Opera North launches Home song-writing project for installation at new Leeds centre

Writing Home: Opera North’s song-writing project for the Howard Opera Centre. Picture: Tom Arber

OPERA North is launching Writing Home, a community song-writing project for creating an innovative arts installation when the Leeds company opens its redeveloped home, the Howard Opera Centre.

The new building, on New Briggate, is designed to be a creative space for the whole community, an aim that will be reflected in an interactive musical trail on the theme of home.

Contributions will be recorded by schools, community groups, the Opera North Youth Company and members of the public, with visitors being able to listen to the resulting performances as they walk around the building.

As part of the project, a six-week course of free Writing Home workshops will be held online from Monday, February 22 at 6.30pm, led by professional  musicians Thandanani Gumede and Dave Evans.

Participants will be asked to explore what “home” means to them through a variety of musical genres before creating their own compositions. A selection of these will be featured as part of the final trail.

Everyone is welcome to join. No previous musical experience is necessary, only the willingness to try something new.

Jacqui Cameron, Opera North’s education director, says: “We will be embedding the voices of the people of Leeds and the North in the very walls of the Howard Opera Centre to create a sense of ownership and to encourage the whole community to see it as their artistic home.

“The word ‘home’ has assumed even greater importance over the past year, and this project aims to give participants the time to reflect specifically on what it means to them, and why it is important to us all to have spaces where we feel ‘at home’.

Work ongoing on former shop units beneath the Howard Assembly Room in New Briggate, Leeds. Picture: Tom Arber

“We hope this project will also provide a boost at a time when we are aware how much people are missing their usual evening meet-ups. Thanda is looking forward to finding the inner composer in everyone who takes part, helping them create something that will provide a great testament to the creativity of the people of Leeds in our new building.”

Despite the setbacks posed by the pandemic, Opera North has continued with its £18m redevelopment project on New Briggate, albeit it with new Covid-19 safety measures in place.

The Howard Opera Centre is pencilled in to open later this year. As well as providing new rehearsal facilities for the orchestra and chorus of Opera North, a costume and wigs workshop and administrative offices, the building will feature several public areas.

Among them will be a flexible education centre that will enable audiences of all ages and backgrounds to come together to learn about and participate in music making. 

Anyone accessing the education centre will use the same entrance as the artists and staff in a bid to inspire the younger generation and to encourage a feeling of parity and belonging.

Other public spaces will include a fully accessible atrium and a new restaurant and bar that will replace a row of previously vacant shop units.

Opera North’s performance venue, the Howard Assembly Room, within Leeds Grand Theatre, will reopen with an enhanced programme of musical and spoken-word events.

The work is being delivered by Sheffield contractors Henry Boot Construction, with the first phase scheduled to open in the late spring and final completion in the diary for autumn.

Opera North’s new orchestra rehearsal studio above the existing Harewood and Linacre rehearsal studios in the Howard Opera Centre, seen from the bottom of Harrison Street, Leeds. Picture: Tom Arber

Opera North general director Richard Mantle says: “We want young musicians to feel that they’re an integral part of Opera North, which is why we’re delighted to be able to give them the opportunity to rehearse in the same building as the chorus and the orchestra.

“Having our own dedicated education centre will facilitate more collaborations with the main stage; open up more learning and performing opportunities for children and young people, and provide extraordinary musical experiences for the wider community every day. 

“We very much hope that people will see the Howard Opera Centre as their artistic home in the city, with Writing Home marking the first step in ensuring they feel a part of the building and everything it represents.”

The company is “very grateful” to all the individuals, trusts and organisations that have helped it to raise more than £17 million towards the Music Works fundraising campaign target of £18 million.

Dr Keith Howard OBE, president of Opera North and founder of Emerald Group Publishing, made a philanthropic gift of £11.25 million; Leeds City Council has pledged to contribute £750,000, together with the lease of the vacant shops on New Briggate, and Arts Council England has provided £1 million, including a £500,000 Capital Kickstart Award.

The balance of the funds 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 Mrs Maureen Pettman and major gifts from private individuals.

In addition, gifts have been pledged by the Marjorie and Arnold Ziff Charitable Foundation; Wolfson Foundation; Backstage Trust; the Kirby Laing Foundation; the Foyle Foundation; 29th May 1961 Charitable Trust; Sir George Martin Trust; Garfield Weston Foundation; J Paul Getty Jnr General Charitable Trust; the Arnold Burton 1998 Charitable Trust and Alerce Trust. 

Opera North has launched the Play Your Part campaign, seeking support from patrons, Friends and audience members, as well as continuing to attract funding from the Leeds business community and further charitable trusts and foundations as it looks to raise the £500,000 still needed for the project.

Disney’s Bedknobs And Broomsticks to bob along to Leeds Grand Theatre next winter

The magical musical is on its way: The poster for the Leeds-bound world premiere tour of Disney’s Bedknobs And Broomsticks

IT is time to start believing. There WILL be a Christmas show at Leeds Grand Theatre next winter.

And what a show: the world premiere tour of Disney’s new stage musical, Bedknobs And Broomsticks, will be “bobbing along” to Yorkshire from December 8 2021 to January 9 2022 with its story of three orphaned children, evacuated ever so reluctantly from London to live with the mysterious Eglantine Price, a trainee witch.

Brought to stage life by Harry Potter And The Cursed Child illusionist Jamie Harrison and fellow award-winning theatre-maker Candice Edmunds, the show will feature songs by the legendary Sherman Brothers, of Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book and The Aristocats fame.

