Opera North launches home service for Zoom personal performances in lockdown

Going solo: Opera North’s Celine Saout will be playing her harp ONe to ONe in a new lockdown initiative for Zoom performances. Picture: Tom Arber

OPERA North is launching ONe-to-ONe, an initiative to bring live performance into homes across the country on Zoom, forging connections through music during Lockdown 3.

Designed in response to the increasing feeling of isolation at home in the pandemic, and the continuing impact of the loss of the usual culture fixes, ONe-to-ONe will provide personal online performances delivered by members of the Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North.

Slots will be available to book online. From a cappella arias and folk songs to Bach cello suites and a marimba solo, the recipient will be treated to a free virtual solo at a time of their choice, performed by a professional musician over Zoom. 

Building on the success of the carol concert streamed by the Leeds company to care homes in the run-up to Christmas, ONe-to-ONe performances also will be offered to residential homes to keep residents entertained and engaged with culture while the possibilities for social interaction remain limited.

Community groups will be invited to enjoy a special lockdown performance as part of the project too.

Phil Boughton, Opera North’s director of Orchestra and Chorus, says: “We’re aware that many people are finding this lockdown the hardest of all. It has also been a really testing time for the members of our Chorus and Orchestra who, due to the ongoing restrictions, have been unable to perform in front of an audience for many months. 

“ONe-to-ONe grew out of a desire on the part of our musicians to forge a musical connection with someone in need of a boost and to bring a moment of joy into people’s lives.

“The repertoire will be a ‘lucky dip’ with the performance kept under wraps until everyone is ready online, but anyone who takes part can be assured of an extraordinary experience streamed direct into their home.”

Each pay-as-you-feel performance will last around ten minutes, and slots should be booked on the Opera North website, operanorth.co.uk, up to 48 hours in advance. Initially, they will be offered from Monday, February 15 to Saturday, February 27, with more than 90 performances available for booking during that time. 

David Greed, leader of the Orchestra of Opera North, says: “I’m really looking forward to seeing the reactions of people when we perform for them.

“It will certainly feel very different for me to be playing in my home and for the audience to be sitting in their living room rather than a theatre or concert hall, but it is wonderful that technology gives us the opportunity to keep in touch in this way.

“If ONe-to-ONe puts a smile on people’s faces and provides them with a memorable experience during lockdown, it will definitely have been worth it.” 

ONe-to-ONe joins Opera North’s other online options, such as the Little School of Music for primary-aged children, Orchestral Academy Online for young musicians and Writing Home song-writing workshops to help to create an art installation in the new Howard Opera Centre, in New Briggate, when it opens later this year.

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.

REVIEW: Opera North in Fidelio, Leeds Town Hall, December 12, and online

Oliver Johnston as Jaquino, Rachel Nicholls as Leonore, Brindley Sherratt as Rocco and Fflur Wyn as Marzelline in Opera North’s Fidelio. All pictures: Richard H Smith

BEETHOVEN’S birthdate remains a mystery. But he was certainly baptised on December 17, 1770.

So, this concert staging took place on, or very near, the 250th anniversary of his birth. It could hardly have been a more thrilling occasion, even considering that it was compulsorily live-streamed, without the intended audience, as the pandemic bit harder in West Yorkshire. 

There was from the start an extraordinarily upbeat flavour to the evening. It was as if every last ounce of the suppressed anger we were all feeling about the coronavirus was being channelled into sheer, bloody-minded determination to beat this enemy. No composer does anger better than Beethoven. Opera North was out to prove the point.

You could imagine different productions. But you would be hard put to find one in which every last one of the performers – soloists, chorus, orchestra, all under Mark Wigglesworth – was not merely on terrific form but prepared to shed sweat and tears in the cause. Call it wartime spirit, call it Yorkshire grit. In any case, the level was astounding given that so many of them had been like beached whales since early spring.

This was a bare-bones Fidelio, and all the better for that. In the pre-match interviews, both principals had questioned the weight of voices Beethoven had used at the 1805 premiere. Not that excuses were being made: both Rachel Nicholls as Leonore and Toby Spence as Florestan had plenty of heft when needed. But we have become inured to hearing something close to Wagnerian sopranos and heldentenors in these roles. They were not necessary here.

Social distancing had reduced the orchestra to Mozartian dimensions, with a chorus of only 24 wide-spaced across the bleachers behind. This was virtually Fidelio as chamber opera. But the town hall’s bright acoustic belied the small numbers. Not only were there no props or costumes, there was no dialogue either.

Rachel Nicholls as Leonore: “A relatively slight figure, she now produces astonishing power and intensity without loss of focus”

This meant the excision of the often-misleading exchanges in Act 1 as well as the Melodrama in Act 2. In their place we had brief English narrations devised by David Pountney and spoken in gently judicial tones by Matthew Stiff’s decisive Don Fernando.

Otherwise, Matthew Eberhardt’s production stuck to sung German, with the sole exception of Jacquino’s spoken ‘Der Minister Ist Hier!’.  Pountney did not attempt to summarise the dialogue, merely to set each new scene. With the interval also eliminated, the spotlight was firmly focused on the drama. The result was undeniably gripping, Beethoven red in tooth and claw.

Rachel Nicholls has come a long way from her early music days. A relatively slight figure, she now produces astonishing power and intensity without loss of focus. There was righteous anger to burn at the start of ‘Abscheulicher!’ but it melted into a lovely spirituality at ‘Komm, Hoffnung’; the horns gave superb support.

