I haven’t yet said a word about any of the music!

So what is it like? Is La Belle Hélène the sort of show where you come out humming the tunes? Oh yes, definitely, and more than that, you’re likely to find the blessed things going round in your head for ever. Offenbach had scraped a living when he first arrived in Paris from Germany by playing the cello in theatre pit bands, so he developed a sound sense of what would actually work.

A French friend of mine arrived in my house not long ago just as my kitchen CD player was blasting out the march to which the Greek Kings make their first appearance. Oh, said my friend, I know this tune from my childhood – it was used in a TV advertisement for toasters!

Would Offenbach have been pleased or appalled to learn the fate of his melody? Probably the former, as he wasn’t averse to his music enjoying commercial success. The march tune is in any case a hugely successful piece of musical theatre, bouncing jauntily along to accompany the very witty words with which the Kings introduce themselves. I defy anyone not to be whistling it the morning after seeing the show.

Two other tunes that are likely to embed themselves in the memory are the seductive waltz sung by Paris as he tells Helen about the beauty contest with the three goddesses [I even have a vintage recording of it sung in Swedish, such is its popularity] and another sweeping waltz tune which turns up in the Act Two Finale, sung first by Helen as she warns her lover Paris to beware the wrath of the Greek Kings and then taken up by the entire company.

Experience these ravishing tunes for yourselves when you see [as I’m sure you will] Bristol Opera’s production and ponder on the fact that Offenbach’s great secret is his ability to write music that you think you’ve heard before even if you haven’t!