Among them will be Portobello Road, The Age Of Not Believing and The Beautiful Briny, complemented by a new book by Brian Hill and new songs and additional music and lyrics by Neil Bartram.

The Leeds Grand Theatre auditorium: empty since March 14 in Covid-19 2020. Picture: Ant Robling

The show is based on the books The Magic Bedknob; Or, How To Become A Witch In Ten Easy Lessons (1943) and Bonfires And Broomsticks (1947) by Highbury-born children’s author Mary Norton, and Disney’s 1971 Academy Award-winning film, Bedknobs And Broomsticks, starring Angela Lansbury and David Tomlinson.

Confirmation of this five-week Christmas run follows the announcement that Mamma Mia! will return to the Leeds Grand in…2023. Mamma Mia indeed.

The jukebox musical with a book by British playwright Catherine Johnson and the ABBA songs of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, had its 2020 run Covid-cancelled, but Leeds Grand audiences will be saying Thank You For The Music once more from April 4 to 15, almost 16 months from now. 

At the close of a year when the crushing pandemic brought the curtain down on the Leeds Grand stage after the March opening night of Northern Ballet’s world premiere of Kenneth Tindall’s Geisha, that stage will remain dark over Christmas for the first time in the New Briggate theatre’s 142-year history (bar the refurbishment of 2005-6). 

Ayama Miyata as Aiko and Minju Kang as Okichi in Northern Ballet’s Geisha. Picture: Guy Farrow

As a result of this on-going Covid-cursed shutdown and inability to generate earned revenue through ticket and secondary sales, the Leeds Grand is asking patrons, if financially possible, to help support its long-term survival by donating to its Keep A Seat Warm This Christmas campaign, buying tickets to future shows or memberships, gift vouchers and merchandise.

Chief executive officer Chris Blythe says: “I know it is a huge ask, especially at Christmas, but I also know how much the Grand means to the people of Leeds and wider region.

“The support and generosity of our patrons this year has been overwhelming, both financially and emotionally. It is abundantly clear that arts and culture are needed now more than ever to help boost people’s mental health and build community through shared experience, as we all try to find some escapism from our day-to-day and ongoing concerns for our futures.”

Tickets for Disney’s Bedknobs And Broomsticks and Mamma Mia! are on sale at leedsheritagetheatres.com or on 0113 243 0808. To support Leeds Heritage Theatres this Christmas, go to leedsheritagetheatres.com.

Leeds Heritage Theatres receives £119,900 grant from National Lottery Heritage Fund

The logo for Leeds Heritage Theatres: a name drawing on the past for the future of Leeds Grand Theatre, City Varieties Music Hall and the Hyde Park Picture House cinema

LEEDS Heritage Theatres has received £119,900 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to help address the impact of COVID-19 on its three venues. 

Leeds Grand Theatre, Leeds City Varieties Music Hall and the Hyde Park Picture House cinema now operate under the collective Leeds Heritage Theatres umbrella, a re-branding announced amid the ongoing Coronavirus crisis.

Since the doors to all three closed on March 17, the company has lost 99 per cent of its income, earned through ticket, bar and merchandise sales, and furloughed 96 per cent of staff; with a small team being kept on to manage customer refunds, reschedule performances and maintain necessary administrative functions.

Chief executive officer Chris Blythe said: “Since our venues ceased trading due to the pandemic, we have been doing everything we can to ensure our survival throughout this period, as well as prepare for the economic uncertainty that will follow, including drawing on our reserves which we had planned to invest back into our three heritage buildings.

“This grant is a lifeline, and while it won’t quite see us out of the woods – we are waiting to hear if we have been successful in our bid for emergency funding from the Government – we’re hugely grateful to the National Lottery Heritage Fund for supporting us at this crucial time. It’s invaluable to us and others who are passionate about sustaining heritage for the benefit of all.” 

The UK-wide funding, made possible by National Lottery players, was awarded through the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s Heritage Emergency Fund. In all, £50million was made available to provide emergency funding for those most in need across the heritage sector and to help organisations to start thinking about recovery. The money awarded to Leeds Heritage Theatres will be used to fund re-opening costs across the Grand and City Varieties, including signage and PPE. 

Ros Kerslake, chief executive of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, said: “Heritage has an essential role to play in making communities better places to live, supporting economic regeneration and benefiting our personal wellbeing. All these things are going to be even more important as we emerge from this current crisis. 

“Thanks to money raised by National Lottery players we are pleased to be able to lend our support to organisations such as Leeds Heritage Theatres during this uncertain time.”

Like Leeds Heritage Theatres, other charities and organisations across Britain affected by the pandemic are being given access to a comprehensive package of support of up to £600 million of repurposed money from The National Lottery. “This money is supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our communities and span the arts, community, charity, heritage, education, environment and sports sectors,” said Kerslake.

Thanks to National Lottery players, £30 million is raised every week for good causes, including heritage of local and national importance. By playing the National Lottery, people up and down the country are contributing to the nationwide response to combatting the impact of Covid-19 on communities across Britain.

Explaining the Heritage re-branding that came into effect on August 26, Blythe said: “The planned name change, and brand launch were originally scheduled for April 2020, when we were hoping, and had plans, to announce the exciting news in a manner more fitting of our industry.

“Unfortunately, due to the current pandemic, we had to postpone the announcement while we attended to more urgent matters, namely closing our three buildings and furloughing 96 per cent of our staff, while maintaining some business continuity. Now, after considerable work behind the scenes, we are ready to put the new name, brand and website into the public domain.”

Blythe continued: “While we have been trading for more than 30 years as Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House Ltd, we have long known that the name was not befitting of our company, and the role our venues and people play within the Leeds arts scene.