Toby Spence, barefoot on a small dais slightly below and in front of the stage, can rarely have sung with such splendidly burnished tone, a picture of perseverance and resolution. Together they generated an ecstatic ‘O Namenlose Freude!’, all the more laudable given that an embrace was out of the question. They seemed to feed off each other’s joy.

Oliver Johnston delivered an urgent, concerned Jaquino, much more than the usual cipher, while Fflur Wyn – another whose voice has grown in recent years – made a warm Marzelline and Brindley Sherratt a genial, compliant Rocco.

Toby Spence as Florestan: “Can rarely have sung with such splendidly burnished tone, a picture of perseverance and resolution”

Robert Hayward injected unrelenting menace into his Pizarro, to the point where we might have suspected it was all hot air. Such is the lot of the baddie.

The chorus, who had risen slowly and sporadically from their seats for their venture into the sunshine, drove the rest of their energy into a thunderous finale.

Wigglesworth’s decisive baton drew consistently tidy, transparent tone from his orchestra, all the more impressive since distancing must have made each player feel like a soloist. 

Peter Maniura’s TV direction found a pleasing balance between close-up and ensemble, while we could forgive English subtitles that lapsed into hyperbole with ‘Let us celebrate all magnificent women’ at the close, hardly what the libretto tells us.

It was decidedly a new-look Fidelio, with drama winning out over decibels. Who would have thought that a rescue opera would be loosening our shackles two centuries on? We have Beethoven to thank.

Online on demand via www.operanorth.co.uk until January 4

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: The Seven Deadly Sins, Opera North at Leeds Playhouse, livestream, November 21 to 23

Dancer Shelley Eva Haden’s Anna II and mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta’s Anna I in Gary Clarke’s Opera North production of The Seven Deadly Sins. Picture: Tristram Kenton

TWO weeks before this Gary Clarke production of Weill’s ballet chanté was due to go into rehearsal, the second Lockdown was announced, making the planned live performance – in a double bill with Acis And Galatea– an impossibility.

So, Acis was quickly dropped and a new physically distanced livestream became the order of the day. Without the normal lead-times, this was a tall order. Clarke rapidly conceived Anna (Anna I, the singer and Anna II, the dancer) and her family as German immigrants fleeing Hitler and thus displaced from the start.

George Johnson-Leigh’s set, imagined as an abandoned film studio, assigned a separate dais or “box” for each sin, with the family displaced into the no-man’s land between the boxes every time the two Annas changed city.

A large Hollywood sign at the back of the set thus pointed the contrast between that promised land, still booming in the 1930s, and the privations of the Depression – and, of course, current stringencies.

The contrast between the two Annas was not quite as strong as it might have been, partly because their roles were filled by two equally fetching performers. Canadian mezzo Wallis Giunta’s Anna I, supposedly the thinker and practical half of her personality, seemed to be enjoying, almost revelling, in the travelogue.

“Wallis Giunta is an actress of many hues and, when her tone is as focused as this, irresistible”. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Whereas a deeper pain was etched into the features of dancer Shelley Eva Haden’s Anna II, as she learnt to moderate her wilfulness to suit the paying customers on their tour.

But the paradox at the heart of this morality tale, about what you need to do to accumulate wealth, could not have been clearer: “Conquer your weaker self to conquer the world”, in Michael Feingold’s translation, sung under a shower of dollar bills. Only the temptations themselves might have been writ larger, although that would be hard to envisage in present conditions.

Giunta was on top form, forthright, even bossy, when need be but able to mine a deep nostalgia in the epilogue. She is an actress of many hues and, when her tone is as focused as this, irresistible.

Haden was no less versatile and utterly tireless. To Clarke’s choreography, she ranged the whole spectrum of dance, from the extravagance of Busby Berkeley (in a splendid, giant-sized feather headdress) in Anger, to Pavlova’s tutu-clad Dying Swan immediately afterwards in Gluttony.

She reached a manic peak parodying punk anarchist dancer Valeska Gert. Her brief spoken interjections were pleasingly clear.

Nicholas Butterfield as Brother and Dean Robinson as Mother in Opera North’s The Seven Deadly Sins. Picture: Tristram Kenton

The family quartet – tenors Nicholas Butterfield and Stuart Laing, baritone Dean Robinson and bass Campbell Russell – carried off their solo work as well as they blended, notably in the Sloth motet and the prayerful strictures of Lust. The ending was suitably ambivalent.

James Holmes, editor of the critical edition of Weill’s orchestral works and former Head of Music at this company, could not have been a better choice as conductor. The differentiation in styles was masterly and the playing, by 15 instruments in a reduced version by H K Gruber and Christian Muthspiel, had a succulent clarity.

It was just a pity that the low camera angles precluded much sight of the orchestra, although it was on stage. This is a minor reservation in the face of such an admirable achievement against near-impossible odds.

Finally, my special thanks to two patient members of the press office, Elizabeth Simmonds and Rowland Thomas, for bailing me out of a technological nightmare. Bring back live performance …                                                                                   

Review by Martin Dreyer

https://ondemand.operanorth.co.uk/productions/the-seven-deadly-sins-2020/.

REVIEW: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Brass in Leeds…but brassed off in York

Conductor Simon Wright

REVIEW: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Brass (and other thoughts), Leeds Town Hall, October 24

TWELVE heroes from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – ten brass players and two percussionists – travelled to Leeds on Saturday to play before an audience of around five dozen.

Simon Wright conducted them in a stimulating mixed bag of music from the last 130 years, plus an early interjection from Giovanni Gabrieli.

Harmless though this may sound, the event was hugely significant. Locally based groups, notably from Opera North, have been appearing at the Town Hall since late August. But this was the first time that a professional ensemble from further afield had appeared there since lockdown.

