As Richard Mantle decides to retire he looks back at 30 years at the helm of Opera North

With a staff of 240, it has to be one of the largest independent companies in Yorkshire. As far as the arts go, Opera North is the second largest organisation outside London – the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford narrowly edges it into second place. The skills represented in that number are staggeringly varied. Orchestral players, fund-raisers, wig-makers, stagehands, scenery shifters, members of the chorus are only part of the team waiting in the wings before the curtain goes up.
General Director of Opera North Richard Mantle pictured in the Grand Theatre Auditorium, Leeds. Picture by Simon HulmeGeneral Director of Opera North Richard Mantle pictured in the Grand Theatre Auditorium, Leeds. Picture by Simon Hulme
General Director of Opera North Richard Mantle pictured in the Grand Theatre Auditorium, Leeds. Picture by Simon Hulme

Nearly all of them get together twice a year, in the stalls of the Grand Theatre in Leeds, to hear a “state of the union” address from their boss, Richard Mantle. What the meeting heard, last year, was that Mantle had decided to stand down as General Director. When he finally exits, later this year – no date has as yet been revealed, nor any successor firmly appointed – he will have been at the helm of this particular artistic liner for 29 years. “It is time to go, to hand over to someone new,” he says.

Mantle joined Opera North in 1994 – just after it had re-branded from English National Opera North. He was already a much-respected leader in his field, having previously been Deputy Managing Director at English National Opera, and the Managing Director first in Edmonton in Canada, and then at Scottish Opera, where his wide-ranging management skills has brought that company to eminence in the opera world.

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Brought up in the Home Counties, the nearest theatre to the Mantle home was in Richmond, in Surrey. There surely must have been music in his family? Mantle smiles and recalls: “Not particularly. I took piano lessons, there was a strong music tradition at my school, but that was about it. However, a friend of my father’s had just worked on the installation of a new lighting rig at Covent Garden, and one day he asked if I’d like to go along to a performance. I found myself in that great auditorium, in a box with a great view of the stage, and looking down into the orchestra, and the production was of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was just magical. A wonderful experience – it was some time later that I discovered that, in the next box along was The Earl of Harewood, who was later to become my boss (and also a good friend) when I joined ENO.” He started attending opera regularly although he admits: “I never for a second dreamed that I would be involved professionally, it wasn’t my thing.” Instead, he had an early career in the personnel departments of several major companies, among them Sanderson, Beecham and the (then) world-renowned advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. It was while he was with the latter that he had a call one Sunday morning. “A friend rang me up to say that she’d just seen an ad in her newspaper for a job at English National Opera, and she thought that it would be right up my street. So, I went out and bought the paper, had a think about it, and put in my application. It was the only time that I’ve ever applied for a job.” He identified internal problems at the company, and offered solutions. Rather to his surprise, he was offered the newly created role of Deputy Director. His career in the world of opera was off to a flying start, and it’s been one that has earned him the respect of all his colleagues. Mantle, 76, is typically self-effacing about his achievements. At one point he mentions the fact that a state-of-the art facility at Opera North’s HQ has been named the Mantle Music Room. It’s an impressive multi-use space where the orchestra can practice and rehearse – with or without the chorus – and where events can be held.

Richard Mantle pictured at Opera North, Leeds. Picture by Simon HulmeRichard Mantle pictured at Opera North, Leeds. Picture by Simon Hulme
Richard Mantle pictured at Opera North, Leeds. Picture by Simon Hulme

Under Mantle Opera North has gone through nearly three decades of steady – and careful – expansion. It has never been easy, and success was never predictable. There was even one point when he was invited over to the new Lowry Theatre in Salford, and was shown some of the land around it – where Media City now stands. Wouldn’t it be interesting, he was asked, if Opera North was to move over the Pennines, and to use the theatre, and to have a complete complex built next door, to house all the many departments? The fact that Opera North remains rooted in Leeds and in Yorkshire tells you all you need to know. He decided that the company had a responsibility and a loyalty to Leeds City Council. This is not to say that there have been many frustrations over the years. For an age, he and his team were housed in long-redundant ancient dressing rooms at the top of the Grand, in makeshift offices. “In effect, we were camping in there, and we had a fine view of the building across the way, which I knew was going to be redeveloped, and I thought what a great opportunity it would be to acquire the site, which was then offered for £250,000. It slipped through our fingers. When we did finally get hold of it, that price had shot up to £2 million. It was logical to centralise everything we do – prior to us moving in to these premises (The Howard Opera Centre on Harrison Street in Leeds) we were scattered all over the city. Rehearsals would be taking place in X, the orchestra were in Y, and the admin offices were over there in Z. That sort of thing. It made no sense to continue in that way”. Mantle tapped into every resource that he could find – everything from the National Lottery to local authorities and funding grants – and the company over the years has had more than its fair share of box office successes. One that he remembers with fondness was another Britten piece, the production of Peter Grimes. “We made it a popular opera,” he says, and he is more than happy with the number of popular revivals being balanced with new productions. “Opera, I believe, should speak to our times, and I believe that’s what we try to achieve. And we must have artistic diversity.” The company is now acclaimed for its outreach work in schools and colleges, and their involvement with the community. In some cases they’ve taken big-scale productions out of the theatre and into concert halls to bigger audiences – moving with the times and with the availability of funds. Like everyone else in the live performance fields, Covid hit hard. But audiences have returned “brilliantly”.

If he had to give a word of advice to his successor, what would it be? He doesn’t have to think about it for a second. “Lead from the front, rise to the challenges (I’ve never been shy of them), and make sure that there’s a great team around you. Always remember that you cannot do it on your own”. Opera North, he has said, “is a blend of vision, talent, courage and resourcefulness”. He will continue to serve as a Deputy Lieutenant of West Yorkshire, and he anticipates that role will keep him busy, especially around the time of the Coronation. He still sings at his church in Harrogate. So how will he feel on that final day when he leaves Opera North behind him? “Very emotional, I expect,” he says. “I shall go back home, and probably pour myself a nice gin and tonic.” And if he puts on some music, what will that be? “Dame Janet Baker, that fine Yorkshirewoman, singing the Mahler Rukert-Leider. Then I’ll have a good cry. It always does it for me.”​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​