St Albans actor in the eye of opera storm over William Tell

Simon Nicholas as Historic Tell with the Russian soprano Sofia Formina who plays the character of Je

Simon Nicholas as Historic Tell with the Russian soprano Sofia Formina who plays the character of Jemmy, William Tell's son. - Credit: Archant

The staid world of opera has been rocked by the controversy which greeted a graphic rape scene in Guillaume Tell - and no-one has been closer to the action than St Albans actor Simon Nicholas.

He takes the part of the ‘older’ William Tell in the Royal Opera House production and admits that the booing which greeted the rape scene on the first night - unheard of during a performance - was ‘a little bit unsettling’.

But it was not totally a surprise. “We knew it would be a challenging scene but artistically I think it is right,” he said.

Simon, 53, a father of seven who lives in Corinium Gate, St Albans, has an unusual role in the opera. As the older William Tell he neither speaks nor sings and was not quite clear what the role was when he auditioned.

He was told it was for a body double for Gerald Finley, who takes the leading role, but in the event he was cast as the Historic Tell who represents the heroism and courage of the original character and has a place in all the key scenes of the opera.

Simon describes his role as ‘this mystical creature’ and while he is not on stage all the time, he appears in every act of an opera which has not been staged since 1990 and, in his words, ‘raises issues about modern warfare’.

In the original opera Rossini has village girls forced to dance in what is the rape scene in the new version. Simon believes audiences went along expecting to see the 1990 version and had the perception it was something more traditional.

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If nothing else, Guillaume Tell has stimulated debate and Simon is delighted to have been involved in a production which ends tomorrow but has been screened live to cinemas in over 35 countries.

Regular St Albans theatregoers will have seen Simon in local productions over the years - he performed in open-air Shakespeare with Breakaway when productions were staged in the St Albans School ampitheatre and is still involved with OVO, the resident company at the Maltings Arts Theatre, for whom he now does film and video projections.

He reappeared on the St Albans stage last November for an acclaimed production of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita where he played the middle-aged Open University lecturer Frank whose jaundiced view of life is changed by his encounter with the Liverpudlian hairdresser who wants to better herself.

He had not intended to appear on the amateur stage again but the role of Frank was one which he could not resist and the production by Dee Bee Productions was one of the highlights of last year.

Simon is now a professional actor having taken the decision six years ago to quit his corporate job as a trainer in human resources with Carphone Warehouse to take an MA course at the East 15 School of Acting in Loughton.

It was a brave step for a man with a second young family and he still keeps his hand in with corporate training work but he has no regrets about his career change saying simply ‘I love it’.

He has appeared in short films and theatre work and prior to his role in Guillaume Tell, he had taken the part of Isaac Newton in a library piece. Work as an actor is notoriously hit and miss but after a summer break he knows for sure what he will be doing later this year - he is taking the part of Widow Twankey in the Harpenden Public Halls panto Aladdin.

In a few short months he will swap the wig and beard of William Tell for the wig and dress of Widow Twankey but he can be pretty confident that the reviews of Aladdin will be considerably more restrained than those of Guillaume Tell.