Later this week, there will be two lunchtime events and three evening lieder recitals, all given by musicians of international standing. And that’s just on the classical side. So, it can be done, all within the regulations: distanced seating, masks worn by the audience, no interval or refreshments. But these are small privations compared to the thrill of live music returning. Leeds Playhouse has been equally adventurous.

In other cities, the silence continues to be deafening. Take York, for example, normally a bastion of classical performance. The Minster, the Barbican, University of York’s Central Hall, all are large venues well suited to music and easily adaptable to the new conditions.

Smaller but equally adaptable is the National Centre for Early Music and the university’s Lyons Concert Hall. All remain resolutely shut. Why? Hasn’t government (our) money been made available to keep such venues open?

Back to the brass. They opened with an ingenious arrangement of Elgar’s Cockaigne (In London Town) by one of their own, trombonist Matthew Knight. Given its complexity, it was a surprising choice as opener and took a while to settle.

But the main theme emerged triumphant on the trombones just in time for the accelerando towards the close. With the Town Hall so empty, and therefore even more resonant than usual, Gabrieli’s Canzon on the seventh tone had a regal clarity, comparable surely to St Mark’s Venice itself, as the two quartets bounced off another; it might have made a better curtain-raiser.

Imogen Holst’s Leiston Suite (1967) delivered five neatly concentrated miniatures, including a sparkling fanfare, a balletic jig and several flashes of her father’s spare harmony, all tastefully interwoven.

Eric Crees’ skilful arrangements of three Spanish dances by Granados were enchantingly idiomatic, rays of mediterranean sunshine. The colours in Duke Ellington’s bluesy Chelsea Bridge were more muted.

Hartlepool-born Jim Parker’s name may not be on everyone’s lips, but most of us have heard his music through his soundtracks for Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War, Moll Flanders and any number of films. Why he has four BAFTAS to his name became clear in A Londoner In New York (1987), five attractive cameos of the city’s buzz, including steam engines at Grand Central, a romantic walk in Central Park, and the can-can chorus line at Radio City.

London came to Leeds here and we may all be grateful for the glimpse of normality.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Connecting Voices, Opera North and Leeds Playhouse, 17/10/2020

Beautifully differentiated vowels: Gillene Butterfield as Elle in La Voix Humaine at Leeds Playhouse. Picture: Anthony Robling

Connecting Voices, Opera North and Leeds Playhouse, at Leeds Playhouse, October 17

COLLABORATIONS between Opera North and Leeds Playhouse in recent years have been proving increasingly fruitful.

This latest, a four-show programme in different locations throughout the Playhouse, was just what the doctor ordered: its umbrella title Connecting Voices homed in on the social interactions we have all been craving.

It was designed to “examine the power and expression of the solo voice” and ranged the gamut from pure opera to straight theatre.

Poulenc’s monodrama La Voix Humaine, in the Barber Studio, led the way. In Sameena Husain’s production, Gillene Butterfield poured her heart and voice into Elle’s desperate efforts to repair her faltering romance, using telephones from three different eras.

Plus ça change! She might as well have been on Zoom, so vivid were her emotions, made more so by superb diction and – a rarity among sopranos in my experience – beautifully differentiated vowels.

Annette Saunders’ piano was ideally attuned, blasting out jagged darts whenever Elle listened, calm when she spoke. The two of them combined to notable effect in the nostalgic waltz that follows Elle’s highest outburst.

Riveting voice: Niall Buggy in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Picture: Anthony Robling

Opera North was involved in two of the remaining items. Under its Resonance programme for Black and Asian musicians, Reflections: Dead And Wake explored the Caribbean funerary tradition of Nine-Nights from a specifically Jamaican perspective.

Alongside ethnic choruses, sounding perhaps more African than Caribbean, Paulette Morris caressed her solo songs lovingly. The recurring soundscape of Jamaican voices by the director Khadijah Ibrahiim was not especially intelligible, but certainly added atmosphere.

Among similar non-native sounds was the powerful contribution of the rapper Testament (aka Andy Brooks), in the title role of Orpheus In The Record Shop, injecting much sardonic humour while doubling as composer and writer.

Aletta Collins’ production gradually introduced eight members of the Opera North orchestra and the excellent wordless mezzo of Helen Évora, to bring an optimistic conclusion as bankruptcy loomed. Definitely a tale for our times.

The other riveting voice was that of Niall Buggy, raging and cackling against the dying of the light and his own misspent years in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, directed by Dominic Hill. Like the Poulenc, it was written in 1958.

These days, theatre staff are front-line workers too. The small army of stewards here, totally tuned in and extremely helpful, deserve a final word of thanks.                                                   

Review by Martin Dreyer

Opera North and Leeds Playhouse unite for October season of Connecting Voices

Testament: Leeds rapper, writer and beatboxer commissioned for new piece for Connecting Voices. Picture: Anthony Robling

OPERA North and Leeds Playhouse are collaborating on a celebration of the power and expressiveness of the human voice that will bring audiences back into the Quarry Hill theatre next month for the first time since the March lockdown.

They will co-produce Connecting Voices: six new and existing 40-minute pieces of live performance staged safely and Covid-securely in four areas of the Playhouse, played over three weekends in October, fusing classic and contemporary theatre on themes of isolation and connection, resilience and reflection 

Leeds rapper, writer and world record-holding beatboxer Testament has been commissioned to explore the power of the solo voice within a communal space and the relationship between performer and audience, while freelance artists Matthew Eberhardt and Khadijah Ibrahiim will be devising new work together with musicians, poets, actors and young people 

Running from October 2 to 17, Connecting Voices will mark the reopening of Leeds Playhouse six months after lockdown began by “partnering with the wider arts industry to find new and innovative ways of reintroducing audiences to live theatre, in a safe and secure environment, contributing to the life and vibrancy of the Leeds city region”.

