How Leeds cultural gem Opera North is 'revitalising a neglected part of New Briggate'

Leeds cultural institution Opera North continues to work on a "world-class" headquarters in New Briggate.

An architect's visualisation of the redeveloped Opera North estate, showing the Howard Assembly Room, new restaurant, box office and atrium on the left and the Howard Opera Centre on the right. Credit: Opera North.
An architect's visualisation of the redeveloped Opera North estate, showing the Howard Assembly Room, new restaurant, box office and atrium on the left and the Howard Opera Centre on the right. Credit: Opera North.

Here is a round-up of the exciting plans and how they are coming together.

What is Opera North?

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One of England’s largest arts companies, it permanently employs more than 250 people including highly-skilled costume-makers, stage managers, electricians, stage technicians, props-makers, sound and lighting technicians, educators, designers, and, of course, musicians, in addition to working with around 370 freelance performers, creatives and artists each year.

Councillor Jonathan Pryor from Leeds City Council, Dr Keith Howard, and Opera NorthsGeneral Director Richard Mantle attending the Companys 2019/20 season launch at Harewood House. Credit: Justin Slee

Its award-winning opera productions are created and premiered in Leeds, and the company performs at Leeds Grand Theatre each season before touring its productions to theatres across the country.

What is the Howard Opera Centre?

The Howard Opera Centre will be a headquarters containing Opera North’s rehearsal studios, costume and wigs workshop, and administrative offices.

Work to replace the vacant shop units on New Briggate with a new restaurant and bar, December 2019. Credit: Tom Arber.

Situated in the heart of Leeds city centre on New Briggate and Harrison Street, the redevelopment, known as Music Works, will create a "world-class" facility to make opera, including a new Education Studio and additional rehearsal spaces, as well as a new rehearsal room for the Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North and a suite of music coaching rooms.

The centre will join another space named ten years earlier in recognition of Dr Keith Howard’s support for the company, the Howard Assembly Room, an eclectic 300 seat performancevenue offering a diverse calendar of jazz, world music, folk, classical concerts, children’s opera, talks, film and installations.

Originally opened in 2009 following extensive restoration, the Howard Assembly Room is currently closed during the Music Works redevelopment project, and willreopen in 2021 with a new dedicated and fully accessible entrance and atrium, an increased number of performances, and a new restaurant and bar replacing a row of previously vacant shop units on New Briggate.

The redevelopment project, which began on site during summer 2019, is being delivered by Henry Boot Construction, an award-winning regional construction contractor based in Sheffield,.

A crane moves steel onto the construction site at the top of the new Howard Opera Centre, looking east towards the Quarry House in January 2020. Credit: Tom Arber.

The Music Works redevelopment is scheduled to be completed in phases, with the Howard Opera Centre opening in late 2020, and the Howard Assembly Room, restaurant and atrium scheduled for completion in 2021.

Who is it named after?

The company announced last week that it would be named after philanthropist Dr Keith Howard OBE - just like the Howard Assembly Room - in recognition of his £11.25 million gift contribution towards the latest redevelopment project.

The sum is thought to be among the largest private donations ever made to a UK arts company outside of London.

Dr Howard, a lifelong opera lover and cricket fan, is the founder of Bingley-based Emerald Group Publishing and is president of Opera North.

How much does it cost all together and who else paying?

The overall target for the Music Works fundraising campaign is £18 million.

Opera North has raised £15.6 million to date, with Dr Howard's contribution comprising a gift of £9 million and £2.25 million in Gift Aid, Leeds City Council has contributed £750,000, together with the lease of the vacant shops on New Briggate, and funding of £499,999 has been awarded by Arts Council England.

The balance of the funds raised to date has come from private donors, trusts and supporters, including a £1 million donation from The Liz and Terry Bramall Foundation, as well as a significant contribution from Maureen Pettman and major gifts from a number of private individuals.

In addition, gifts have been pledged by The Wolfson Foundation, Backstage Trust, The Kirby Laing Foundation, The Foyle Foundation and The Garfield Weston Foundation.

Although 87 per cent of the target has been raised, there remains a funding gap of £2.4 million.

What are people saying about it?

Richard Mantle, general director at Opera North, said: “Opera North is delighted to be able to recognise the extraordinary generosity of our longstanding supporter and friend, Dr Keith Howard, whose contribution to this project means that we are able to create a new artistic home for the company, as well as improving the infrastructure, access and visitor experience for the Howard Assembly Room.

“The Howard Opera Centre will be a true centre of excellence, bringing together rehearsal spaces for world class opera productions with coaching rooms where singers can develop their vocal expertise, and specialist costume workshop spaces. A new hub for our education work will create an inclusive space for our work with young people from across the city, bringing children and young people right to the heart of our creative community.”

Coun Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, said: “We are pleased to see this significant redevelopment now taking shape, creating a vastly improved artistic and educational hub for one of Leeds’ leading cultural assets. Opera North makes a huge contribution to the city, both in terms of the vitality and diversity of work seen on stage, and also through its work with children, young people and communities throughout our region.

“Through the revitalisation of a neglected section of New Briggate, the improved facilities for the Howard Assembly Room will work in tandem with our wider aspirations for the area as part of the Heritage Action Zones and Connecting Leeds programmes, creating a vibrant destination and supporting our plans for a better connected city.”