For more than 40 years, Opera North has striven for artistic excellence while reaching out to new audiences. As the company prepares to stage The Greek Passion, which specifically deals with the plight of asylum seekers, its head of community partnerships speaks to George Hall
Leeds-based Opera North has won awards before, but the one it received last December represented a first for any opera company. City of Sanctuary, an independent national movement working on solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers, made it a Theatre of Sanctuary – something the company is enormously proud of, and which came as a result of its regular work with refugees over several years.
This work has been overseen by Madeleine Thorne, the company’s head of community partnerships, who was originally taken on by Opera North in 2013 to develop a five-year funded project intended to open up the organisation’s work to people who didn’t engage with opera.
The funding was a gift from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation – long associated with the arts as well as philanthropy – as part of its anniversary celebrations.
“Because it was a gift, there was a lot of freedom in terms of how we delivered it. We started by making relationships with 120 community groups in Leeds,” Thorne says. “We got to know them, found out what made them tick, and what the barriers were that prevented them from coming to opera. Then we opened our work up, initially with free or heavily subsidised tickets.”
The project was a great success. “Over five years we had about 11,000 attendances, including many refugees and asylum seekers,” she adds.
How did this particular involvement begin? “In my job you meet brilliant gatekeepers, people who have an ear into the community. Early on in the project, Tiffy Allen from City of Sanctuary got in touch with us. She was one of those gatekeepers. Tiffy had a personal interest in opera, which she thought could be a really useful tool. She helped open doors for us. Then gradually we got in touch with other refugee organisations in Leeds.”
The City of Sanctuary award goes to organisations that welcome and celebrate refugees and asylum seekers –a school might become a School of Sanctuary, a faith organisation could become a Faith Organisation of Sanctuary – and at the end of last year Opera North was named Theatre of Sanctuary.
“We were the first opera company to receive recognition for what we do in this area,” Thorne says.
It is the second Theatre of Sanctuary in the city, joining Leeds Playhouse, which was awarded the status – when it was called West Yorkshire Playhouse – in 2014. Other theatres with the status include Belgrade Theatre in Coventry and Bolton’s Octagon Theatre.
Thorne explains that every year the company picks six groups as its partners. “We make sure that at least one of those is a refugee group. We take our work out to them and offer them tickets to come in. One of the things we hear a lot about is the welcome – just the fact that when refugees and asylum seekers arrive at our performances, my team and I are always there to meet and greet them. The reality is that that’s not their experience on a day-to-day basis.
“The organisation has gone on a journey, partly through just seeing people in the audience enjoying being part of that process, but we’ve also done a lot of awareness sessions for staff and will hopefully do one for The Greek Passion.”
Opera North turned 40 in November last year. Its autumn season this year opens with a new production of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu’s opera specifically highlighting the plight of refugees and based on the novel Christ Recrucified by Nikos Kazantzakis.
Martinu, who spent most of his life living in exile from his native homeland in France, the US and finally Switzerland, composed The Greek Passion from 1954 to 1957 in English for Covent Garden. After its rejection by the management of the Royal Opera House, the following year he made a revised version which eventually premiered after his death in Zurich in 1961. Opera North will present the original version.
In musical charge of The Greek Passion is Scottish conductor Garry Walker – well known to the company’s audiences and recently appointed its next music director – and it is staged by the acclaimed US director Christopher Alden, who has already worked on several successful productions for Opera North.
Alden himself is well aware of the piece’s relevance to the present day. “The story is originally set in a Greek village during the era of Turkish occupation in the 1920s, when a group of people from a neighbouring town who have been ejected from their homes by the Turks come and beg for asylum, but they’re turned away by the most powerful guy in this town, who happens to be the local priest.”
At the time the village is preparing a Passion play, in which various members of the community take on the roles of those mentioned in the Gospel. The shepherd Manolios – sung in Alden’s production by Scottish tenor Nicky Spence – is cast as Christ, and increasingly challenges his fellow villagers to welcome the refugees.
The Greek Passion is a great piece for people who haven’t had much contact with opera, because of its directness
How does Alden see the work? “I think it’s a unique piece of music theatre – it would actually be a great piece for people who haven’t had much contact with opera to come and see, because there’s a directness to the way it’s written. It’s not overly operatic, it’s not high-flown, it’s almost half in dialogue and half sung, but it’s written in a seamless way where these different modes blend in and out of each other.”
Alden suggests that the production is extremely timely “and from different angles – from the side of the plight of the refugees, but also from that of people in power”.
He continues: “They have their constituencies behind them by pointing the finger at these people from outside who are ‘coming to take our jobs’, when in fact these people are fleeing terrible situations in their homelands. So doing this particular piece at this time feels like a special responsibility.”
The designers Charlie Edwards and Doey Lüthi worked closely with Alden about where to set the production. “Of course we thought about the Mexican border, and about the refugee situation in Europe, and especially in Greece, where so many people are now in refugee centres; but in the end we decided to try to keep it universal, and even somewhat timeless, so that it would resonate with a modern audience in theatres in Leeds or Manchester or wherever,” the director says.
In terms of impact, Thorne hopes that the production might “open this world up to people who haven’t thought about it much before, or who have heard different messages”.
She says: “For me it is important that people experience that slight shift or that slight opening up of their attitudes.”
For his part, Alden hopes that any refugees or asylum seekers seeing the show will be excited to see this group of artists telling their stories. “I feel sure it will be a very moving experience, both for the audience and the people involved in telling it, and that it will dig into some very emotional places, as it does for me every time I listen to it. It’s a very special piece.”
The Greek Passion for Opera North runs at the Grand Theatre, Leeds from September 14 to October 19, then tours to Theatre Royal Newcastle, Theatre Royal Nottingham and the Lowry, Salford. Further details: operanorth.co.uk