“We knew we must choose a name that encapsulates our people, our venues, our heritage and our future, and will raise awareness, both regionally and nationally, of the breadth and quality of our shows/screenings and educational function.

“Now, more than ever, as our venues stand empty, it is important that we make people aware what Leeds and Yorkshire stand to lose if our venues close due to COVID-19.” 

Leeds Heritage Theatres does not receive funding from Arts Council England and the company has been massively hit financially by the pandemic crisis. 

“As we put forward our bid to receive funding from the Government’s arts rescue package, we know that competition is fierce, and we need the support of our loyal customers more than ever,” said Blythe.

“We’re asking that people, if financially viable, buy tickets, memberships and vouchers, or donate what money they can. In such dark times, theatre is a positive force: it provides an opportunity for people from all backgrounds to come together to share a common bond – a love of performance. Just when our future was looking so bright, we cannot let our theatres fade into the darkness.” 

Donations can be made at https://donate.leedsgrandtheatre.com/.

The show MUST go on at Leeds City Varieties, urges chief exec amid uncertainty ahead of music hall’s 155th birthday

Leeds City Varieties Music Hall: Britain’s longest-running music hall

“HOWEVER daunting, I am certain we have a future. We must.”

This is the rallying call of Chris Blythe, chief executive officer of Leeds City Varieties as the Guinness World Record holder for Britain’s longest-running music hall turns 155 years old on Sunday (June 7).

On a day that should be marked with great celebration, instead the doors to the oldest theatre in Leeds remain closed under the Coronavirus lockdown.

This is the first time in its long and colourful history that the 19th century venue in Swan Street has ceased operation, other than in 2009 to 2011 when it underwent a £9 million restoration. 

Now, alas, the future of Leeds City Varieties Music Hall is uncertain, but Mr Blythe trumpets the comedy, music and theatre venue’s importance. “The Varieties is a Leeds, if not a national, institution. A hidden gem with a warm Yorkshire welcome.

“Contributing to the vital cultural life of the city, City Varieties is a significant employer in the area, supporting many neighbouring bars and restaurants with a regular influx of theatregoers.

“While we’re all working towards and looking forward to the day that we can reopen our doors and welcome our audiences back, we must face facts: venues like ours will be the last to open.”

Knotty Ash comedian Ken Dodd (1927-2018) performed the last show before the 2009 refurbishment of Leeds City Varieties and the first after its reopening in 2011

Income generation will be limited for potentially months after other parts of the economy start to grow, suggests Mr Blythe. “The whole industry will need to take stock as investors and producers of our wonderful shows have also taken a massive hit,” he says.

“And when we do reopen – notice the emission of the word ‘if’ – the future is going to be much changed. Reserves will be exhausted, and patrons will have difficult choices to make with a financial recession and their own well-being and safety to consider.

“We will have to continue to operate with appropriate safety measure in place – careful consideration will need to be given to both staff and patron welfare, our cleaning regime, appropriate distancing measures and potentially a period of cashless transactions. The list goes on. But, however daunting, I am certain we have a future. We must.”

Noted for its intimate atmosphere and “brutally honest” audience, the City Varieties began life in 1865 as the “New Music Hall and Fashionable Lounge”: a room above a pub established by business entrepreneur Charles Thornton for the working people of Leeds to be entertained.

Its affluent sister venue, Leeds Grand Theatre, in Briggate, was meant only for the higher classes. Indeed a popular saying at the time was: “Wear your flat cap to the Varieties and your top hat to the Grand”.

In its early years, the City Varieties welcomed many weird and wonderful acts, such as the world-renowned escapologist Harry Houdini, singer, comedian and actress Marie Lloyd and Victorian music-hall socialite Lillie Langtry, the Jersey Lily, for whom it is rumoured Prince Edward would sneak into a private box to watch and court.

The City Varieties is probably best known for hosting the BBC’s The Good Old Days from 1953 to 1983, re-creating old-time music hall entertainment with audiences encouraged to dress in Victorian garb.

Produced by Barney Colehan and chaired by the alliterative Leonard Sachs, it starred Les Dawson, Barbara Windsor, Bruce Forsyth, Danny La Rue, Ken Dodd, Barry Cryer and many more besides. 

A lad in a dress in Aladdin: a Leeds City Varieties Music Hall rock’n’roll pantomime

Albeit untelevised, The Good Old Days still runs today and the original series has enjoyed a re-run on BBC4.

In 2009, the City Varieties benefited from a £9million regeneration project, funded largely by Leeds City Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The work included demolition and reconstruction of the backstage areas, ceiling and plasterwork repairs, inspired by a 1900 design discovered during the restoration; new carpeting and seating throughout the auditorium, and the fitting of an external glass lift to improve access to the building.

Ken Dodd, the last act to perform before the 2009 closure, was the first act to grace the reopened music hall in 2011.

The City Varieties now presents live music, variety, comedy and National Theatre Live and delayed screenings, as well as the annual rock’n’roll pantomime that showcases actor/musicians in a break from traditional panto.

Since the 2011 re-launch, the venue has played host to Russell Crowe, Kerry Ellis, Boy George, Michael McIntyre, Sara Pascoe, John Bishop, Romesh Ranganathan, Phil Wang, Jack Whitehall et al.

Her Majesty The Queen and Prince Phillip officially opened the refurbished music hall in 2012 as part of their Diamond Jubilee tour.

Throughout the Coronavirus-enforced closure, the City Varieties is asking patrons, if financially viable, for donations to help support the company throughout this financially difficult period. For more details, go to cityvarieties.co.uk.

