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.

How the Music Works for Opera North as new redevelopment is named the Howard Opera Centre

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.

OPERA North’s redeveloped headquarters in Leeds will bear the name of philanthropist Dr Keith Howard OBE.

The Howard Opera Centre will take on this title in recognition of the Yorkshire benefactor’s personal gift of £11.25 million towards the opera company’s redevelopment project, Music Works.

It is thought to be among the largest private donations ever made to a British arts company outside of London.

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

The Howard Opera Centre will house Opera North’s rehearsal studios, costume and wigs workshop and administrative offices.

The redevelopment work on New Briggate and Harrison Street will create a world-class facility to make opera; a new education studio and additional rehearsal spaces, including a new rehearsal room for Opera North’s orchestra and chorus and a suite of music coaching rooms.

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

Originally opened in 2009 after extensive restoration, the Howard Assembly Room is closed during the Music Works redevelopment project. It will reopen 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 began on site last summer and is being delivered by Henry Boot Construction, a Sheffield regional construction contractor with a commitment to reducing environment impacts.

The overall target for the Music Works fundraising campaign is £18 million.  Opera North has raised £15.6 million to date, including the £11.25 million gift that combines £9 million with £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 so far 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.

Councillor Jonathan Pryor, from Leeds City Council, left, Dr Keith Howard, and Opera North’s general director, Richard Mantle, attending the <Leeds company’s 2019/20 season launch at Harewood House. Picture: Justin Slee

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 to close. Opera North is  looking to patrons, Friends and audiences to play their part in the success of the redevelopment at many different levels. Work also continues to attract funding from further charitable trusts and foundations and the business community in Leeds.

Richard Mantle, Opera North’s general director, 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.”

Councillor 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’s 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.” 

Opera North employs more than 250 people, such as costume makers, stage managers, electricians, stage technicians, props makers, sound and lighting technicians, educators, designers and musicians, in addition to working with around 370 freelance performers, creatives and artists each year.

Opera North’s opera productions are created and premiered in Leeds, where the company performs at Leeds Grand Theatre each season before touring its opera productions to theatres across the country.

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.

Watch a short film about Music Works at https://youtu.be/4xQU4q0xFD4

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


“More live music, for everyone”.

 More performances in the Howard Assembly Room every year;

 A dedicated entrance for the Howard Assembly Room;

 An open, welcoming building that is fully accessible at all levels;

 New public spaces and an atrium.

Music Works will enable Opera North to host a full year-round programme of performances, workshops and small-scale productions in the Howard Assembly Room, increasing the number of performances given at the venue.

The best global musicians and artists will be brought to Leeds each year, creating a

diverse calendar of jazz, world music, folk, classical concerts, children’s opera, talks, film and installations.

 A new restaurant and bar, open to everyone all day;

 A refurbished Opera North box office and reception for Leeds Grand Theatre

 Restoration of a Grade II listed building

A crane moves steel on to the construction site at the top of the new Howard Opera Centre, looking east towards the Quarry House government offices, January 2020. Picture: Tom Arber

Music Works will regenerate a row of vacant shops directly beneath the Howard Assembly Room to

create a new restaurant and bar alongside a refurbished box office. A new dedicated “front door” will be established for Opera North and the Howard Assembly Room; the building will be open to everyone from morning until late at night for coffee, lunch, dinner and drinks.

Cutting-edge facilities for making opera: The Howard Opera Centre:

 A new purpose-built Music Rehearsal Studio;

 Three new music practice rooms;

 Refurbished Costume Workshop and Dye Room;

 A new artist and Company green room.

A home for Opera North Education:

 A new, flexible Education Studio;

 A new music coaching room for students;

 Break-out spaces and “secret garden” for school groups;

 A shared entrance for students, artists and staff, placing young people at the heart of the company.

An environmentally sustainable cultural flagship for Leeds:

 An environmentally sustainable and efficient estate;

 Photovoltaic panels to generate energy;

 A significant contribution to the New Briggate public realm;

 A major capital investment in the run up to 2023 Leeds cultural celebrations;

 Investment in digital infrastructure to increase efficiency and reduce environmental impact.