While Opera North was performing its Winter fairy tale season at The Lowry recently, Ordsall Hall hosted a rather different opera, specifically designed to appeal to people who’d never seen a live operatic performance before – and hopefully tempting some of them to come and see the mainstage production afterwards.

Opera North’s Whistle Stop Operas were piloted last year to provide half hour, accessible versions of mainstage operas, primarily for children and community groups. Performed away from the stage in more intimate settings, the performances introduce people to the art form in a lively, entertaining way, encouraging the audience to become involved with the story as it unfolds and to get a real feel for the power of the singers’ voices as the artists move among the audience.

This year, it was Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel which was given the Whistle Stop treatment with over 50 people of all ages coming along to Salford’s historic Tudor mansion to watch the performance and find out more.

Sung entirely in English, Whistle Stop Opera: Hansel and Gretel explores the characters and themes from Humperdinck’s best-loved work which is based on the Brothers Grimm story of two hungry children lost in the forest and tempted by the wicked witch’s gingerbread house.

Written by opera singer and director John Savournin, the production is co-directed by Opera North’s Community Engagement Manager, Madeleine Thorne. John also appears as the Sandman, and is joined by three other professional opera singers: mezzo-soprano Heather Lowe and sopranos Sarah Estill and Ellie Laugharne. Accordionist Miloš Milivojević provides the musical accompaniment, based on Humperdinck’s melodic score.


During the Ordsall Hall performance, everyone was encouraged to join the Sandman in his ‘daydream’ and to use their imaginations to help him create the world around him, suggesting how the action should unfold. In fact, one girl was so caught up in the magic that she volunteered to take part and was duly given the role of the Dew Fairy with the task of waking up Hansel and Gretel after their night asleep in the woods.

The audience were also given the chance to talk to the performers afterwards and were particularly interested in finding out from them how many hours of rehearsing go into preparing for an opera, the difference between performing on The Lyric Theatre stage and in a more informal setting – and how the singers sing so loudly without a microphone.

It can often be difficult to engage new audiences with opera, so it was reassuring to hear the feedback afterwards with young people who had been sceptical about attending totally won over and really keen to go along to a full performance at the theatre.

Opera North returns to The Lowry in November 2017. To see full listings visit the website.