Coming up with creative ideas utilising different art-forms and artists is all in a day’s work to the Opera North Projects team.
In our latest glimpse behind the scenes, we caught up with Dominic Gray, Projects Director, to find out what impact the continuing restrictions on performances has had on their work.
What does your job entail?
Projects covers a lot of different areas: Higher Education, Community Partnerships, new work and commissions, digital projects and various other things. We try to look at opera in new ways, reaching new audiences, and collaborating with artists who might not otherwise think about opera or theatre. Not everything we do uses classical opera or music; a lot of the time we’re looking for the story-tellers who think musically but from other genres or musical traditions. I’ve got an amazing team who lead the programmes in all the different areas of Projects’ work, and my job is making sure it all feeds together into one vision, that is shared across the wider Company.
What does a typical day look like?
There’s no typical day! That’s what’s so exciting about being in the Projects world. If something is going ‘live’ it will tend to dominate, but you’ve also got to keep your eye on the projects that are just emerging, or even still at the ideas stage. At the same time, all projects have a different time-scale – some are really fast from idea to delivery, while others can be years in development.
Tell us about the Howard Assembly Room
We usually present a year-round programme of live performances in the Howard Assembly Room, our very own venue on New Briggate in the heart of Leeds. In many ways, the HAR is Projects’ home, holding all the different things we do together under one roof. We are very much looking forward to getting back in there once the current Music Works redevelopment is complete.
How has COVID-19 changed the way you work?
Not being able to have face to face meetings with people is really difficult when you’re conceiving new work or setting up a commission. So much of that is about trust, gesture, nuance. I really miss those initial conversations where an idea takes shape and you build it together. The same with my team, who are brilliant at growing the seed of an idea over long-running discussions. It’s hard to replicate that slow gestation process online.
On the other hand, it is really easy to get hold of people at the moment, so things can get set up quite quickly. Some of the projects we were doing before lockdown have been able to shift online; we’re really pleased that we’ve been able to develop a Resonance: Lockdown Edition for example, where artists have collaborated on new projects remotely. And we’re thinking much more about how we can use digital platforms to create and share new work.
What is the thinking behind Resonance?
Resonance is now in its third year and has been an amazing journey. It was set up to get us closer to new music being made by incredibly talented BAME musicians and composers, and to offer these artists opportunities to make new collaborative work. Usually these collaborations happen on site at Opera North, at the heart of the Company, and then we share the results of the creative process with audiences in the Howard Assembly Room. The HAR being closed means we’ve lost some of that, but we thought it was vital to continue the programme, and not lose momentum on what has already been an amazing project.
Earlier this year, one of the first Resonance artists, Jasdeep Singh Degun wrote and performed Arya, a concerto for sitar and the full Orchestra of Opera North. It’s so rewarding when an artist or an idea that started as a development project becomes something Opera North is doing on the mainstage.
How did Walking Home come about?
The BBC were very quick to set up their Culture In Quarantine series; it’s a kind of festival of digital performance, music, art and spoken word. Working with The Space, we proposed a sound project called Walking Home based on particular times of the day, and particular outdoor locations chosen by our composers. There are 5 sound walks, all completely different and each one a beautiful gem. At 15 minutes each we really hope listeners will collect the set and try them out on their own (physically-distanced) walks. They take you to some very special places!
Some of the musicians we worked with are artists we already know well, like Khyam Allami whose Requiem project we made for the New Music Biennial last year. But others, like Maya Youssef are people we’ve wanted to work with for ages but this was the first time we could make it happen. So there are creative opportunities in all this lockdown misery!
What other projects are you working on currently?
I’ve never been as busy! Walking Home has just gone live, the Resonance: Lockdown Edition is coming to a conclusion, and we’re working on some great podcasts with academics at the University of Leeds, called Thinking With Opera. Being a Theatre of Sanctuary, our Community Partnership team is working with Mafwa Theatre and refugees and asylum seekers in Leeds on a photography project called Imagination.
For Switch ON in the Autumn, we’re planning some bold outdoor projects, including a soundwalk through the city of Leeds with new music written by Abel Selaocoe which we’re incredibly excited about. It’s pretty full on.
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