October 2014 sees the publication of a new book on Opera North by Dr Kara McKechnie, the result of four years of research, published by Emerald. The study features over 100 illustrations and has three distinctive perspectives. The first documents Opera North's history from the first planning meetings in the 1970s until 2013.
Here is an excerpt from the year of Opera North’s foundation in 1978:
Both David Lloyd-Jones and Lord Harewood [George Lascelles, the 7th Earl of Harewood] recalled in detail the exhausting process of auditioning for a full orchestra and chorus in early 1978. The standard was high, and musicians were young. Lloyd-Jones and his wife Carol were staying at Harewood House when in Leeds (he was working for ENO full time) and the daily updates on auditions were a delight to the Harewoods. In all, Lloyd-Jones and Ian Killik [orchestra manager] heard some 300 orchestral auditions.
Lady Harewood: "I remember him [Lloyd-Jones] saying one day ‘I’ve found the absolutely ideal person to be the leader, he’s a wonderful, wonderful violinist, he’s got everything — but the trouble is, he’s only 22!"
Lord Harewood: "David Greed. The youngest leader in the country. One of the rocks on which the company was founded."
Pictured: David Greed, Photo Credit: Brian Slater
The thoroughness of the process is evidenced by the fact that many founder members, particularly in the orchestra and in the chorus, worked for the company for the rest of their professional lives. The Orchestra of Opera North remains the only orchestra in the United Kingdom that has the full-time dual role of opera and symphony orchestra and runs its own seasons of concerts across the North of England. This means the orchestra is performing when the company is ‘between seasons’, i.e. having finished a cycle of performing at Leeds Grand Theatre and on tour, and rehearsing for its next season. During the weeks of the orchestra’s involvement in the rehearsal and performance process, concert activity is more difficult to fit in, as the eight weekly sessions are filled by opera rehearsals. Back in early 1978, there was a lively debate about the orchestra’s name. Their two strands of activity called for an independent name, akin to continental conventions. The orchestra’s founding name was decided on as English Northern Philharmonia.
Lloyd-Jones chose Samson et Dalila (Saint-Saëns) as the inaugural production over The Flying Dutchman, which he had also considered. He decided Samson would be preferable, because it had not been done in the United Kingdom for about 20 years:
‘… and something I wanted for the first production was a work that involved the orchestra and chorus the whole time. I didn’t want the trombones to say ‘can we go off for an hour and a half’ — I wanted almost a symphonic thing. The chorus are not involved in Act 2, but my god, they’re involved in Acts 1 and 3!’
He also wanted it to be understood that although the new company was English National Opera North, it was not a carbon copy of English National Opera and its policy of singing in English, so Samson was performed in French.
Critics called the new company ‘a reality greater than the promise’ and commented that ‘a star was born’ in Leeds. With London dominating over regional arts provision, making for a ‘provincial’ feel in cities like Leeds, this really was an act of faith in the future. The confidence of the new company is evident in Lloyd-Jones’s introduction to ENON’s first season. He expressed delight that such a large region and population should at last have their own company, ending ‘this shameful state of affairs’ — ‘not gradually, by means of occasional seasons, but at a stroke with the creation of a full-time opera company working the whole year round from the Grand Theatre in Leeds’. While the company had high aspirations, Lloyd-Jones also set the stakes high for the audience:
"Think of what you are giving your audience and think of what you should be giving them. The company should be run to suit its audiences, which is not the same thing as giving them what they want."
Generally, the words of ENON’s Administrator, Graham Marchant, summarised the feeling about the young company: ‘One is at home. We belong. The audience responds to us as theirs’
Excerpt published with the kind permission of the author and Emerald Group Publishing. Read more about Dr Kara McKechnie's new study of Opera North here.
Image: John Tranter, Gilbert Py and Katharine Pring in English National Opera North's inaugural production of Samson et Dalila, 1978. Photograph by Forbes Henderson