CORONAVIRUS: Leeds Grand Theatre, Leeds City Varieties and Hyde Park Picture House close until further notice

The Leeds Grand Theatre auditorium. Picture: Simon Hulme

LEEDS Grand Theatre, Leeds City Varieties Music Hall and Hyde Park Picture House are closing from today “to help slow the spread of Coronavirus”.

The decision was taken with regret following official government advice issued on Monday, stipulating that people should avoid public buildings, including theatres.

The three venues under the Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House Ltd umbrella will “remain closed until further notice and will re-open as soon as possible – following government recommendations”.

Leeds City Varieties Music Hall

Chief executive Chris Blythe said: “We are extremely grateful to all of our audiences who have continued to support us for as long as they can, and to our staff who have worked tirelessly in recent weeks to ensure the safety and enjoyment of audiences. 

“These are unprecedented times – combined we have been open for over 400 years – and closing our venues is not a decision that has been taken lightly. In truth, this will have a severe impact on the future of Leeds Grand Theatre & Opera House Ltd. Our future is now uncertain, but the safety of our visitors and staff has always been our priority.”

Hyde Park Picture House, Brudenell Road, Leeds

Mr Blythe went on: “We will continue to follow advice from the Government and work closely with the touring companies and artists that are due to visit our venues over the coming months and hope that we will be able to open our doors again very soon. We thank everyone for their continued support and loyalty.” 

Audience members for a performance/screening that has been cancelled will be contacted in due course by staff. “All customers are entitled to a refund, but as Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House Ltd is a charitable enterprise, those who can afford to are encouraged to donate the cost of their ticket to show support for the future of our venues,” today’s statement said.

“Over the coming weeks, we will continue to provide regular updates. Ticket holders are asked to bear in mind that our customer service teams are extremely busy, and we would appreciate everyone’s patience and understanding at this time.”

Sheridan Smith to play Cilla a lorra, lorra more times on tour that visits Leeds Grand

The poster for Sheridan Smith’s return to playing Cilla Black, this time on tour in Cilla The Musical

SHERIDAN Smith will revisit her portrayal of Cilla Black in Cilla The Musical at Leeds Grand Theatre from November 9 to 21.

She first played the late Liverpool pop star and television presenter in Jeff Pope’s award-winning ITV mini-series Cilla in 2015.

The part was written for Smith originally for a stage show but was then transferred to television, whereupon her performance won her a 2015 National TV Award and TV Choice Award and she was nominated for a BAFTA and EMMY Award too.

Now, expecting a baby in May, 38-year-old Smith has agreed to step inside the role of Cilla once more in impresario Bill Kenwright’s stage production, penned again by Pope.

Sheridan Smith in the role of Cilla Black for ITV’s 2015 mini-series Cilla

Her past theatre credits include her first Olivier Award nomination for Little Shop Of Horrors at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, and her first Olivier Award and WhatsOnStage Award for playing Elle Woods in Legally Blonde The Musical.

Smith, from Epworth, near Doncaster, then won an Olivier Award and an Evening Standard Theatre Award for her role as Doris in Flare Path. Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler at The Old Vic brought her another WhatsOnStage Best Actress Award and she enjoyed a celebrated run in the West End as Fanny Bryce in Funny Girl in 2018.

Cilla The Musical’s heart-warming musical adaptation of Pope’s television series first toured in 2017, when nominated for Best New Musical in the WhatsOnStage Awards.

Kara Lily Hayworth played Cilla after ten rounds of auditions and a final four sing-off at The Cavern in Liverpool for the tour that visited the Grand Opera House, York, in January 2018.

Kara Lily Hayworth played Cilla in the tour of Cilla The Musical that visited the Grand Opera House, York, in January 2018

Directed by Kenwright and Bob Tomson, Pope’s story “follows the extraordinary life of an ordinary teenage girl from Liverpool, Priscilla White, and her rocky, yet incredible, rise to fame”.

By the age of 25, she was recognised as international singing star Cilla Black. By 30, she had become Britain’s favourite television entertainer, leading to such series as  Blind Date and Surprise Surprise.

The musical score features such Cilla landmarks as Anyone Who Had A Heart, Alfie and Something Tells Me.

Tickets are on sale on 0844 848 2700 or at leedsgrandtheatre.com.

Did you know?

JEFF Pope wrote the screenplays for Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman; Essex Boys; Philomenaand Stan & Ollie. His television work includes the BAFTA-winning ITV drama Mrs Biggs and Cilla, both starring Sheridan Smith.

Northern Ballet’s 50th anniversary launches with Kenneth Tindall’s Geisha at Leeds Grand Theatre

Ayama Miyata as Aiko and Minju Kang as Okichi in Northern Ballet’s Geisha. Picture: Guy Farrow

GEISHA, the first of two world premieres to mark Northern Ballet’s 50th anniversary, opens tonight at Leeds Grand Theatre.

Telling the emotional story of two young women whose lives are torn apart in the midst of a collision between East and West, the ballet is choreographed and directed by Kenneth Tindall, creator of the Leeds company’s 2017 hit, Casanova, and short works such as The Shape Of Sound.

Running in Leeds from this weekend until March 21 before a national tour that sets off at Sheffield Lyceum Theatre from March 24 to 28, Geisha is an original ballet inspired by true events.

Okichi and Aiko are two young geisha with an unshakeable bond who find themselves on different paths when their world is irrevocably changed after the first arrival of the Americans in Japan. While Aiko finds happiness in her new life, Okichi’s life is devastated and she returns as a ghostly apparition to wreak her revenge.

