How Opera North is developing a world class centre for the arts in Leeds

Music Works will create a world class centre for the arts in the heart of Leeds, according to Opera North's Richard Mantle. He spoke to Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright.

Saturday, 12th December 2020, 10:55 am
Richard Mantle and Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake

THE pandemic has delivered a hammer blow to the performing arts.

Theatre doors have remained locked for months. Thousands of staff have been furloughed or found work in other sectors. For millions of people, a night at the theatre or opera seems like a distant dream.

But there are still reasons to be cheerful. Just take a stroll down New Briggate in Leeds, for example, where Richard Mantle, the general director of Opera North, is ploughing ahead with an £18m redevelopment scheme which will place the arts at the heart of the post-pandemic city.

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“We want to see the regeneration of our city centres and arts and culture can play a part in creating resilience,’ said Mr Mantle. “Strong economic recovery goes hand in hand with investment in culture.”

Music Works is Opera North’s colossal redevelopment project, which will transform its home in Leeds by 2021. The new buildings aim to offer a welcome to everyone and act as a place to develop artistic talent.

The project includes a restoration of the handsome Howard Assembly Room to include new public spaces and a beautiful atrium along with a restaurant and bar, which will be open all day, to audiences and the public.

The Howard Opera Centre will include a purpose-built music rehearsal space and an education studio.

Led by Dr Keith Howard, who made a donation of £11.2m, major funders of the scheme include Leeds City Council, Arts Council England and charitable trusts such as The Liz and Terry Bramall Foundation. Work is ongoing to raise the remainder of the funds.

Although work stopped for six weeks during the first lockdown, the building firms took a deep breath and pressed ahead over the summer.

Mr Mantle said: “Work initially re-started at 35 per cent capacity and went back up to around 75 per cent capacity during September and October. It’s now back to around 60 per cent of capacity.

“We had originally hoped we would be back in the building before Christmas. The completion of the project has been delayed with the first phase expected to be completed at the end of April and the second phase in August.

“The Howard Assembly Room was built in 1879 so, as you can imagine, there have been a lot of complications as this project has gone on,’’ said Mr Mantle. “I do believe this work will be a key element in regenerating the city centre, once it has started to unlock.”

“It will lead to the creation of a new rehearsal and education studio,’’ he said. “All of this development has enabled us to re-imagine the Howard Assembly Room as a year-round venue. There will be general day to day access, which is very exciting.

“The Howard Assembly Room is a jewel in the city’s crown. It’s a wonderful intimate space with an acoustic which has been ranked alongside Wigmore Hall in London. It will help to place live performance back in the heart of the city. It will offer a complete experience which we have never been able to do before.

“Lockdown has provided the city with the chance to restructure the area around the Howard Assembly Room. We have been one of the catalysts for the improvement of the public realm. Our little cultural quarter will help to transform part of the city centre.”

It’s hard, however, to escape the cloud cast by the pandemic.

“Our last public performance was on March 15,’’ said Mr Mantle. “We have been streaming our educational work but sadly have had to furlough more than 200 out of our 230 staff. It’s virtually impossible to stage an economically viable performance with only 30 to 40 per cent capacity.

“Although there has been some Government assistance, the problem is that so much of our sector relies on freelance performers and their work has dried up.

“We still plan to do things in a limited way. We are supported by the Arts Council and Leeds City Council and we are trying to be resourceful. It’s possible we might be able to do limited work in February and March but I don’t anticipate we will be performing large scale opera until September. We hope to announce the programme in the New Year."

Established in 1978, Opera North has always been a bold company; its first production was Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, a piece which had not been performed in Britain for 20 years. It has never been afraid to venture into unusual repertoire. This spirit of endeavour is driving the Music Works project forward.

“The completed Music Works project will set the company on a new and confident path,’’ said Mr Mantle. “We will, in time, build back as a dynamic artistic enterprise.”

Mr Mantle has spent more than a quarter of a century at Opera North, after previously holding senior roles at English National Opera and Scottish Opera. He believes this ambitious project will provide a shot in the arm for Leeds’ cultural quarter.

He said: “After the financial crisis of 08-09, corporate support for the arts virtually disappeared.

“But it has started to grow back in recent years, partly because corporates can see what value we can bring to the city and the region.”

“For example, we have been helping 2,000 young people to learn how to sing.

"Arts is at the core of the revival of society because we bring a lot of life-affirming experiences through live performance and engagement with young people and communities.”