As the first opera company to be awarded Theatre of Sanctuary status, Opera North is proud of its work with refugees and asylum seekers

The first opera company to become a Theatre of Sanctuary, Opera North is hosting a special event for Refugee Week. Yvette Huddleston reports.
Theatre of Sanctuary Open Mic Night.Theatre of Sanctuary Open Mic Night.
Theatre of Sanctuary Open Mic Night.

In 2018 Opera North became the first opera company in the UK to be awarded Theatre of Sanctuary status in recognition of its ongoing work with refugees and asylum seekers.

It is work of which the Leeds-based company is rightly proud and they continue to reach out to the refugee and asylum seeker community, welcoming them into the building and helping them to access live performance and the arts more generally.

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Next week is Refugee Week (June 20-26), with this year’s theme of healing, and Opera North will be hosting a special performance in the Howard Assembly Room showcasing talented musicians based in West Yorkshire who are seeking refuge.

Theatre of Sanctuary Open Mic nightTheatre of Sanctuary Open Mic night
Theatre of Sanctuary Open Mic night

“Our performers are going to be a combination of musicians who are refugees and asylum seekers and people who have been displaced,” says Zoe Scott FitzGibbon, Community Partnerships Manager at Opera North. “It is quite complicated to arrange an event like this because people who are seeking asylum get moved around a lot and they are not legally allowed to work. Something we think is really important about platforming these artists is that if you are a musician in your home country it is a career that is very personal and a way that people define themselves, so by giving them an opportunity to perform, they are able to be their true selves. Performers in the show include professional musicians and community choirs, people at every stage of their musical career.”

Music as an artform has a particular capacity to cross all sorts of boundaries and connect people powerfully to each other. One of Opera North’s projects, People’s Lullabies, is a wonderful example of this. It gives people the chance to perform a song that has a significance to them, highlighting the power of music to recall distant loved ones, places and special occasions.

“The format of the workshops is that we have a performance by our musicians and then we talk about why the piece of music is important to the person who chose it,” says Scott FitzGibbon. “At a recent workshop one of the participants was crying, she said she was so moved by it. It was a very special moment of real connection between her and the musicians.”

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Engagement with the arts, as an audience member or participant, has many benefits, especially for those who have experienced trauma, and Opera North’s outreach programme seeks to make their work accessible to as many people as possible through free tickets to productions, concerts, talks and films and other events. “We get very positive feedback from the refugees and asylum seekers we work with,” says Scott FitzGibbon. “One of the main comments we get is that they love the experience of listening to live music and seeing live performance. For some people it might be the first time they have been to the theatre, for others they say it is something they loved doing in their home city and it is really nice to be able to continue to do it here.”

The Refugee Week Session, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, June 23.