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.

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.