The first opera performed in the city was The Beggar’s Wedding way back in 1729 when English ballad operas were the order of the day. It was then another century before Loiners witnessed their first opera (The Barber of Seville) in a different language.
Today, Opera North continues this rich musical tradition and earlier this month it returned to the stage, with a performance of Carmen, for the first time since the completion of its £18m redevelopment, Music Works.
The revamp of its HQ, in the heart of Leeds city centre, means the Howard Opera Centre now includes a new education studio, improved rehearsal spaces, a costume and wigs workshop, and a striking new atrium leading to the Howard Assembly Room.
The latter also has a new box office and its own entrance which means people no longer have to go through the Leeds Grand Theatre next door in order to get in.
The 300-seat venue dates back to 1879 and was turned into a performance space, featuring an eclectic programme of gigs, spoken word events and film screenings, by Opera North 12 years ago.
It reopened again last weekend following a two-and-a-half year hiatus with a performance from The Tiger Lillies and its forthcoming programme includes Courtney Pine, LYR, Richard Dawson and Arctic Ice Music, which features musicians playing instruments made of ice that slowly melt during the performance.
The final piece of the jigsaw will be a new ground floor restaurant and bar which is due to open in the new year that will restore the facade of this building to its former regal glory.
It’s been three years since work started on the whole project and much has happened in the world since then. “It’s all taken longer than we hoped and that’s largely down to covid,” says Richard Mantle, Opera North’s general director.
“We had to excavate beneath the shops which all had different levels and basements and water, because back in the 14th century there was a lake at some point. So it’s been a complicated project and more costly.”
They received funding from the Arts Council and support from Leeds City Council, but the vast majority of money for the work came from the philanthropist Keith Howard, who sadly died recently, along with other private donations.
What the redevelopment has done is raise Opera North’s profile. “We might not be the largest arts organisation in the world, we’re not like the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, or the Paris Opera or Covent Garden, but I think we have a facility now that would stand comparison with anywhere else,” says Mantle.
Opera North was created in 1978, initially as a regional subsidiary of English National Opera and later as an independent organisation. Mantle has spent more than a quarter of a century at the helm, after previously holding senior roles at English National Opera and Scottish Opera, and under his leadership the company has flourished with education a big part of its raison d’etre in the city.
“We now employ over 40 people in education alone. We teach just shy of 2,000 children, largely primary school age, to learn to sing and play an instrument every week,” he says.
“Not everyone thinks opera is for them, so we wanted to find different routes into what we do as an organisation. We go into schools and we work with communities to deliver workshops and performances and there’s now a lot more participation with young people, so we’ve got a youth choir and a youth chorus and company.”
Mantle believes this is important work. “At our heart we’re an organisation founded on music, but also music that tells stories. The key thing with opera is the storytelling and young people respond to this really well,” he says. “We were also deeply concerned at the lack of cultural learning in schools. It’s not there in the way that it was and we think a lot of young people are losing out on discovering what music can do.”
It’s why the organisation started its In Harmony programme six years ago. “You’re building personalities with music and drama in a way other things might not. Most of the schools we work with are in quite challenging parts of Leeds and we know, and Ofsted has reported this, that in some of these schools academic attainment has really gone up. You go to one of these schools and there’s real pride. Every child has an instrument dedicated to them.”
Parents have also become more engaged. “Their kids have come home saying ‘I’ve been learning to play the violin today,’ and the parents now come in to hear them play. We’ve done concerts with our orchestra and the kids in Leeds Town Hall.”
Opera North works with six schools and would like to roll this out further, if more funding can be secured. “It’s where the world of music and arts and for us, opera, is delivering social benefits to the community,” says Mantle.
They continued doing this education work online during the various lockdowns. However, the pandemic has hit them in other ways with earned revenues taking a nosedive, though their core donors have stayed with them, says Mantle. “We’re a big organisation. We employ 230 people but we didn’t make anybody redundant,” he adds.
He’s well aware, though, that many arts venues and organisations have been hit hard.
“We’ve come through intact but the pandemic was a very tough time because we weren’t doing the thing we’re funded to do. But the Arts Council didn’t reduce anyone’s funding, that was kept in place. So there was a lot of support around for organisations like us and our response to that was to see what we could do online because we couldn’t perform live.”
They collaborated with Leeds Playhouse on Connecting Voices, based around a series of new and existing works fusing classic and contemporary theatre and music, and also streamed a series of live performances.
Mantle concedes the next couple of years will be a bumpy road but one they can navigate. “We’ve built up a reserve because we always knew whenever we reopened it was going to be a challenge and it’s going to keep the company going through this period.”
Being back on stage at the Leeds Grand with Carmen was a big moment for Opera North and is followed by a Leonard Bernstein double bill, Trouble in Tahiti and a collaboration with Phoenix Dance based around the music of West Side Story.
Opera North’s return is not only important for the company but for Leeds itself, given the crucial role that art and culture is going to play in getting people back into our city centres. “The arts can be seen as one of the key tools to reinvigorate the city centre, because what we do brings people in, whether it’s us, or the Playhouse or Leeds Town Hall – you can only go shopping so many times,” says Mantle.
“I think one of the things we learned from the pandemic is whilst we moved online and connected with a lot of people, which is great, nothing replaces the live experience. That’s the transformational element we’ve all missed, and to that extent we’ve been silenced and now we’re no longer silent and this is a chance to re-establish the company afresh.”
For details of forthcoming performances and to buy tickets visit https://www.operanorth.co.uk/