Take a look behind the scenes at Opera North after its £ 18million redevelopment

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Opera North chief executive Richard Mantle pictured in the new atrium, as part of the £ 18million redevelopment.  (Simon Hulme).
Opera North chief executive Richard Mantle pictured in the new atrium, as part of the £ 18million redevelopment. (Simon Hulme).

The first opera performed in the city was The Beggar’s Wedding, in 1729, when English ballads were the order of the day. It was then another century before Loiners attended their first opera (The Barber of Seville) in a different language.

Today Opera North continues that rich musical tradition and earlier this month returned to the stage, with a performance of Carmen, for the first time since the completion of its £ 18million redevelopment, Music Works.

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The refurbishment of its headquarters in the heart of downtown Leeds means the Howard Opera Center now includes a new education studio, upgraded rehearsal spaces, a costume and wig workshop and a striking new atrium leading up to at the Howard meeting room.

Wig assistants Mia Ellison (right) and Beth Gibson, pictured working on wigs for the production of Carmen. (Simon Hulme).

The latter also has a new ticket office and its own entrance, which means people no longer have to go through the Leeds Grand Theater next door to enter.

The 300-seat venue dates back to 1879 and was transformed into a performance space, with an eclectic program of concerts, spoken word events and film screenings, by Opera North 12 years ago.

It reopened again last weekend after a two and a half year hiatus with a performance by The Tiger Lillies and its upcoming program includes Courtney Pine, LYR, Richard Dawson and Arctic Ice Music, which features musicians playing instruments from ice which slowly melts during the performance.

The final piece of the puzzle will be a new restaurant and bar on the ground floor which is set to open in the New Year and which will restore the facade of this building to its former royal glory.

Staff Benda Bilili running in the Howard meeting room. (Photo credit Tom Arber).

It’s been three years since work started on the whole project and a lot has happened in the world since then. “Everything took longer than we expected and a large part of that was because of the covid,” explains Richard Mantle, general manager of Opera North.

“We had to dig under the stores which all had different levels, basements and water because in the 14th century there was a lake at one point. It is therefore a complicated and more expensive project.

They received funding from the Arts Council and support from Leeds City Council, but the vast majority of the money for the work came from the recently deceased philanthropist Keith Howard, along with other private donations.

What the redevelopment did was raise the profile of Opera North. “We are perhaps not the biggest arts organization in the world, we are not like the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, or the Paris Opera or Covent Garden, but I think we now have a facility that would be comparable to anywhere else, ”says Manteau.

The Mantle Music Studio recently used by the Orchestra Academy. (Photo credit Justin Slee).

Opera North was established in 1978, initially as a regional branch of English National Opera and later as an independent organization. Mantle spent more than a quarter of a century at the helm, having held executive positions at the English National Opera and the Scottish Opera, and under his direction the company flourished with education, great part of its raison d’être in the city.

“We now employ over 40 people in the education sector alone. We teach just under 2,000 children, many of them of primary school age, to learn to sing and play an instrument every week, ”he says.

“Not everyone thinks opera is for them, so we wanted to find different avenues in what we do as an organization. We go to schools and we work with the communities to organize workshops and performances and there is now a lot more participation with young people, so we have a youth choir and a choir and a youth company.

Mantle thinks it’s important work. “Basically, we are an organization founded on music, but also on music that tells stories. The key element of opera is the storytelling and young people respond very well to that, ”he says. “We were also deeply concerned about the lack of cultural learning in schools. It’s not like it used to be and we think a lot of young people are losing the discovery of what music can do.

This is why the organization launched its In Harmony program six years ago. “You build personalities with music and drama in ways that others might not. Most of the schools we work with are in pretty tough parts of Leeds and we know, and Ofsted has pointed this out, that in some of these schools the academic performance has really gone up. You go to one of these schools and there is real pride. Each child has a dedicated instrument.

Parents have also become more engaged. “Their kids came home saying, ‘I’m learning to play the violin today,’ and parents are now coming to hear them play. We did concerts with our orchestra and the kids at Leeds Town Hall.

Opera North is working with six schools and would like to expand this further, if more funding can be secured. “This is where the world of music and the arts and, for us, opera, bring social benefits to the community,” says Mantle.

They continued to do this online education work during the various lockdowns. However, the pandemic has hit them in other ways with their earned income plummeting, although their major donors have stuck with them, Mantle says. “We are a great organization. We employ 230 people but we have not made anyone redundant, ”he adds.

He is well aware, however, that many places and arts organizations have been hit hard.

“We came out intact, but the pandemic was a very difficult time because we weren’t doing what we were funded to do. But the Canada Council for the Arts did not cut anybody’s funding, it was maintained. So there was a lot of support for organizations like ours and our response to that was to see what we could do online because we couldn’t play live.

They collaborated with Leeds Playhouse on Connecting Voices, based on a series of new and existing works fusing classical and contemporary theater and music, and also broadcast a series of live performances.

Mantle concedes the next two years will be a bumpy road, but they can navigate. “We built a reserve because we always knew that every time we reopened it would be a challenge and it was going to get the company through that time.”

The return on stage at Leeds Grand with Carmen was a great moment for Opera North and is followed by a double program by Leonard Bernstein, Trouble in Tahiti and a collaboration with Phoenix Dance around the music of West Side Story.

The return of Opera North is not only important for the company but for Leeds itself, given the crucial role that art and culture will play in bringing people back to our city centers. “The arts can be seen as one of the key tools in reinvigorating the city center, because what we do attracts people, whether it is us, the Playhouse or Leeds Town Hall – you can’t shopping that a number of times, ”says Mantle.

“I think one of the things we’ve learned from the pandemic is that as we move online and connect with a lot of people, which is great, there’s no substitute for the live experience. This is the transformational element that we all missed, and to that extent we have been silenced and now we are no longer silent and this is a chance to reestablish the business again.

For details on upcoming performances and to purchase tickets, visit https://www.operanorth.co.uk/


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