Geisha is performed to an original score by Alexandra Harwood, played live by Northern Ballet Sinfonia. Sets and costumes are designed by Christopher Oram, who designed Casanova too, with lighting by Alastair West. The scenario has been written by Kenneth Tindall in collaboration with TV and film writer Gwyneth Hughes; historical consultant Lesley Downer completes the creative team.

Leeds tickets are on sale on 0844 848 2700 or at leedsgrandtheatre.com; Sheffield, 0114 249 6000 or sheffieldtheatres.co.uk. Age guidance: 12 plus.

Choreographer and director Kenneth Tindall in rehearsal for Northern Ballet’s Geisha. Picture: Emily Nuttall

Here, Kenneth Tindall, Northern Ballet dancer from 2003 to 2015, choreographer in residence and director of Geisha, answers questions on his new production.

What led you to choose Geisha for your second full-length ballet, Kenneth?

“When [artistic director] David Nixon invited me to create a new full-length ballet for Northern Ballet’s 50th anniversary year, we had a lot of discussion about what the title should be.

“Of course you have to consider how the tour will work and the necessity for it to be successful at the box office, but we were also mindful of it being the 50th anniversary and choosing a title that could tie in with that.

“In Northern Ballet’s history, the company has staged two versions of Madame Butterfly, including one choreographed by David himself, which I’ve always been inspired by, but I didn’t want to recreate a ballet that he’d done so well and built a loyal audience for.

“Instead, we came up with the idea for an original ballet about geisha based on true events. I lived and worked in Japan for a year and it’s a culture that I’ve always been fascinated with. The mystery behind the world of geisha is a fantastic prospect for a creative and really sparks the imagination.”

When did you first become interested in the culture of geisha?

“My interest in geisha was first piqued many years ago when I read [Arthur Golden’s] Memoirs Of A Geisha. That was my first introduction to geisha and I quickly realised that there was so much more to it.

Ayama Miyata and Minju Kang in Geisha. Picture: Guy Farrow

“I found it to be a beautiful first source that captured my imagination and led me into much deeper research. I remember reading the book in the bath and just being fascinated by the way it was written: the colours, the landscape, the feeling, the weather, and just the honour in it all.

“It’s like a whole other world, so opposite to us in most ways that it’s almost hard for a western mind to get around.”

Why choose an original story for Geisha rather than an existing one?

“One of the things that I’m most proud of about Northern Ballet is that they continue to try to do new stories. Not tried and tested scenarios, but completely original and wholly new stories that the audience don’t know.

“I think that it’s incredibly brave of Northern Ballet because it’s a really difficult thing to market. I believe that through the years of doing original ballets like this and producing such great work, the company attracts people to the theatre and hopefully a new audience to the art form as well.”

What were your first steps in the creation of Geisha?

“The first thing I did was establish who was going to create the story with me. Every time I step into a new project, I’m also looking to push my creative process in at least one new direction, so that I can learn something and develop my own skills and ideas for future projects.

Northern Ballet in rehearsal in Leeds for Geisha

“On Casanova I worked with Ian Kelly to create the scenario and I loved that process. I thought it was really interesting to have a novelist and playwright involved and it led to quite a complex story.

“This time I decided I wanted a TV and film writer to help me edit the scenario and form the character arcs, but we also really needed a specialist in the subject to help us fully respect the culture.

“That led me to Gwyneth Hughes to actually write the scenario with, and Lesley Downer to oversee the process and make sure we were on the right track.”

How did you form the scenario for Geisha?

“Gwyneth Hughes and I came together and threw a hundred ideas into the air to see where they would land. We began to disregard ideas we thought wouldn’t make a ballet or that we felt weren’t interesting enough or were too westernised.

Then Gwyneth asked me if I knew the story of Okichi, which I didn’t. I don’t believe the story of Okichi is very well known in the west but, in her hometown of Shimoda, there’s a statue of her.

“I think it’s incredible that this woman, who had a sort of fall from grace and was perceived totally differently in the 19th century, now has a statue where people come to pray.

“You never know what the legacy will be of the choices you make. What makes Okichi’s story more interesting for me is that the legend is so vague, there are many versions of it, which leaves it open.

Minju Kang in Geisha. Picture:Guy Farrow

“This meant we had a structure for the story and then our imagination could run wild. That’s what excited me about Okichi’s story and one of the reasons we chose it. It then also allowed us to incorporate another aspect of Japanese culture with the Obon Festival of the dead.

The Obon Festival is visually stunning and quite overwhelming in some ways. If you take a moment to stop and think about life and death, the idea that you could meet the people that are no longer in your life, the thought is so powerful.

“It just seemed such a natural fit to include the Obon Festival. Over this three-day period, we are able to resolve the conflict that happened in the real world in the first act and then be able to sustain the point of view of Okichi in the second act through her spirit.”

What are the key themes of Geisha?

Above all, Geisha is about two young women who happen to be geisha, and the sisterhood they share. We see the lives of these two women turned upside down with the arrival of the Americans, which was really a turning point in the history of Japan.

“The geisha world as a backdrop is stunning and visual, and something that works really well in theatre, but the interest is actually in who the characters are beyond that.

“The ballet includes themes of life and death, love, loss, redemption and revenge, which are universal themes that any culture can understand.”

Minju Kang in rehearsal for Geisha. Picture: Emily Nuttall

What are the challenges of creating a ballet with an original scenario versus one based on an existing story?

“It has pros and cons. If you choose a story like Romeo & Juliet, you’ve got fantastic theatre. Everything is there for you. The duets, the death, the drama, the excitement, the love, the connection, the families – it’s Shakespeare, it is incredible.

