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Opera North becomes Theatre of Sanctuary

Opera North has become the first opera company in the country to be awarded Theatre of Sanctuary status in recognition of its ongoing work to make refugees and asylum seekers feel valued, celebrated and included.

“I am writing to express my gratitude for the chance to experience fantastic music, an outstanding performance and overall a great evening of culture. The work you do with the communities in Leeds is very much appreciated and I hope you are able to carry on bringing the amazing world of music and performance into the lives of people for whom that world is out of reach.”

– Service user, RETAS (Refugee Education Training Advice Service, Leeds)

The accolade was given to the company by City of Sanctuary as a result of its initiatives to increase accessibility to music, drama and opera, for giving refugees and asylum seekers a voice on stage, and for building important social and creative connections for individuals who can feel isolated and excluded, living in an unfamiliar place and often having suffered traumatic, life-changing experiences. Leeds is now the first UK city to have two Theatres of Sanctuary, with Opera North joining Leeds Playhouse as one of only a handful in the country.

© Jonny Walton

As part of Opera North’s outreach through its Encore Scheme, refugees and asylum seekers are offered free or heavily subsidised tickets to opera productions at Leeds Grand Theatre, as well as concerts, talks and films in the Howard Assembly Room, and are personally welcomed to performances, special events and celebrations throughout the year. In addition, staff training and awareness-raising sessions have helped to foster a culture of empathy and respect throughout the Company, resulting in wide-ranging activities designed to improve access to and participation in Opera North’s work, such as bespoke workshops and taster performances by singers and musicians in community venues.

“By holding a performance in a building they were familiar with, the world of performances and art was opened up to them […] These are people who often feel excluded from public life, and the outreach convinced them of the opposite, that they are included and important.”

– Staff member from Leeds City of Sanctuary

Maya Youssef © Igor Studio

The experiences of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are also reflected on stage, with upcoming work including Verdi’s opera Aida exploring themes of exile and conflict. Many of the performances in the Howard Assembly Room feature artists from refugee and migrant backgrounds. These have recently included Aziza Brahim, Sounds of Palestine, Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars, Seckou Keita, Maya Youssef and Hisham Matar.

Opera North’s 2016 co-production Flit, by Martin Green, which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival and toured nationally, was inspired by first-hand stories of human migration, some heart-warming, others heart-breaking, while the Company’s 2018 Resonance artist development programme included a project by Thandanani Gumede, which explored the theme of migration and the difficulties of visa renewal.

“It is an absolute pleasure and delight to see the emotional well-being of attendees improve so much after experiencing a performance, and for this to continue for days and weeks after the event. It has a direct and immediate positive impact on the emotional well-being and integration of refugees and asylum seekers in Leeds.”

– Staff member from Meeting Point, a refugee support organisation in Leeds

Help Opera North to reach out to more people in the community by making a donation to the All Together Now Christmas fundraising campaign. Just £15 will enable a vulnerable or isolated individual to engage with the arts and to experience the joy of opera and live performance.

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