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Interview: Meet Richard Mantle, General Director of Opera North

1 February 2015


Bringing Opera, Theatre & Music to the Masses

Opera North is one of Europe’s the leading arts organisations, and England’s national opera company. Famous for challenging the conventional perceptions of opera, the company breathes new life into a range of classics, and is proud to champion lesser known works and musical theatre.

Collaborating with a number of artists and organisations, the company performs not just in England, but across the continent at opera houses and international festivals alike. We recently spoke to Opera North’s General Director about their latest shows, their work in the community… and how they’ve deftly managed to take the world by storm.

Opera North has a great reputation for working with cutting edge writers and performers on both contemporary and classical works. Tell us about some of your biggest successes?

Opera North is known for producing work in collaboration with some of the most talented artistic teams in the UK – we co-produce work with other opera companies around the world, and also work with theatres such as the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester to produce cross-genre work.

Our Projects team also curates the eclectic public programme of events in the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds. The programme, which makes connections between the classical and the contemporary, makes it possible for artists like Martyn Jacques to rub shoulders with folk musicians such as Seth Lakeman and the Unthanks, some of the most talented international artists, like Abdullah Ibrahim, Tinariwen, Staff Benda Bilili and many more, alongside classical recitals from the best singers and instrumentalists.

I think having such a varied artistic programme really captures the spirit of who we are as a company – in terms of the main stage work we produce, it means that we present very well-known operas such as Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro alongside pieces that are staged much less frequently, like Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea. We also have a long history of producing high quality pieces of musical theatre, from Showboat and Sweeney Todd to Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Carousel, which was a huge hit for us in 2012 and returned in May and June 2015 in Leeds, Norwich, Edinburgh and Dublin.

The recent show with Martin Jacques and The Tiger Lillies has been getting some excellent reactions… what has it been like to work with them?

It had been a long-standing ambition of Opera North Projects, led by our Projects Director Dominic Gray, to commission a new piece of work from The Tiger Lillies, Lulu: A Murder Ballad, which premiered in 2014 and has already toured through the UK and to Strasbourg, with further dates being planned for the future. Martyn Jacques wrote a new theatrical cycle of 20 songs and interludes, based on a narrative familiar from both Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, and the silent film Pandora’s Box, based on Franz Wedekind’s original plays. Working with the director and designer Mark Holthusen, their reinvention of Lulu proved to be a memorable, dark, and vastly entertaining addition to the canon of works through which the enigmatic character of Lulu holds sway.

Opera North does an awful lot of work in the local community, can you tell us a bit about what you’vebeen up to lately, and what you have planned for the future?

Our wide-ranging Education programme seeks to bring the richness and excitement of opera, in all its forms, to thousands of adults and young people across the North of England each year. From schools performances to new opera commissioned and produces expressly for young audiences, to our youth ensembles which are helping to nurture young artistic talent across the North, we seek to inspire audiences, engage communities and challenge preconceptions.

We are also developing a new community residency programme to contribute to the cultural hub of Hull, the first part of which has seen the creation of the Opera North Singing School, at Bude Park Primary School in the Bransholme area of the city. Future plans in development for Opera North in Hull include the launch of new branches of the Opera North Children’s Chorus (ages 7-14) and Opera North Youth Company (ages 14-19), as sister ensembles to the Opera North Children’s Chorus and Youth Company in Leeds.

The first year of a new Community Engagement Project funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation has also been an unqualified success, with more than 2480 attendances at performances since the project began, with an additional 774 attendances at special taster performances and workshops. A total of 72 different community groups in Leeds have become members of thescheme so far.

Why do you think Opera North has been so successful… and how has it managed to attract such a broad audience?

We value diversity, richness, invention and excellence - made in the North. Above all however, it is the passion and curiosity of our audiences which sustains our commitment to delivering great work, whether in school, the community, the theatre, the concert hall, on radio or online.

Opera North is a national company but our roots are firmly in Leeds and the North of England and our constant aim is to fully engage with the many diverse communities here. Within the last year, through new initiatives such as a new Under 30s membership scheme and a Community Engagement Programme funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, we have already seen significant numbers of people building a new relationship with the Company and our work. There is a very special atmosphere in the theatre when we have lots of new audience members attending - their pleasure in experiencing live opera for the very first time is palpable.

We are extremely proud of the work we create in music, theatre and performance and we are now able to share our work more widely than ever before, giving new, local audiences the opportunity to see, hear and enjoy the very best of what Opera North does.

What are you most looking forward to showcasing during the forthcoming season?

Manuel de Falla’s little known short opera La vida breve returns to the Opera North stage, presented in a double-bill with a new staging of Gianni Schicchi, directed by Christopher Alden. This is our first production of Puccini's only comic opera in 25 years, starring the wonderful baritone Christopher Purves in the title role. We’ll be touring this double-bill in March 2015 alongside two of the most popular operas of all time, Verdi’s grand tear-jerker La traviata, and Mozart’s sublime comedy The Marriage of Figaro.

Later in the year, we are looking forward to a new production of Jonathan Dove’s opera for families, Swanhunter, which was originally commissioned by Opera North in 2009. This new production continues to build on Opera North’s commitment to developing new work for young people and is our first co-production with the acclaimed theatre company The Wrong Crowd, who have quickly established themselves as exciting new creators of inventive, playful and compelling theatre.

Beyond that, we will be presenting Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman in concert halls around the country in June/July 2015, before we take on the biggest of all operatic challenges in 2016 – Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle, which we will tour to the Southbank Centre in London.

We have been performing each of the four operas from Der Ring des Nibelungen over the last four years, and when we began, we had no idea that our concept for performing each element of the Ring, in a way that places the drama of the music at the very heart of the performances, would captivate audiences so completely. This positive response from audiences, many of whom have experienced the Ring for the first time with us, has encouraged us to mount performances of the complete Ring in 2016.

There is no doubt in my mind that in Richard Farnes, our Music Director, we have discovered one of the great Wagner conducting talents of our time; under his inspiring leadership The Ring Cycle promises to be an unforgettable experience for artists and audiences alike. Casting includes a range of top British and international Wagnerian performers, many of whom return to Opera North after making their mark in previous instalments, including Giselle Allen, Mats Almgren, Susan Bickley, Lee Bisset, Michael Druiett, Robert Hayward, Kelly Cae Hogan, Yvonne Howard, Alwyn Mellor, Béla Perencz,  Mati Turi and Michael Weinius.

Take a look at Opera North’s latest shows at www.operanorth.co.uk

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