Benefactor pays £11m for Leeds centre that’s music to his ears

Richard Mantle with singers Seckou Keita, Giselle Allen and Rafael Rojas.
Richard Mantle with singers Seckou Keita, Giselle Allen and Rafael Rojas.
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IT WAS once the site of an arts venue where the “culture” came with a censor’s warning. But the one-time cinema a few doors down from Leeds’ Grand Theatre is today at the centre of a creative renaissance.

In an ambitious development funded largely by an £11m gift from its president, Opera North plans to open up the corner building as a musical workshop for emerging talent and world-class performers alike.

Dress rehearsals for Opera North's production of Kiss Me Kate at Leeds Grand Theatre.

Dress rehearsals for Opera North's production of Kiss Me Kate at Leeds Grand Theatre.

The company, the only one of its kind outside London, has been using the Howard Assembly Room as a rehearsal space since its formation, nearly 40 years ago. It was refurbished as a 300-seat auditorium a decade ago, but it remains what the company calls a “hidden gem”, accessible only through the theatre.

The new £18m development will see it become part of an all-day arts complex, with an education centre, twice the number of performances and a bar and restaurant replacing the row of empty shops outside.

It is a remarkable transformation for a venue whose clients were once more likely to turn up in raincoats than opera scarves.

The Plaza cinema was opened in 1958 in what had been the Assembly Rooms Concert Hall, which had been turned over to showing conventional films 50 years beforehand.

The Plaza Cinema, New Briggate Leeds c.1975

The Plaza Cinema, New Briggate Leeds c.1975

“The programming was rather dubious, and it was closed for many years before it became our rehearsal room,” said Richard Mantle, Opera North’s general director.

But he said the new development, coupled with the rebuilding programme further up the road at the former West Yorkshire Playhouse, would breath new life into Leeds’ arts quarter, following its abortive bid to be European City of Culture in 2023. It emerged a year ago that a British city would not be able to hold the title following Brexit.

Mr Mantle said: “Arts and culture is a very important component in the life of Leeds. Last year was disappointing, but what culture can do for the city is still here, and what’s happening here and at the Leeds Playhouse is part of how we’re equipping the cultural future and giving more opportunities for new audiences.

The new development, to be known as Music Works, will not be limited to opera and classical music, but will bring “more of the best global musicians and artists to Leeds each year, creating a diverse calendar of jazz, world music, folk, classical concerts, children’s opera, talks, film and installations, Opera North said.

“Music Works is about creating a building to make and experience music, but it’s also about creating thrilling, powerful performances and the opportunities for participation that will bring the new spaces to life for many years to come,” Mr Mantle added.

A glass atrium will connect the Assembly Room to the street, and the development will include music practice rooms, a refurbished costume workshop and new facilities for Opera North’s in-house orchestra and chorus. The education centre, including a music coaching room for students, will be available to users of all ages.

Leeds Council has put £750,000 into the project and has handed over the lease on the vacant shops on New Briggate. A major appeal has been launched for individual and corporate donations to make up the £5.3m balance.

Opera North’s president, Dr Keith Howard, is the chairman of the Emerald Group, a major publisher of international academic journals, based in Bingley.

He said: “My long-held passion for music has been nurtured by Opera North over many years.

“These new world-class facilities will create the perfect environment for artists, participants and audiences to come together and experience the joy that music and music-making can bring.”

Dr Howard, who is 86, is also a cricket enthusiast, and his company is a major sponsor of Headingley Stadium.