Orpheus In The Record Store, written by Testament and directedby Aletta Collins, will fuse spoken word and beatboxing with players from the Orchestra of Opera North in a collaboration in the Quarry Theatre that gives the Greek myth of Orpheus a contemporary Yorkshire twist.

“I’m so excited to be back at Leeds Playhouse with Opera North, especially after this turbulent period,” says Testament. “To be commissioned to create a new piece of work is a massive honour.

“The Playhouse was one of the first organisations to take a chance on me as a theatre maker and it feels like home; their help and support has been invaluable to my growth as an artist.  And only last year I got to work with Opera North as an artist on their Resonance programme, which opened my eyes to new possibilities as a composer.”

Looking forward to live performances returning to Leeds Playhouse, Testament says: “There is much to say and share right now, and I passionately believe theatre has an almost spiritual role in making the direction we wish to go in as a society tangible.

“I can’t wait to be back in front of an actual audience – being together enjoying worlds that we make together in those moments of live connection.”

Khadijah Ibrahiim: Writing and directing Reflections: Dead And Wake for Connecting Voices

What can next month’s audiences expect? “Right now, I’m in the lab creating, pushing buttons, and I’ve got something planned as a beatboxer that has never been like this way before,” says Testament. “I am also super-excited about connecting with Opera North musicians:  we are planning to take the crowd on an epic journey with music, spoken word and live theatre.”

Playing alongside Orpheus In The Record Store will be topical re-awakenings of two pieces from 1958 that present characters isolated from others and struggling to connect again through technology.

The first is Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s monologue Krapp’s Last Tape, to be performed by Niall Buggy in the Bramall Rock Void, directed by Dominic Hill.  This will be counterpointed by Francis Poulenc’sshort opera La Voix Humaine, performed by Opera North soprano Gillene Butterfield in the Barber Studio, directed by Leeds Playhouse’s Sameena Hussain.

In the Courtyard Theatre, each of the three weekends will see a different and newly devised piece of work from Leeds spoken-word artist Khadijah Ibrahiim and two pieces by freelance director Matthew Eberhardt, whose credits include Opera North’s Street Scene.

They will work  with singers, actors, young people and musicians, including classically-trained singer Keertan Kaur Rehal, Amy J Payne and stalwart Playhouse actor Robert Pickavance, to create contemporary responses to the themes of remembrance, collaboration and the act of storytelling.

James Brining, artistic director at Leeds Playhouse, says: “Re-opening the Playhouse after six months of enforced closure and being separated from each other has made us value even more than before the act of live performance and what that means. 

“Our beautifully refurbished building provides us with many opportunities to safely welcome audiences and artists back into the Playhouse.  Connecting Voices is a carefully curated programme exploring isolation and connection, resilience and reflection, as well as the relationship between performer and audience member in a shared space.”

Brining is delighted to be working once again with Leeds company Opera North. “We’re pooling our resources to help the city of Leeds to get back on its feet and bring joyous and powerful communal shared experiences back to the lives of its citizens,” he says. 

“As we head into our 50th year at this challenging time, it’s vital that we reconnect with audiences and communities and collaborate with bold and diverse voices from across the region. We can’t wait to welcome back artists and participants into the building safely to create and experience live theatre once again.”

“We can’t wait to welcome back artists and participants into the building safely to create and experience live theatre once again,” says Leeds Playhouse artistic director James Brining

Richard Mantle, Opera North’s general director, says: “Connecting Voices is a compelling exploration of the power of the human voice and the profound desire to establish meaningful ties out of experiences of isolation and loss.

“We are delighted that we are able to begin the process of welcoming audiences safely back to live performance through this collection of work in partnership with Leeds Playhouse.

“Connecting Voices brings together voices spoken and sung from across the city and wider region, and we are especially thrilled to be collaborating with such a diverse and talented group of freelance artists, singers, musicians, poets and directors who all share artistic ties to both Opera North and to Leeds Playhouse.

“Now, more than ever, it is apparent how strongly intertwined the artistic and cultural community in our region is, and how important collaboration will be in ensuring a vibrant future for the arts and audiences across the city.”

Please note, in line with Government guidelines, audiences will be of limited capacity with social distancing and temperature checking will be conducted too. Tickets will go on sale to Leeds Playhouse’s Supporters’ Club, Playhouse Pass holders and Opera North Patrons from Monday, September 14 and on general sale from 12 noon on Tuesday at leedsplayhouse.org.uk and on 0113 213 7700.

Connecting Voices: the full programme

Krapp’s Last Tape, by Samuel Beckett, directed by Dominic Hill

A 69-year-old man listens to the voice of his 39-year-old self. Looking back on his loves, failures and losses, Krapp rewinds through his life with humour and heartache. A classic Beckett play, both punchy and personal.

Performances: October 2, 9 and 16, 8pm; October 3, 10 and 17, 3.30pm and 8pm,
Bramall Rock Void, Leeds Playhouse.

Humour and heartache: Niall Buggy in Krapp’s Last Tape. Picture: Robert Workman

La Voix Humaine, by Francis Poulenc, directed by Sameena Hussain

A devastating short opera exploring the pain and fear of rejection in the rawest fashion. Through the lone voice of the woman, Poulenc expresses the full range of human emotion with a score of caressing warmth and intimacy. This powerful one-woman performance will be sung in English.

