Opera North is this week celebrating its reopening in the heart of the city, following its £18 million redevelopment programme, Music Works. The newly redeveloped Howard Opera Centre now includes a new education centre, improved rehearsal spaces, a revamped Box Office and a stylish atrium leading to the reopened Howard Assembly Room.
Marking the reopening of its buildings and new spaces, Opera North has unveiled Writing Home, a sound trail which embeds the voices of members of local communities from across Leeds in the walls of the company’s new home.
Writing Home features a series of songs which were composed by over 400 people of all ages who came together with professional musicians and composers to share ideas of what home meant to them.
The result is a diverse mix of ten original tracks recorded by In Harmony Opera North pupils from Richmond Hill Academy; young people from Opera North Children’s Chorus and Young Voices; community groups such as The Refugee Council and Black Health Initiative; and members of the public who volunteered to take part in the project. When people visit the Howard Opera Centre, they will be able to enjoy the pieces in various spaces throughout the building by scanning a QR code and listening through their headphones.
What the project revealed was the very different meaning of home to each person taking part and how that meaning had been thrown into sharp relief by the impact of COVID-19. Some of the workshops were held online during lockdown – literally in people’s homes – while others were able to be conducted in person once restrictions eased. For many, it was their first opportunity to collaborate with others since the pandemic struck, an experience they found particularly empowering.
“At first, I was wondering if I could write a song. I’ve never done it before and I wasn’t sure if I could. I have learned that there are no limits to creativity and, from simple things, you can make something wonderful.”
– Participant, Writing Home workshop, The Refugee Council
Richard Mantle, General Director of Opera North, said:
“From the outset, we envisaged the Howard Opera Centre as a place for everyone – a home where our musicians, our staff and the community could come together to sing, play, learn, participate and collaborate, so it felt right that we should incorporate the voices of local people into the building in some way. Writing Home proved to be the perfect project to engage both young people and adults with music and composition which lie at the heart of what we do.
“As befits our status as the only opera company in the country to be a Theatre of Sanctuary, we were keen to involve refugees and sanctuary seekers and share with them the journey of creativity. Their unique perspective on what ‘home’ means has created a song which will now have a permanent place in the heart of the city.”
The first people to experience the trail were Opera North’s key supporters who were given a tour of the new spaces yesterday as a thank you for their ongoing commitment to the company. They were also able to enjoy a programme of musical performances in the Howard Assembly Room which reopened at the beginning of October with its own dedicated entrance and an expanded programme of folk, jazz, world, experimental music, chamber concerts, film and more.
This follows the opening of the Company’s autumn season last weekend at Leeds Grand Theatre with Carmen, to be followed next weekend by a Bernstein Double Bill. Both will tour to Newcastle, Salford Quays and Nottingham.
Funding for the £18 million Music Works redevelopment included a significant gift of £11.25 million from the late Dr Keith Howard, Opera North’s President and a long-term supporter of the Company, and a generous donation of £1 million from The Liz & Terry Bramall Foundation. They were joined by a number of other trusts and foundations.
Arts Council England has supported the project with a grant of £499,999 in 2018 through the Small Capital Grants scheme, bolstered in 2020 by a Capital Kickstart award of £500,000 by Arts Council England and DCMS as part of the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund in response to the economic impact of the COVID pandemic on the arts industries. Many individuals also donated via the ongoing Play Your Part fundraising campaign or by purchasing musical notes through Making Music, an installation symbolising a musical score. This will sit in the atrium as a visual reminder that making music lies at the heart of the building.