“There’s the reason it’s survived for so long and there are so many reinterpretations of it, because at its foundation, it’s a masterclass of storytelling.

“Having said that, I feel that as a young choreographer it’s my job not to keep going back to these existing texts or resources and think about new stories instead. The pressure is coming up with a story that’s good enough. You’re effectively starting from the beginning, but it means you get to tailor-make work for ballet.”

What has it been like working with your creative team?

“I feel that honest collaboration is a key component to whether something will succeed or not. I like to have an idea but stay open-minded, so that it could go in a new direction.

“I chose my creative team for their incredible skills and I wanted them invested in the project and for them to challenge me. As I mentioned earlier, I chose Gwyneth Hughes to write the scenario with and Lesley Downer as our historical consultant.

“It’s fantastic to work with Christopher Oram on the designs again as we have a relationship from Casanova, and now we get to start again on a higher level and push this project even further.

Minju Kang during rehearsals for Geisha. Picture:Emily Nuttall

“It’s the same with our lighting designer Alastair West. We’ve worked together so often now that for Geisha we started lighting conversations very early and began visualising what could be possible.

“Our composer, Alexandra Harwood, has gone above and beyond. I’ve spent so many hours at her house going through ideas and she’s re-written many scenes; she has such a passion and energy for the project.”

What does it mean to you to create a new ballet for Northern Ballet’s 50th anniversary year?

“My first performance with Northern Ballet was when I was eight years old. I was at Central School of Ballet and was picked out of the school to perform in Romeo & Juliet and A Christmas Carol. “When I later got a job at the company, it was a dream come true. I worked up to première dancer and honestly never thought past that. Now it’s the 50th anniversary and I’m choreographing the first première of the year, it’s a little overwhelming.

“When I was asked to do Casanova, I was just so delighted to be given the opportunity but now I’m making a second full-length [ballet], I appreciate what an absolute privilege it is. When I look at where the company is now and the dancers we have, it’s so humbling to think I’m being given the opportunity to work on this level.

“I’m just keeping my fingers crossed and praying ‘long may it continue’ because there are a lot of stories I want to tell, and I just hope that people will allow me to tell them.”

How do you feel that your relationship with the company has evolved now that you have created multiple works for Northern Ballet?

“I’ve been choreographing work for Northern Ballet for almost a decade now and each time my relationship with the company just goes further. It’s like the dancers have learnt my language and are so well versed in it that everything is so much quicker and that it allows us time to go deeper into the process and try new things.

“I like to think that I’ve got a shed full of tools that are sharpened in the finest manner, with all my special handholds on them and I know exactly how to use them. So now, with that in mind, where do we go? And that’s both the terrifying and exhilarating part of it.”

Minju Kang in Geisha. Picture: Guy Farrow

Q and A with Northern Ballet first soloist Minju Kang, from Seoul, South Korea, who has created the lead role of Okichi in Geisha.

What research have you done to prepare for this role, Minju?

“I did a lot of research online and was able to find information about the true story of Okichi. I looked at pictures of Shimoda, where she’s from, and saw the statue they have of her there.

“I also searched for information and images about geisha in general and their history. I watched the movie of Memoirs Of A Geisha and though the story in our ballet is very different, it was very interesting to see a visual representation of geisha on screen.”

How does Japanese culture compare to South Korean culture? Are there things you can relate to? “We’re neighbouring countries and while there are things that are similar, much is so different. I feel close to it because I am from an Asian culture, but as part of creating Geisha I’ve learned so much that I didn’t know that is different in Japan, like there is a certain way to bow and to kneel.

“For me, though, when I play a character, I completely forget about my nationality, my age and everything else and focus on my character’s journey.”

Does South Korea have anything like geisha?

“In South Korea we have kisaeng, which are very similar, so I already had an idea of what being a geisha was about. Kisaeng are basically entertainers trained in the arts and they dance and play instruments like geisha do.”

Minju Kang applying make-up for Guy Farrow’s photo-session for Northern Ballet’s Geisha

This is the first time you’ve had a role created on you. How has that experience been?

“At first it was overwhelming because you want to be good and it’s a big responsibility. It became really special, though, because I have been able to put something personal into the role.

“Working with Kenneth Tindall and the ballet staff has been real teamwork and we really trust each other, so it was easy for me to open up and not be afraid to give what I have. It’s been such a joy.”

Do you have a favourite scene in Geisha, or a favourite piece of choreography?

“I enjoyed creating the scene with Townsend Harris – although it isn’t a happy scene for my character! When we first began creating it, Kenny [Kenneth Tindall] showed us the movement he wanted, and we tried to copy it and build up from there.

“But it was so important to tell the story clearly we talked about it at length in the studio and focused on the small things. It was less about the movement, and more about a little look, or how I sit down, or the way he grabs me. I had no idea how much of a difference these little things make. When the scene was finished there was a real sense of achievement.”

How would you describe the really emotional journey your character has to go on?

“Okichi is a very supportive person. She feels she’s achieved what she wanted to achieve and now has a sister in Aiko who she fully supports. Because she’s been through it all herself, she can guide her better and is very protective in some ways.

Minju Kang at Northern Ballet’s Geisha photo shoot. Picture: Justin Slee

“She’s there for everyone but then, when she needs help after the Americans arrive, she feels that they are not there for her in return and she can’t share all she wants to share because she feels ashamed.

“She ends up in a very dark and lonely place. In the second act when she comes back as a ghost, she doesn’t even understand at first that she’s dead, she thinks it’s a nightmare.

“Imagine seeing your own dead body – she feels sick at first but then that turns into anger because she can’t reach the people she loves any more.

