Leeds Opera Festival returns to a stage near you in a bid to change myths about who opera is for

The first opera was performed in Leeds just shy of 300 years ago.

By Emma Ryan
Sunday, 25th July 2021, 4:45 am

It was two singers from a travelling band of performers in a long gone pub called The Rose and Crown.

In a bid to dispel the myths of 'who' opera is for, and in its fifth year, the Leeds Opera Festival will be taking opera back to basics and back to its origins in the south of the city all those decades ago.

The programme was originally being drawn up for 2020's festival but was put back while contingency plans were made to run a different event last year.

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Sarah Sayeed is one of the artists performing in this year's line-up.

However, it has made this year's theme and approach more fitting as embracing art, culture, music and more wholesome experiences have been at the forefront for many people over the last 16 months.

This year's festival aims to make opera accessible to all - and especially new audiences - and so will be travelling to all corners of the city during its seven day run from August 23 to 30.

It will focus on the work of English composer, Gustav Holst. whose musical arrangements are well known, however, he only wrote four operas and three of them will be covered by this year's Leeds Opera Festival.

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Leeds Opera Festival, artistic director, David Ward.

"Savitri" is an Indian based language opera and the festival's interpretation will be mythical, "At The Boar's Head" will have a Shakespearean twist on its adaptation while, "The Wandering Scholar" will be a touring production of pop-up 20 minute performances with just four singers taken to locations across Leeds such as Morley Town Hall, Kirkgate Market, HEART at Headingley, Chapel FM and Seacroft, Chapel Arts at Chapel Allerton, Sunnybank Mills at Farsley, Seagulls on Kirkstall Road.

Mr Ward said: "It is a festival for the whole of Leeds, not just one venue. Going to venues that people know and love and bringing opera directly to people is because we know there are lots of people that rarely come to the city centre but in places where people feel comfortable, it is pop-up, they don't need to book and don't need to stay for the whole thing.

"People might just walk around and watch for a bit but it is about making it easier for people to access in a non-pressure environment. It is a great way for us to show that opera is not what a lot of people think that it is with a huge theatre, huge sets and costumes. It can be about that but it can be two singers in Kirkgate Market - that is still opera."

Throughout the pandemic, Leeds Opera Festival has kept busy, and artists employed, by doing screen work and other projects but nothing beats being on stage - although there have been doubts about that.

Members of the public have already been taking in the history of opera in Leeds.

Mr Ward said: "Morley Town Hall closed for a year and a half and only opened last Monday so there has been some crossing of fingers. They are still challenging circumstances, but we still feel confident. We have had a great time in the last year and made some really good things for the screen but it is not what we really want to do - getting back on stage is fantastic."

The Festival runs from August 23 to 30 and alongside the performances there will be new exhibition celebrating the 300 year history of opera in Leeds. It will be at the Corn Exchange where, 'The Leeds Opera Story', explores the companies and artists who first brought opera to Leeds.

The exhibition will be free to attend and will include a self-guided audio tour of forgotten theatres across the city, which once housed some of the greatest performances.

Mr Ward said: "Whilst audiences and artists often return to the classic, centuries-old operas of the past, it strikes me that we seldom talk about the history of performance – particularly outside of London. Leeds has an amazing operatic heritage going all the way back to 1729.

Exhibits from the exhibition looking at the history of opera in Leeds, 'The Leeds Opera Story'.

"Delving into the forgotten operas, artists and theatres that have contributed to this heritage has been fascinating. It really tells the story not only of how opera has changed over the past 300 years, but of how the city has changed as well. I hope that the exhibition will resonate with audiences regardless of their operatic knowledge."

'Much Ado About Nothing' was from the 2019 programme.