From brewery pop-ups to £10 tasters, Opera North on bringing a misunderstood genre to a new generation

What did you do last weekend? Maybe you went to a gig, watched a blockbuster, indulged in some retail therapy, or just headed to the pub. Whatever it was, I’ll take a punt and say it probably wasn’t a trip to the opera. It might be 2019 - the era of technology, evolving consumer habits and experiences that challenge our thinking - but some art forms need more support than others in attracting the audience they need and deserve.

We’ll be able to bring more music into Leeds and give more artists opportunities. Hopefully, it will regenerate the whole area.

That’s where the work of Opera North takes centre-stage. With an impressive and perhaps unparalleled set of accessibility schemes, community partnerships and education programmes, this Leeds-based company with a national focus is doing everything it can to bring opera to a new generation. And the journey is only just beginning.

Opera North Under 30S Tom Arber
Opera North’s Under 30s scheme offers £10 tickets Tom Arber

“There aren’t many things that can feel as distant as the world of opera,” says head of marketing Emily Simpson, “so it’s breaking down the preconceptions. There’s so much cultural appetite in the city, we just have to be competitive.”

Designed to engage young people, Opera North’s Under 30s scheme offers 50 £10 tickets to under-30s and full-time students for every performance, at every seat level. Joining also gets you offers, access to special internal events, free drinks and plenty of chances to meet new people.

Taster events are another staple, education manager Jo Bedford tells me. “We did our ‘Eight Little Greats’ season so people had the option of going to the opera for just an hour, and we’ve developed a wonderful series of ‘Whistle Stop Operas’, which are 30-minute operas taken out of the opera house and into local communities.” 

Whistle Stop Opera In Trinity Leeds  Photo Credit Justin Slee
A Whistle Stop Opera in Trinity Leeds Justin Slee

Showing people what opera can be like outside a traditional setting is a powerful engagement tool for Opera North. They’ve even combined short performances with trips to breweries, bars and empty shop units across the city, always making sure the whole experience only costs a tenner.

“It’s giving opera a bigger presence in the city,” Jo continues, detailing the care that goes into creating a condensed version of an opera. “Everything we do is done with absolute integrity, working with people at the top of their game to create really high-quality experiences.”

The Chorus Of Opera North In Trial By Jury One Of The Eight Little Greats Robert Workman
The Chorus of Opera North in Trial by Jury, one of the Eight Little Greats Robert Workman

The Community Partnerships Scheme is another initiative, through which the company works with more than 120 groups and organisations in Leeds and beyond; attracting around 11,500 attendances since 2013.

Says Madeleine Thorne, head of community partnerships: “It’s about relationship-building, meaningful conversations and making people feel totally welcome. We’ve got a responsibility to make a positive contribution to our communities."

It was Opera North’s recent work with refugees and asylum seekers, meanwhile, that saw it become the first opera company to receive the Theatre of Sanctuary accolade; a title awarded by the national movement City of Sanctuary to organisations that work with displaced people. 

Opera North Encore Scheme Jonny Walton
Opera North’s Encore Scheme engages breaks down barriers to accessing opera for refugees, asylum seekers, those with health problems and lower incomes Jonny Walton

“It’s had a profound impact on the company in terms of raising awareness and being engaged,” adds Madeleine. “It gives us the impetus to keep going with this kind of work; welcoming communities to see our performances, offering them free tickets permanently and providing a platform for people who come from those backgrounds.”

Opera North’s focus on nurturing fresh talent is as strong as the emphasis on getting ever more diverse bums on seats each season. Resonance, an initiative that offers BAME music-makers a week’s paid residency to develop their work, has produced some incredible work since it began; from hip hop to spoken word to experiments with light and smell. 

“We’re not a ‘stuffy’ opera company,” Emily tells me with a smile. I don’t need telling twice.

Moji Kareems The Pied Piper Of Chibok Smart Banda
Moji Kareem's ‘The Pied Piper of Chibok’ was developed at the 2018 Resonance residency Smart Banda

Work like this needs firm foundations and, for Opera North, that means embedding its craft as early as possible. It’s no accident that its education team is the biggest outside of London, or that its immersive music scheme In Harmony is one of the country’s most successful. 

“In Harmony enables music to become part of the fabric of a school and its surrounding community,” Jo says, explaining how the programme gives more than 1,700 children music lessons each week across five schools. “We’d love to be developing the next generation of opera goers, but that’s not the primary goal: it’s about developing a love of music.” 

Opera North In Harmony Tom Arber
In Harmony gives more than 1,700 children music lessons each week Tom Arber

Other Opera North projects span musicianship excellence to adult singing groups, touring workshops to school schemes. And the future it’s paving the way for is about to take magnificent shape. Redevelopment project, Music Works, gets underway this year; bringing with it a new bar and restaurant on New Briggate, a bespoke entrance for Howard Assembly Rooms, a new orchestral rehearsal space and education suite in the former Mint Club.

“We’ll have spaces where people can come and feel like they’re part of the organisation,” says Emily. “We’ll be able to bring more music into Leeds and give more artists opportunities. Hopefully, it will regenerate the whole area.”

Opera North Music Works Enjoy Design
A CGI of Music Works, which gets underway this year Enjoy Design

It wouldn’t seem like a leap to think that a new, on-street presence - combined with Opera North’s increasing emphasis on digitising content, speaking to a wider audience and tackling preconceptions at the root - could transform the conversation around opera in Leeds and beyond. 

With a focus on the future and a passionate voice for everyone who exists within it, ON has the drive, the care and the innovative mindset to revolutionise opera. If you ask me, a new era is beginning. And there’s no better time to be a part of it.

Feeling inspired? Last week, Opera North announced its new Try It ON scheme, which offers £20 tickets and a whole host of other goodies to opera first-timers. Visit the website to find out how to get involved 

Main image credits: Tom Arber