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Spotlight on Celebrating Sanctuary

To mark Celebrating Sanctuary Week which this year takes place from Monday 19 April, Opera North has announced that the voices of refugee and people seeking asylum will be among those included in a special sound trail in the Howard Opera Centre when it opens this summer.

Celebrating Sanctuary Week is organised by City of Sanctuary UK to raise awareness of the valuable contribution those seeking sanctuary have made to society and to celebrate the positive ways in which they have been welcomed across communities. Opera North became the first opera company to be granted Theatre of Sanctuary status by the organisation in 2018 for its extensive work with refugees and people seeking asylum and, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, has continued to explore innovative ways to keep them connected with the Company.

Arts Together End-of-Year Celebration at Left Bank Leeds 2019 © Tom Arber

As part of this work, CFL Enrichment which supports young unaccompanied asylum seekers in the city, Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network and the Refugee Council will be taking part in our Writing Home project, working with musicians Christella Litras and Leroy Johnson to compose and record songs on the theme of home.

These will be used alongside pieces recorded by other residents in Leeds to create a sound journey through the Howard Opera Centre, Opera North’s new home in the heart of the city which is due for completion later this year.

Christella Litras and Battledream II writer/director Alain Bidard during their Resonance residency, Opera North, March 2018 © Tom Arber

Increasing accessibility to music, drama and opera for everyone continues to be a priority. When it became clear that groups would not be able to travel into Leeds for theatre trips due to the pandemic, the Company took Whistle Stop Opera: Hansel and Gretel to them instead, performing the show in the grounds of St Augustine’s in Halifax – a group that supports refugees and those seeking asylum and one of our Community Partners for this year.

Members of the Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North have also been delivering ONe-to-ONe virtual performances over Zoom to groups supporting refugees and those seeking asylum – and their members were encouraged to join the From Couch to Chorus virtual choir which provided a musical lifeline for many during lockdown.

“I want to thank you for helping me out with From Couch to Chorus. The finale was really very emotional. I have no words for that event.”

– Anne Collins, a member of Mafwa Theatre

Theatre of Sanctuary Get-together at Leeds Playhouse © Anthony Robling

Artists from across the world looking to make their home in the UK continue to be celebrated with many working with the Company to share their musical talents across the wider community.

Thandanani Gumede, who is required to apply for a temporary restricted visa each year, was one of the first musicians to be offered an Opera North Resonance residency for minority ethnic artists. He has since worked with the Company on a variety of projects:

“Sanctuary is a befitting adjective in the description of Opera North. They are not about merely meeting quotas and ticking boxes. They go beyond to create real connections with the artist – to create an environment to counter all the hurdles without compromising on merit … Years after my residency they are still there for me.”

Thandanani Gumede performing at Slung Low in Holbeck © Tom Arber

Skills sharing can be a very effective way of providing practical help to smaller community organisations and groups. Another of Opera North’s Community Partners for this year is Mafwa Theatre who use drama to bring together women seeking sanctuary and members of the settled community around the Lincoln Green area in Leeds.

When Opera North asked them if they needed any support, they requested advice on creating an audience development plan, so were put in touch with the Company’s Marketing team who were happy to give them some expert help.

A session run by Mafwa Theatre at the Arts Together End-of-Year Celebration 2019 © Tom Arber

Being a Theatre of Sanctuary is a continuous responsibility. Opera North remains committed to constantly increasing its impact and engagement with refugees and those seeking sanctuary across Leeds and beyond and, as part of this, will continue to provide awareness training across the organisation, giving every member of staff the opportunity to hear at first-hand about the challenges faced by people as they attempt to settle in a new community.

“We are very proud to have been given Theatre of Sanctuary status and will continue to explore different ways to extend a heartfelt welcome to all. From helping refugees and those seeking asylum to achieve their aspirations, to enabling these often-marginalised voices to finally be heard, we remain committed to doing everything we can to make everyone feel celebrated and valued whenever and wherever they interact with us and to enable more people to enrich their lives though engagement with the arts.”

– Dominic Gray, Projects Director, Opera North

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