Performances: October 2, 9 and 16, 6pm, and October 3, 10 and 17, 1.30pm and 6pm, Barber Studio, Leeds Playhouse.

Orpheus In The Record Store, by Testament, directed by Aletta Collins

Orpheus is alone, playing tunes in his record shop. When an old friend arrives, music and stories collide as the ancient and contemporary merge. Testament takes inspiration from the classical Greek myth in a show that fuses spoken word and beatboxing with classical music from the Orchestra of Opera North.

Performances: October 2, 9 and 16, 9pm, and October 3, 10 and 17, 4.30pm and 9pm, Quarry Theatre, Leeds Playhouse.

Reflections: Dead And Wake, written and directed by Khadijah Ibrahiim

Experience a Jamaican “Nine Night” with literary activist and theatre maker Khadijah Ibrahiim. This thought-provoking performance explores Caribbean rituals around death through poetry, music and ghost [duppy] stories, featuring turntablist DJ NikNak and Paulette Morris. The event also includes performers from the Sunday Practise with their creative response to living through the last six months.

Performances: October 16, 7pm and October 17, 2.30pm and 7pm, Courtyard Theatre, Leeds Playhouse.

Reflections on La Voix Humaine, directed by Matthew Eberhardt

Take your seat on the stage of the Courtyard Theatre, look out into the auditorium and witness actors and musicians explore themes of isolation and connection, of resilience and reflection, through words both spoken and sung. This is a contemporary reflection on Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine and can be enjoyed either alongside the original piece or independently.

Performances: October 2 at 7pm and October 3 at 2.30pm and 7pm, Courtyard Theatre, Leeds Playhouse.

Reflections on Krapp’s Last Tape, directed by Matthew Eberhardt

Relish the power and expression of the solo voice from the stage of the Courtyard Theatre in this celebration of the return of live performance. An actor and a musician collaborate, filling the auditorium with words and music that reflect upon the themes of Samuel Beckett’s monologue Krapp’s Last Tape.

Performances: October 9 at 7pm and October 10 at 3.30pm and 7pm, Courtyard Theatre, Leeds Playhouse.

The running time for each Connecting Voices performance is 40 minutes.

York Theatre Royal whistles up a couple of extra Hansel And Gretel shows on the patio

Keep on running: Jennifer Clark as Gretel, with Claire Pascoe as Mother behind her, in the opening performance of Whistle Stop Opera: Hansel And Gretel at Slung Low, The Holbeck, Leeds. Picture: Tom Arber

ALL three Saturday performances of Whistle Stop Opera: Hansel And Gretel at the National Centre for Early Music, York, have sold out, but now the bewitching open-air show will pop up on York Theatre Royal’s Pop-Up Patio tomorrow too.

Touring from August 18 to September 5 as part of Opera North’s Switch ON autumn programme of outdoor events and digital projects, the 40-minute production is devised and directed by John Savournin for four singers and accordion and provides an introduction to opera for families, as well as being suitable for adults.

The Whistle Stop mini-opera uses excerpts from Engelbert Humperdinck’s magical 1893 opera to retell the fairy tale of two hungry children, lost in the woods, and a gingerbread cottage that hides a scary secret.

Every witch way: Claire Pascoe’s Witch in shocking pink in Hansel And Gretel

“Journey through the woods and gorge yourself on the exciting twists and turns of the plot as you meet the characters along the way,” says Opera North. “Just beware of the evil witch and don’t stray too far from your tour guide – you never know what trickery you may encounter along the way.”

Whistle Stop Opera: Hansel And Gretel has been performed in outdoor settings across the North in August and September, with social distancing in place for audience members and performers and limited numbers of tickets available, in accordance with Covid-19 guidelines, for “pods” of up to five people, although exact seating arrangements have varied from venue to venue.

In the Hansel And Gretel company are Laura Kelly-McInroy (Jennie Hildebrand in Street Scene, 2020) as Hansel; Jennifer Clark (Flora, The Turn Of The Screw, 2020) as Gretel; Claire Pascoe (Emma Jones, Street Scene, 2020; Witch, Into the Woods, 2016) as Mother/Witch, and director John Savournin (Carl Olsen, Street Scene, 2020; Priest Fotis, The Greek Passion, 2019) as Narrator/Sandman. Miloš Milivojević will play accordion.

Clasped hands at the double: Jennifer Clark’s Gretel and Laura Kelly-McInroy’s Hansel in Whistle Stop Opera: Hansel And Gretel

In the initial announcement, Hansel And Gretel was to have played Pontefract Castle, Pontefract, tomorrow at 4.30pm, but that performance no longer appears on the Opera North listings.

Instead, York Theatre Royal’s patio will play host to shows at 1pm and 3pm with a maximum audience of 35 at each one. Given the speedy uptake of tickets for Saturday’s 11.30am, 1pm and 3pm performances in the NCEM garden, do not delay a moment longer in booking for tomorrow at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk, tickets costing a fiver. Please note, access to Pop-Up On The Patio events is restricted to paid ticket holders only.

The Theatre Royal also advises: “As we all know, the weather in England can be unpredictable, so we recommend dressing for the weather and bringing waterproofs just in case.”

The Pop-Up On The Patio stage at York Theatre Royal with deck-chair seating

This short-notice addition to the Pop-Up programme comes on the back of the Pop-Up On The Patio festival that ran on three Fridays and Saturdays from August 14 to 29, co-ordinated by Theatre Royal producer Thom Freeth.

Taking part in a Covid-secure summer season of outdoor performances, on a terrace stage designed by Yorkshire theatre designer Hannah Sibai, were “Yorkshire’s finest theatre and dance makers”.