“Her anger is focused on the Americans and when she takes her revenge, she doesn’t even think about it. It’s only afterwards she realises the hurt she has done to Aiko, the person she loves the most.”

Is it hard for you to portray that range of emotions within a two-hour show?

“Yes definitely! The end of the first act is especially intense. It’s strange how emotion can affect your body, you feel really heavy. It doesn’t necessarily affect me off stage; I go home, I’m fine, I’m happy, but in that moment on stage, I’m so committed to that journey that Okichi is going through and I feel all the emotions.

Riku Ito and Minju Kang in Northern Ballet’s Geisha. Picture: Guy Farrow

Do you enjoy the acting side of your job?

“I do really enjoy it because you get to create another version of yourself that you never knew existed and share that with the audience. The fact that you can find something inside of you to create that character, it’s just like magic.”

Do you like your costumes? Are they easy to dance in?

“They’re amazing. I have about five kimono and they’re all so beautiful, the colours and designs, but also how they’re made and so comfortable to dance in. I could wear them every day!

“It’s an amazing visual when you see the whole cast in their costumes, and the geisha have beautiful fans which have been sourced from Japan by [leading soloist] Ayami Miyata’s aunt.”

What is your process to prepare for a performance?

“I’m sure every dancer would say that they don’t want to be rushed. I give myself plenty of time, about two to three hours to get ready. I make sure I’ve gone out before to get some food, but I don’t like to eat a full meal before a show.

“I do get nervous and I use mindfulness to help with that. I talk to myself a lot in my head and get very quiet to save energy, stay calm and get focused on the performance. I even talk to myself when I’m on stage, encouraging and reassuring myself, and when something has gone well, I can’t hide it on my face.”

Minju Kang and Riku Ito in rehearsal for Geisha. Picture: Emily Nuttall

How important is live music to your performance?

“Music is so important for me, it’s half of the performance. Having a live orchestra is a collaboration and you can feel the connection between the dancers, the conductor and the orchestra, you can feel the support. You’re dancing with them.

“It’s like you’re on this journey together and it’s so special. It’s very different to performing to recorded music. Recorded music is around you but with live music, the music gets inside you.”

How does it feel to be part of Northern Ballet’s 50th anniversary year?

“There are people who have been in the company longer, so, for me, it’s an honour to be part of it. When I learn about the history, I feel really proud of what this company has achieved and where they are now.

“You can feel the work people have put in to take this company to where we are and that’s really touching.”

Minju Kang’s back story

Minju, from Seoul, South Korea, trained at Seoul Arts High School, Korea National Institute for the Gifted in Arts and the Hamburg Ballet School.

She performed with Bundesjugendballett for two years before joining Northern Ballet in 2016. Her roles with the Leeds company have included Victoria in Victoria, Cinderella in Cinderella, Marilla in The Little Mermaid and Mina in Dracula.

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Opera North’s hellish The Turn Of The Screw

A scene from Opera North’s The Turn Of The Screw. Picture: Tristram Kenton

REVIEW: Opera North in The Turn Of The Screw, Leeds Grand Theatre, February 18. Further performances on February 21, 25 and 27, then touring until March 19. Box office: 0844 848 2700 or at leedsgrandtheatre.com

PART of the fascination of any ghost story – and Henry James certainly intended The Turn Of The Screw to be one – is its dabbling with a world that we can never fully comprehend or understand.

We are frightened, as James was himself, by his own creation, by the horrors that our imaginations are led to conjure. The sky – or hell – is the limit.

Myfanwy Piper’s libretto retains most of James’s ambiguities, while Britten’s music wonderfully clarifies their existence but offers no definitive answers to the questions they pose.

We know of Britten’s own obsession with the corruption of innocence. We also have plenty of recent examples of the terrors that may befall children put into care, like Miles and Flora here. The question for a director of the opera is how unambiguous to be.

Alessandro Talevi’s production was certainly probing when it first appeared in the autumn of 2010. This time round, he opens up new possibilities: he hardly misses an opportunity to interpret and he has schooled all six of his cast into finely honed acting, without exception.

In Sarah Tynan’s Governess we have a minutely judged, sexually repressed ingénue: she is as surprised as we are by a lonely Mrs Grose’s fondling attentions. She is equally puzzled by Miles’s come-hither kiss, delivered just before he climbs into her bed: this boy may be in thrall to Quint, but is also prey to rampaging hormones.

So, which of these signals leads up an emotional cul-de-sac? Or are they merely figments of the governess’s fevered imagination? The fact that such questions need to be asked at all is a sure indication that Talevi knows exactly how to provoke.

He also views the tale from the children’s point of view. At one point, we are shown a Narnia-style, fairy-tale landscape – easily taken for a Victorian orangery stocked with exotic flowers – in which younger versions of Miles and Flora can be seen frolicking.

In Madeleine Boyd’s majestic set, Bly is a Victorian pile in need of more than a spring clean, with Quint glimpsed in the tower behind its tall, murky windows. The building itself is part of the oppression all its inmates feel, doubtless compelling them into aberration.

Her costumes are regulation late Victorian, shading into Edwardian, but her hair-styles are notable: the Pre-Raphaelite cast of Miss Jessel’s Titian tresses, Quint’s bright orange thatch and side-burns, Flora’s Alice-curls, all contrast firmly with the governess’s prim blonde bun.

The props are carefully selected too: a manic rocking-horse, a giant four-poster, from whose roof Flora dangles her puppets, a school desk, and a large horn above a turntable, on which Miles “plays” parody Mozart; all bask in Matthew Haskins’ shadow-laden lighting.

