Opera North is based at the Grand Theatre in Leeds, where it performs opera on the main stage in three seasons each year. The company also programmes the adjacent Howard Assembly Room, presenting a mix of smaller scale events ranging from classical recitals to performances by leading international folk, jazz and world music artists, alongside installations, films and talks throughout the year. The Paul Hamlyn Club Award has allowed Opera North to create a Community Engagement Project that will run for five years through to September 2018. A new post of Community Engagement Manager leads on the work of the project, which brings together colleagues from marketing, education, projects, development, press and PR.
The La Bohème taster tour featured a short performance of music from and inspired by the opera. The musicians answered questions and chatted informally with those attending. At Emmaus, this allowed some of the formerly homeless residents to listen to opera for the first time and to meet Opera North’s musicians. Conversations about music generally and getting to know each other offered individual encouragement to attend a future performance, and since then several of them have been to see operas at the Grand. Many of the staff, themselves new to opera, are also becoming regulars.
To date the Community Engagement Project comprises principally the Encore scheme for groups that work with people who would usually have barriers to engaging with Opera North as a company, and also the Community Partners strand, which identifies five more in-depth relationships each year with groups representing a diverse range of different communities and users within Leeds. As these strands become strongly established, further elements will be introduced.
The Encore membership has been built up through one to one contact and relationship building. Fifteen months since the scheme’s creation, membership stands at around 75 groups in spring 2015. Members are offered free and heavily subsidised tickets to Opera North’s work (both main stage operas and performances at the Howard Assembly Room), and they receive benefits such as a personal welcome, free programmes, and access to workshops and taster performances in the community. The first Encore party in summer 2014 celebrated the involvement of Encore group members with Opera North and introduced them to the upcoming season of works.
During the February 2015 season at the Leeds Grand Theatre, there were 785 attendances as part of the Encore scheme at Opera North performances. The guests came from 36 different community groups and organisations, 6 of which were taking up a ticket offer for the first time and 30 of which had attended via the scheme on at least one previous occasion. By spring 2015, there had therefore been a total of just over 3,500 attendances through the Encore scheme.
The first group of five Community Partners conclude a year’s more in-depth involvement with Opera North in March 2015. As well as opportunities to attend performances, they have come to planning meetings, received bespoke workshops, and hosted taster performances in their own venues. Some group members volunteered as Community Ambassadors to encourage involvement. In the first year, the groups have come from the refugee and asylum seekers community, both Meeting Point and RETAS; Leeds Women Together Project, which offers support to female offenders and women at risk of offending; Emmaus, which provides a home and a living for formerly homeless people in Leeds; Leeds Irish Health and Homes, a health and well-being network for the Irish community which focuses mainly on older people; and Little London Arts, a grassroots arts organisation working in the inner city area of Little London.
In December 2014, the Community Choir was created, formed of participants from the Community Partners. They performed as part of the professional Christmas at Twilight performance at the Howard Assembly Room. All of them had seen several Opera North performances as part of their involvement in the scheme, and most of them want to do more singing with Opera North soon.