Our friends in the north

Opera North is celebrating 21 years of touring with a wide and adventurous repertoire that plays to packed houses. Will this finally put an end to opera's élitist image?
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Is opera so unpopular, exclusive, "élitist" as would-be populists like to suggest? In support of this view we see the same images of evening dress picnics at Glyndebourne, the liveried flunkies and thick carpets of Covent Garden. What you don't often see or hear about is the audience at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, or the Grand Theatre, Leeds, or the Eden Court Theatre, Inverness. For they tell quite a different story - the story of the rise and spread of opera right across Britain in the past 40 years, until there is now hardly a major town or city that does not see some professional opera on a regular basis.

Is opera so unpopular, exclusive, "élitist" as would-be populists like to suggest? In support of this view we see the same images of evening dress picnics at Glyndebourne, the liveried flunkies and thick carpets of Covent Garden. What you don't often see or hear about is the audience at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, or the Grand Theatre, Leeds, or the Eden Court Theatre, Inverness. For they tell quite a different story - the story of the rise and spread of opera right across Britain in the past 40 years, until there is now hardly a major town or city that does not see some professional opera on a regular basis.

Central to this alternative story has been the creation of permanent opera companies outside London. First to emerge was the Welsh National Opera in 1946, followed by Scottish Opera in 1962 and Glyndebourne Touring Opera in 1968. The youngest of these companies is Opera North, which this autumn celebrates its 21st birthday. It started off as English National Opera North, an offshoot of the Coliseum, borrowing many productions from its London parent. But its aim was always independence, and by 1981 it had shortened its name and was striking out on its own, in terms of both repertoire and productions.

Like all these companies, it was committed to touring from the start. Based in Leeds, it regularly visits Manchester, Nottingham and Hull; less regularly Newcastle, Sunderland, Sheffield, York; and, in the past, has been to Norwich and even Southampton. This week it is in London, at Sadler's Wells. Touring, which the London companies always undertook with considerable reluctance, is simply a fact of life for the non-London companies. It is these companies that put opera within regular reach of the non-metropolitan music-lover, for whom a trip to Covent Garden is at best a rare treat or, more likely, a near impossibility. And touring has its positive side, as Nicholas Payne, now at ENO, but the company director in Leeds for 10 years until 1993, points out. Touring "brings people together", he maintains. "It develops the company spirit. I still feel enormous gratitude and respect for my colleagues in Leeds. I still get a very good feeling out of the place when I go back."

A primary purpose of Opera North was to make the central operatic repertoire available in the north of England, but in fact from the first night it was always more adventurous than that. They opened with Saint-Saëns's Samson and Delilah, which is more often talked about than performed, and the next night staged a double bill of Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tirésias and Dido and Aeneas. Another early venture was Delius's lovely A Village Romeo and Juliet.

Their repertoire has continued to be wide and adventurous. There have been new operas by, among others, Benedict Mason, Robert Saxton, Michael Berkeley and, most recently, Simon Holt. There have been some notable rediscoveries and rescues. It was a pleasure to see La Gioconda six years ago, and its revival next summer is well deserved. It is extraordinary that Nielsen's delightful Maskarade should have had to wait until 1990 for its British professional premiere, or that Richard Strauss's Daphne was not seen in Britain until 1987. Roberto Gerhard's The Duenna was revealed in 1992 to be a witty and colourful piece, now preserved on disc. The merits of Walton's neglected Troilus and Cressida were convincingly established by ON's 1995 revival, also recorded.

There has been a sprinkling of well-chosen musicals - Kurt Weill's Love Life, Gershwin's Of Thee I Sing, Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, and, biggest success of all, Show Boat, the show that, Payne says, "did more to put Opera North on the map than anything else".

They have made something of a speciality of early Verdi. In addition to Nabucco and Macbeth (hardy perennials), they have done Attila, Giovanna d'Arco, and Luisa Miller, and given the British professional premieres of Jerusalem, Verdi's Parian re-working of I Lombardi, and Oberto, his first surviving opera, the last in a production by John Tomlinson, who also sang the name role. Tomlinson has also sung Boris and Philip II for the company.

What is most encouraging is that they have been able to take their audience with them in exploring the wider repertory. Gloriana last season, with Josephine Barstow in one her finest roles, was a sell-out. Arabella did much better than expected. The Friends of Opera North, too, have opted for adventure, and put up the money for productions of Wozzeck, King Priam and Martinu's Julietta. Subscribers also support the policy. "We must be the only company whose subscribers write in to complain when La Bohÿme is scheduled again," jokes Richard Mantle, the current general director.

At the same time they have used popular favourites such as Carmen to attract a wider and younger audience. And it works. Twenty-eight performances of Bizet's masterpiece sold out this year to a noticeably fresher and more youthful crowd. Altogether 189,000 seats were sold for 110 performances last season. How exclusive and unpopular is that? But money is, as ever, a worry. The Arts Council grant, which makes up 55 per cent of the company's income, has been frozen more than once in recent years. Local government restructuring, and the squeeze on local budgets, have led to a decline in local support from 20 per cent a few years ago to 11 per cent now. There have had to be economies, and the obvious temptation is to play safe.

But the spirit of adventure is still alive. Next March they are taking Julietta to Prague, where they will sing this Czech opera in English. And next season they will open with a co-production with Prague of Schumann's Genoveva. Hands up those who have ever seen this famous but deeply neglected piece.

With Opera North flourishing, it is tempting to say that opera in the north of England is in safe hands. But the key to its success is that those hands are both safe and daring. Long may they remain so.

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