Newcastle University and Opera North have announced a new three-year collaboration, with the ambition to transform performance practice and audience accessibility through an exchange of knowledge between academic research and the operatic stage.
The partnership builds on the two organisations’ history of working together around the Leeds-based opera company’s regular tours to Newcastle and Gateshead. Its aims include measuring audience responses to opera using neuroscience, with the goal of enhancing access and participation; and an all-embracing exploration of the voice on the stage, from vocal health to questions of the representation of marginalized or silenced voices.
The focus on the voice emerged during lockdown from a series of remote discussions and seminars involving academics from across the University and Opera North performers and staff. One of the first outcomes of this interdisciplinary approach is a new podcast, ‘Staging the Voice, Voicing the Stage’. The first episode finds Jo Robinson, Professor of Theatre and Performance and Head of the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics at the University, in a discussion with Opera North staff about captioning performances, beginning with a look at the Company’s evolving approach to surtitles and access, and concluding with some ideas and aspirations for the future.
A Northern Bridge Consortium Collaborative Doctoral Award, open for applications later this year, will give a PhD student the chance to give shape to these ambitions through access to Opera North’s sector-leading practice and process, together with the latest thinking on captioning from Newcastle University. From initial research on how best to support the understanding and pleasure of all audiences, particularly those with additional needs, the successful candidate will go on to develop, test and reflect on innovative approaches to titling and accessibility in dialogue with academics and arts practitioners – and in the context of ‘real world’ performances.
The partnership is not confined to the humanities faculties of the University, with last summer’s ‘Bootcamp’ at the National Innovation Centre for Data bringing students and academics from Advanced Computer Science, Civil Engineering and Mathematics & Economics together with members of Opera North’s Audiences team to solve ‘live’ data problems.
Together they worked on ways of using freeform feedback alongside statistical data to arrive at a more a complete understanding of Opera North’s audience groups, the Company’s impact, and ways it could widen participation in opera.
The University’s strong engagement with its community is also helping Opera North to introduce new audiences to its work in the North East. In March, schoolchildren from Newcastle’s Hotspur Primary visited the University to enjoy Opera North’s family-friendly version of Janáček’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen with workshops from another of the University’s collaborators.
Theatre company Cap-a-Pie introduced themes including cross-species communication and the voices of animals, to enrich what would be the first experience of opera for many of the young audience.
This performance has inspired a rare collaboration between the University’s Humanities Research Institute, Institute for Creative Arts Practice and the faculties of Medical Sciences and Science, Agriculture and Engineering. In a symposium planned for 31 May, the children’s responses in the workshops, gathered by Cap-a Pie, will shape academic discussion of animals, emotions and empathy, and provoke new thinking.
On campus, an Opera North sound installation in the historic centre of the University celebrated the two institutions’ shared engagement with diverse voices. Taal Yatra, a piece commissioned by Opera North from one of Europe’s finest tabla players Shahbaz Hussain, also featuring Persian percussionist Arian Sadr and Ivorian master of the djembe, Sidiki Dembele, was installed in The Arches listening space. On the hour between 6am and 10pm, the recording could be heard in surround sound in the iconic gateway leading from King’s Road into the Quadrangle, as part of the ‘Space for Sound’ programme curated by the University’s Institute for Creative Arts Practice.
Becky Smith, Head of Academic Partnerships, Opera North, comments:
“Opera North is excited by the opportunities this new academic partnership with Newcastle University brings. We can already see how our joint activities are supporting our mutual efforts to connect with communities in the region, ensure diversity and inclusion in our work, boost knowledge creation and student engagement, and strengthen the sustainability of our business as we develop the company’s creative ambitions”.
Professor Jennifer Richards, Director of Newcastle University’s Humanities Research Institute, comments:
“This partnership has been many years in the making: we have spent time exploring the ethos we share, the themes that matter to us, and how we want to co-create together. The opportunity to collaborate with such an inspirational partner is an enormous opportunity to develop new ways of linking across sectors, faculties, and, as we learned most recently, species. It is really special.”