Step forward York Dance Space; Mud Pie Arts; Crafty Tales; Fool(ish) Improv; The Flanagan Collective and Gobbledigook Theatre; puppeteer Freddie Hayes; Cosmic Collective Theatre; performance poet Henry Raby; Say Owt Showcase, the York outlet for slam poets, word-weavers and “gobheads”; magician, juggler and children’s entertainer Josh Benson and singer Jess Gardham.

York Theatre Royal’s artwork for the inaugural Pop-Up On The Patio festival

Looking back on the weather-defying patio parade of shows, executive director Tom Bird says: “It’s been brilliant to do a patio season; we’re totally over the moon with how it went. It’s just been terrific to give local artists the chance to perform, even if it’s only to 35 people each show.

“Now we’re announcing the Whistle Stop Opera performances and we’re looking to do more outdoor shows.”

Opera North to Switch ON for autumn of outdoor events and digital projects

Song Of Our Heartland community rehearsals in Shildon in November 2019. Picture: Graeme Rowatt

OPERA North is ready to Switch ON for an autumn programme of outdoor events and digital projects after Covid-19 put paid to the indoor season.

Coming up will be Will Todd’s new community opera, Song Of Our Heartland, released as a film in a digital premiere in October; South African cellist and composer Abel Selaocoe’s new soundwalk for Leeds, As You Are, in November, and a new animation, La Petite Bohème, that re-interprets Act III of Puccini’s La Bohème in a digital project to be shown in northern cities in the run-up to Christmas.

First up, from Tuesday, August 18, will be a tour of socially distanced open-air performances of Whistle Stop Opera: Hansel And Gretel for family audiences, concluding at the National Centre for Early Music, York, on September 5.

The re-arranged season “embodies the Leeds company’s commitment to make music with and for audiences in communities across the North of England, respecting Government guidelines on social distancing and live performances”.

In the coming weeks, Opera North plans further announcements of concerts and staged opera, either live or available digitally, as the national opera company responds to the changing Coronavirus guidelines.

Those guidelines forced the postponement of the previously planned season of large-scale operas that Opera North would have toured to theatres across northern England from September.

Richard Mantle, Opera North’s general director, says: “We are extremely pleased to be able to announce such varied projects as the first newly planned activity for this autumn. Switch ON is our first step back to sharing music and performance with audiences in villages, towns and cities across the North of England.

“We have not been silent during lockdown, with thousands of people from around the world engaging with films of our work online, from Wagner’s Ring cycle to The Turn Of The Screw, and over 1,000 amateur singers taking part in weekly lessons alongside the Chorus of Opera North in From Couch To Chorus, but we are delighted now to be announcing this first selection of new work.”

On Friday, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden confirmed that indoor performances with socially distanced audiences would be allowed from August 15, after the original re-opening date of August 1 was called off by Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the last minute.

Nevertheless, as Mantle says: “The overall picture regarding live indoor performances remains unclear over the next few months. We hope to be able to plan and present more live performance of great opera and music for audiences across our region, in as many different cities and communities as possible, once we are able to perform within social-distancing guidelines.

“We are currently undertaking detailed planning with our partner venues in Leeds [Leeds Grand Theatre] and beyond to ensure that we will be ready to restart performances safely and with financial viability, once there is a clear green light from the Government.”

In the meantime, tickets for Switch ON events will all be “accessibly priced”. “We hope as many people as possible will have the opportunity to experience music with us either live or digitally,” says Mantle.

“We are a partner in Leeds Says Thanks, an initiative by Leeds City Council to thank NHS and frontline workers for their enormous efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic; as part of this we will ensure that tickets to As You Are, our soundwalk for Leeds, will be made available to frontline staff.

“We remain committed to our purpose and whatever challenges we face, Opera North will continue to use music to create extraordinary experiences every day for and with the communities we serve. Live or digitally, in classrooms, theatres, homes and public spaces; we will continue to share music with people of all ages and backgrounds.”

All productions previously planned for Autumn 2020 – La Traviata, Jack The Ripper and Trouble In Tahiti/West Side Story Symphonic Dances, in association with Phoenix Dance Theatre – and  Winter (early) 2021 – Carmen, Alcina, and The Girl Of The Golden West – have been postponed and will be rescheduled over the next two years.

Opera North’s new concert staging of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, scheduled for concert halls across the country in Spring 2021, remains on sale.

For ticket details for Switch ON, go to operanorth.co.uk/.

Whistle Stop Opera: Hansel And Gretel, when performed in 2017

SWITCH ON: Event information

Whistle Stop Opera: Hansel And Gretel, August 18 to September 5

DEVISED and directed by John Savournin for four singers and accordion, Whistle Stop Opera: Hansel And Gretel provides an introduction to opera for families, as well as being suitable for adults.

This 40-minute performance uses excerpts from Engelbert Humperdinck’s magical 1893 opera to retell the fairy tale of two hungry children, lost in the woods, and a gingerbread cottage that hides a scary secret.

Whistle Stop Opera: Hansel And Gretel will be performed in outdoor settings across the North in August and September, with social distancing in place for audience members and performers and limited numbers of tickets available, in accordance with Covid-19 guidelines.

Tickets will be on sale for “pods” of up to five people, with each space including two seats and a floor mat. Exact seating arrangements may vary from venue to venue; please check with venues for further details.