After an exceptionally clear prologue, Nicholas Watts fashions a menacing Quint, likely to cause many a nightmare, while Eleanor Dennis’s pregnant Miss Jessel finds an unearthly tone equally guaranteed to spook. Heather Shipp’s seemingly phlegmatic Mrs Grose flashes into emotion more than once. 

Tynan’s keenly-observed governess is a study in bafflement as she steadily loses her marbles to guilt and self-reproach. Jennifer Clark’s lively, mischievous Flora suggests someone much younger than she looked, while Tim Gasiorek’s well-tuned, light-voiced Miles acts his socks off.

All have reason to be grateful for the exceptional clarity with which Leo McFall’s orchestra paints their various motifs; one could hardly imagine their playing being more finely nuanced. Talevi’s revival may raise more questions than it answers, but it unquestionably held this audience in rapt appreciation.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Opera North’s revival of The Marriage Of Figaro

Fflur Wyn as Susanna and Phillip Rhodes as Figaro in Opera North’s The Marriage Of Figaro. All pictures:. Robert Workman

Opera North in The Marriage Of Figaro, Leeds Grand Theatre, February 1 ****

Further Leeds performances on February 8, 14, 19, 22, 26 and 29, then on tour . More details at operanorth.co.uk. Leeds box office: 0844 848 2700 or at leedsgrandtheatre.com

IT is strange how operatic revivals can vary so much from their originals, even when the same director is on hand to oversee them. Jo Davies’s production of Mozart’s opera buffa dates from January 2015. That is before the Me Too movement really took off in October 2017, when the treatment of women in Hollywood began to come under the microscope.

 Its repercussions on this show are fascinating. The two leading men, Count Almaviva and Figaro himself, are by far the most charismatic here. That is partly down to the singers involved. But it also reflects the relative hardness of their ladies, the Countess and Susanna.

These men are having their very manhood challenged, even as they attempt their various conquests. It could help to explain why Quirijn de Lang’s relentlessly dim-witted Count (though the singer himself is clearly quite the opposite) comes across as a failed Don Giovanni, never quite achieving those desired notches on his cane. The man is libidinous beyond belief. Even at the end you wonder how long he can possibly remain faithful to his wife. He nevertheless sings with plenty of self-belief.

Heather Lowe as Cherubino

The New Zealand baritone Phillip Rhodes relaxes into the title role immediately, despite taking it on for the first time. The part could have been made for him. His Figaro retains unclouded optimism in the face of every setback, helped by warm, clear tone and a pair of eyebrows that crinkle with mirth at every excuse.

Opposite him, Fflur Wyn, also new to her role as Susanna, is a calculating creature – the gardener Antonio’s social-climbing niece – rather than a playful minx. Her soprano is light and clean, her diction less so. Nor is clarity Máire Flavin’s strong point as the Countess. Her first aria was too tense to excite sympathy, her second showed what might have been, with fluent control. But she moves beautifully and always has the moral high ground over her wayward husband.

The lower orders are well represented. It comes as no surprise to discover that Heather Lowe, the tousle-haired Cherubino, is a trained dancer. She is exceptionally nimble as well as vocally adept, not least as girl-plays-boy-playing girl.

Jonathan Best makes a diffident old fogey of Bartolo, well partnered by Gaynor Keeble’s earthy Marcellina. Joseph Shovelton is back with his oily Basilio, as is Jeremy Peaker’s rubicund Antonio. Alexandra Oomens is the peppy Barbarina. Even Warren Gillespie’s Curzio makes a mark, here as a censer-swinging priest. Real incense too.

Quirijn de Lang as Count Almaviva and Máire Flavin as Countess Almaviva

 Antony Hermus makes his first appearance in the pit since being appointed Principal Guest Conductor. He is a mixed blessing. His rigid, hyperactive baton ensures taut ensemble, but allows his woodwinds little flexibility; the strength of his accents regularly swamps the singers’ words in ensemble. On the other hand, conducting from the harpsichord, his recitatives flow idiomatically.

 Leslie Travers’s mobile set shows both the downstairs and the upstairs of this society, the former doubling as the outside of the house for the garden scene. Peeling wallpaper and rickety staircases speak of genteel poverty. Gabrielle Dalton’s socially-layered costumes could be from almost any era.

In the wake of Me Too, we should expect certain aspects of the comedy to be soft-pedalled. But there is plenty of amusement at the expense of the men. And that is as it should be. 

Phillip Rhodes as Figaro

Review by Martin Dreyer

Mamma Mia! Look which show is returning to Leeds Grand Theatre this autumn

Mamma Mia! is on its way to Leeds Grand Theatre on its 20th anniversary tour

MAMMA Mia! will return to Leeds Grand Theatre from November 24 to December 5 on the tour to mark 20 years since the Abba musical’s London premiere.

Tickets will go on general sale on January 29 on 0844 848 2700 or at leedsgrandtheatre.com.

Built around the music and lyrics of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus,Mamma Mia!revels in Judy Craymer’s vision of staging the story-telling magic of Abba’s songs with a sunny, funny tale of a mother, a daughter and three possible dads unfolding on a Greek island idyll. 

To date, Mamma Mia! has been seen by more than 65 million people in 50 productions in 16 languages.  In 2011, it became the first Western musical to be staged in Mandarin in China.  

Mamma Mia!became the eighth longest-running show on Broadway, where it played a record-breaking run for 14 years and it continues to play in London’s West End at the Novello Theatre, where the 20th anniversary fell on April 6 2019.

The first British tour of Mamma Mia! visited Leeds Grand Theatre from May 30 to July 8 in 2017.