In the world of British opera, it's far from grim up north

It was staged, not at Covent Garden, scene of many prestigious first nights, but at the Theatre Royal in Manchester, a city with its own classical tradition and aficionados.

Now a new study shows the north of England's love of the performing arts has surpassed that in the South. Those in the North-west are now three times more likely to attend an opera than those in the South-east, according to the figures.

Nearly one in 10 in the North-west named opera as their favourite form of theatrical production, and those in the North-east joined the chorus of approval. Only 3 per cent of those in the South-east spoke of opera as their favoured form of entertainment, despite having two professional houses on their doorstep, English National Opera at the Coliseum in London and the nearby Royal Opera House.

The soprano Suzannah Clarke is one of a number of distinguished singers who hail from the North, among them the soprano Lesley Garrett and the bass John Tomlinson.

"There is a different culture in the north of England and a greater sense of community," said Miss Clarke. "They are less suspicious and more open. The audiences are far more willing to get involved."

Ellen Kent, a leading producer of large-scale touring operas from eastern Europe, said: " Our biggest audiences are in Liverpool, Manchester, Sunderland, Edinburgh and Glasgow. We do phenomenal business at all of them.

"There seems to be great loyalty in the North, where there is a huge tradition of music - the big choirs, brass bands and the first performance of La Bohème."

This weekend Ms Kent was staging a production of Bizet's Carmen at the Sunderland Empire, a venue her productions have been visiting for over a decade.

In the audience on Friday night was Carol Atkinson, 45, from nearby Washington. She said: "Carmen is a favourite of mine. I go to the theatre every few months with friends and I think it's great that we're getting so many more quality productions in the North. As far as northerners being more cultured - of course we are."

One of the issues that may have affected attitudes is that many in the South associate opera with dedicated venues such as the Royal Opera House or the Coliseum, which may be intimidating to the uninitiated. Northern opera-goers are more likely to see a touring production at their local theatre, at which they may well feel at home.

It is not only the big industrial cities that can expect opera performances. The Merseyside town of St Helens slots in Puccini's Tosca this week, shortly before shows by Jimmy Tarbuck and the Houghton Weavers.

Richard Mantle, general director of the Leeds-based Opera North, said: "Although London has the Royal Opera House and the English National Opera pumping out opera all year round, there are also a lot more distractions in London competing for attention. I suspect that because there isn't opera on all the time outside London, it is considered more of an event."

The survey, for Theatre Tokens, found that nationwide, opera was rated the favourite theatrical experience by 3 per cent of those questioned. The top choice was comedy with 35 per cent, while musicals were chosen by 34 per cent.

At the Sunderland Empire before 'Carmen'

Olive Hepburn, Age 64, South Shields

"As more productions come here the North-South divide is slowly closing. People here are becoming more culturally aware"

Bethanie Dennis, Age 14, Jarrow

"I'm really into music in general. It's my favourite subject at school. It's brilliant that the big shows are now coming here from London"

Margaret Nysler-Smith, Age 50, Easington

"I chose 'Carmen' because it's a bit of a classic. My favourite opera is 'La Bohème'. My mother was an opera singer"

Stuart Forbes, Age 64, Newcastle

"I've come along with my wife. It's a different night out. We are more cultured than southerners give us credit for"

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