Performers include Laura Kelly-McInroy (Jennie Hildebrand in Street Scene, 2020) as Hansel; Jennifer Clark (Flora, The Turn Of The Screw, 2020) as Gretel; Claire Pascoe (Emma Jones, Street Scene, 2020; Witch, Into the Woods, 2016) as Mother/Witch, and director John Savournin (Carl Olsen, Street Scene, 2020; Priest Fotis, The Greek Passion, 2019) as Narrator/Sandman. Miloš Milivojević will play accordion.

Venues and dates: Slung Low, The Holbeck, Leeds, August 18, 4.30pm; Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, August 20, 1pm and 3pm; Ushaw House, Durham, August 22, 1pm and 3pm; Allendale Village Hall, Hexham, August 25, 6.30pm; The Lowry, Salford Quays, August 26, 11.30am and 1.30pm; Harewood House, Leeds, August 30, times to be announced; Stage@TheDock, Hull, September 2, times to be announced; Pontefract Castle, Pontefract, September 4, 4.30pm; National Centre for Early Music, York, September 5, 11.30am, 1pm and 3pm.

Song Of Our Heartland, October

THIS new community opera should have premiered at Locomotion, in Shildon, County Durham, in May 2020, but you know the rest.

Commissioned by Northern Heartlands, the Great Place scheme for County Durham, it was written by Durham-born composer Will Todd, with a storyline by Caroline Clegg and libretto by Emma Jenkins, and was developed in partnership with members of north-eastern communities.

However, after the cancellation of rehearsals and performances earlier in the year, Song Of Our Heartland now will be created digitally, with different elements recorded separately under social-distancing guidelines and pieced together as a 60-minute film, expected to be released in October 2020.

Participants in the Community Chorus and members of the community taking solo roles in the opera have been rehearsing with Opera North’s music team via Zoom sessions during lockdown; their parts will each be recorded individually.

Set in a town marked by declining industry and loss of civic spaces, Song Of Our Heartland is both a love letter to the landscape, the heritage and the people of the area and an act of storytelling by three generations of indomitable women.  

After the death of Harold, a former miner and railwayman, the opera shines a light on his family, his wife Lilian, daughter Jacqueline and granddaughter Skylar, as they face a stark choice between moving away to find jobs and new opportunities or staying to face an uncertain future. 

Forced by Harold’s death to remain and driven by her grandad’s spirit, Skylar fights to save the things that are most important to her: the school choir and the abandoned Moonlight Ballroom Theatre. 

Directed by Caroline Clegg and conducted by Holly Mathieson, the film of Song Of Our Heartland will be filmed on location at Locomotion and the surrounding County Durham area and recorded by the Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North and the newly formed Community Chorus, with solo roles shared between members of the Chorus of Opera North and community participants.  

Clegg says: “Having had to cancel the planned live performances, everyone involved in the creation of Song Of Our Heartland was utterly determined to find a way to share this inspiring community opera with audiences this year.

“The people of south-west County Durham have been so generous in sharing their rich and diverse stories and experiences with us. Many of the participants have been with us all the way through this project, from the first poetry and drama workshops that inspired the story, the music and the libretto, to community chorus rehearsals and ultimately now to rehearsing online over Zoom and taking part in the film.

“This project exists because of them and I feel privileged to be a part of it. The opera is a celebration of their cultural legacy, their strength in community, and their hopes and dreams. We couldn’t let it disappear this year.”

Jill Cole, director of Northern Heartlands, says: “Song Of Our Heartland was intended to be the culmination of our work as a Great Place Scheme in south-west Durham. Although we were not able to perform it live, I am delighted that we have found a way to turn the project into a film, so that we can share it with others in the local community and beyond.

“It is a real tribute to this unique part of the county, its history and heritage, and to the communities who live and work here.” 

Abel Selaocoe: Composing an interactive soundwalk for Opera North’s home city of Leeds. Picture: Mlungisi Mlungwana

As You Are, November 14 2020 to January 6 2021

AS You Are, an interactive outdoor soundwalk for Opera North’s home city of Leeds, will be composedby South African cellist Abel Selaocoe. The journey will start and end at Victoria Gate, Leeds, following a route that will explore many of the city centre’s most recognisable landmarks, as well as its arcades and sidestreets and the River Aire waterfront.

Audience members taking part in the soundwalk in small groups each will be given a set of headphones connected to a wireless receiver, triggering new musical chapters at different points on the walk through Leeds, experiencing the cityscape through a new and transformative journey.

Taking inspiration from his South African heritage, Abel Selaocoe is creating music that embraces the healing power of walking. At times uplifting with full orchestra and chorus, at others reflective with only a single voice, As You Are expresses acceptance that there will be difficult times, but that we will come through to the other side.

To record the music, Selaocoe will be joined by guest African musicians such as Sidiki Dembele, as well as the full Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North.

“It is exciting to be writing during a time of incredible personal and collective change, focusing on the importance of celebrating resilience and being adaptable to change, by walking and exploring what is around us while we listen,” says Selaocoe.

As You Are will run in Leeds city centre from November 14 2020 to January 6 2021. Tickets will go on sale in September.

La Petite Bohème, in the run-up to Christmas

THE fourth Switch ON new project is an animation re-imagining Act III of Puccini’s La Bohème, snipped from black paper and animated by artist and filmmaker Matthew Robins with his customary eye for emotion and humour.

In the frozen streets of Paris, two pairs of lovers sing of their jealousy, passion and desire and wonder if they will still be together when spring comes again.

This heart-breaking scene from the core of Puccini’s classic opera will feature a newly recorded soundtrack by the Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North and four soloists.

The finished animation will be projected outdoors in found spaces in towns and cities across the North, with limited audiences at each screening listening via headphones.

