Three years ago David Pountney was sifting through his post and was about to throw a press release from a German music publishing company into the bin, when he noticed the emotive words "friend of Shostakovich", and decided to read on.
The name of the Polish-born composer, Mieczyslaw Weinberg, came that close to remaining in obscurity. Now with the influential opera director's backing, the world is being awakened to one of the 20th century's most important composers. Last summer he directed a performance of the opera, The Passenger, at the prestigious Bregenze Festival, and then added a further 22 orchestral and instrumental works taken from the composer's vast output.
Leeds will have its first taste of his major works next month when Pountney directs Opera North's UK premiere of the satirical story, The Portrait.
So who was Weinberg? "Born in 1919, a Polish Jew who escaped Russia as the Nazis advanced, sadly his family perished in the Holocaust. Having been shadowed by the KGB, he was arrested as part of Stalin's anti-Semitic purge, his eventual release engineered by Shostakovich," says Pountney. "He made a living writing music for the circus and film scores while composing a vast amount of serious music, including 27 symphonies in a style comparable to Benjamin Britten. The Portrait is about a painter of modest attainments whose friendship with a journalist brings so much media coverage the aristocracy of St Petersburg queue up to have their portraits painted. The moral being: artists are corrupted by money and fame.
"It's very likeable music and while there is no chorus, it offers a fine lyric part for Paul Nilon as the painter."
The Portrait forms part of four new productions that takes the company through to the end of the season, opening next week with an updated staging of Bizet's Carmen.
"It's 10 years since we last staged the opera," says the company's general director, Richard Mantle, "and we have asked an exciting young American theatre director, Daniel Kramer, to take a new look at the story. There are many familiar faces in the cast including Heather Shipp as Carmen and Peter Auty as Don Jose. Then we introduce to Leeds a young Lithuanian bass-baritone, Kostas Smoriginas, as Escamillo."
It is part of the season's theme, "Freedom and Imprisonment", that continues with Beethoven's story of liberty and justice Fidelio, Richard Armstrong replacing the indisposed conductor, Dietfried Bernet, and featuring Emma Bell as Leonore and Steven Harrison as Floristan. Finally we return to the life that was once imposed on Weinberg, with Janacek's From the House of the Dead. Set in a Siberian prison camp, the harrowing and graphic story portrays the daily routines that kill the human spirit. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Roderick Williams, Robert Heyward and Alan Oke head a star-studded cast.
Opera North, Leeds Grand Theatre, January 17 to February 12, returning on April 13 to May 14. Details from 0844 8482706.