Projected on to walls in the familiar streets of our cities, the film and music will transform your surroundings and have the power to transport you to another time and place.

Artist and filmmaker Matthew Robins says: “I like trying to find my own way into telling a story that already exists. How can I make these characters mine? Do I see myself or my friends’ lives reflected in them? 

“Working with cut-out silhouettes is a way to create my own stylised version of the big emotions and melodies that are intrinsic to the piece. The stylised cut-out paper shapes are detailed but leave room for the audience to add their own imagination as well to the piece. 

“I come from the West Country and as a teenager used to visit London about six times a year just to queue up and get cheap front-row tickets for Rent, another retelling of La Bohème, so I feel like this story is deeply embedded in me, and in a way makes me feel at home exploring my own characters and settings for this story.”

Dates and locations for La Petite Bohème will be announced as soon as possible.

Opera North commissions sound journeys for lockdown from Walking Home quintet

South African cellist and composer Abel Selaocoe: Responding to beneficial effects of walking. Picture: Mlungisi Mlungwana

OPERA North is creating Walking Home: Sound Journeys For Lockdown in response to the easing of Covid-19 regulations on exercise and time spent outdoors.

For this commission for BBC Arts and Arts Council England’s Culture in Quarantine programme, the Leeds company has asked five artists to write and record new works specifically to be heard while walking.

Crossing folk, jazz, Middle Eastern and African traditions, classical and contemporary music, with a propensity for experimentation and breaking the confines of genre, the contributors are South African cellist and composer Abel Selaocoe; Syrian-born qanun virtuoso Maya Youssef; Syrian-born Iraqi oud player and composer Khyam Allami; Anglo-Polish vocalist, violinist and songwriter Alice Zawadski and English accordionist and electronic experimentalist Martin Green, from the cutting-edge folk trio Lau.

Martin Green: Has a dawn or early morning walk in mind for his piece. Picture: Genevieve Stevenson

Building on Opera North’s history of innovative sound walks and installations, the five musicians are writing and recording their pieces in home studios across Britain and Europe. Once complete, Walking Home will be available through broadcast slots across BBC radio and television, through podcasts on BBC Sounds, and via the BBC Arts website, continuing the Culture in Quarantine mission to bring the arts to homes despite arts venue closures, social distancing and UK-wide lockdowns.

One of 25 new commissions for Culture in Quarantine,Walking Home is billed as a “vibrant cross-section of music-making in Britain today, made by musicians under lockdown for audiences in the same predicament”.

The series seeks to engage with the lockdown context for walking and solitary activity, each 15-minute piece “offering an opportunity to renew our imaginative connections with our environment”.

Maya Youssef: Intense and thoughtful music on the qanun

Jo Nockels, Opera North’s head of projects, says: “The spark for the Walking Home commissions came from the strange alchemy we found between walker, place and music that was powerfully evident in the past sound journey commissions we have made for the Humber Bridge and River Tyne.

“While these five new walking commissions are on a much more intimate scale, and meant for wherever you are, all five respond to the dynamic of walking, listening through headphones and taking in your surroundings to produce an experience as much created by the listener as by the artists. 

“They might offer a soundtrack to a daily escape from lockdown; intensify the sensations experienced on their chosen route; or conjure up something altogether harder to define.”

Iraqi oud player and composer Khyam Allami: Taking cinematic approach to disconcerting atmosphere of urban areas under lockdown

Nockels adds: “We are delighted to be working with five such brilliant and varied composer/musicians on this project, each of whom innovates way beyond the boundaries of genre. Together they will form a collection of music that is refreshing, unexpected and individual.”

Best known as one third of the visionary folk trio Lau, Martin Green’s reputation as a composer in his own right was cemented by an Ivor Award for his Opera North commission for the Great Exhibition of the North in 2018.

Evolving over the course of a half-hour walk along the banks of the River Tyne, Aeons was an epic sound work that featured the Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North and Becky Unthank of The Unthanks. His contribution to the Walking Home series has a dawn or early morning walk in mind.

Alice Zawadski: Classical violin, gospel, jazz and folk. Picture: Monika S Jakubowska

Syrian-born Iraqi oud player Khyam Allami’s haunting installation Requiem For The 21st Century was an Opera North commission for the 2019 PRS New Music Biennale, combining microtonal tuning, ancient Arabic musical modes and generative software to produce ever-changing melodic sequences from speakers fitted within an array of decaying ouds.

Allami will be writing and recording his sound walk from his base in Berlin, taking a cinematic approach to the disconcerting atmosphere of urban areas under lockdown.

Now based in Manchester, cellist and composer Abel Selaocoe moves seamlessly from collaborations with world musicians and beatboxers to concerto performances and solo classical recitals.

He spent an Opera North Resonance residency working on a new body of solo music for the cello influenced by traditional African instruments. His sound journey will acknowledge the beneficial effects that he has felt from walking over the past weeks.

Walking Home: Five artists are writing and recording new works specifically to be heard while walking

Born and raised in Damascus, Maya Youssef plays the qanun, the Arabic form of the zither with a history dating back to the 19th century BC. She has made her home in the UK after recognition from the Government’s Exceptional Talent programme for her intense and thoughtful music, rooted in the Arabic classical tradition but taking inspiration from Western classical music and jazz. 

Drawing on classical violin, gospel, jazz and folk, Alice Zawadzki’s output as soloist and collaborator is prodigious and eclectic. Her second solo album, last year’s Within You Is A World Of Spring, showcased her mastery of a range of styles in an inspired collection of songs.

Opera North is “still in discussion with the BBC about a release date, but hopefully it will be within the next month or so”.