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Opera North General Director gives reaction to ROH Manchester plans

18 December 2009

Richard Mantle (General Director, Opera North):
Richard Mantle (General Director, Opera North): "This is a post-recession, post-Olympics project."

When the plans for Royal Opera House Manchester (ROHM) were first announced in October 2008, Opera North’s General Director, Richard Mantle, told The Times that Manchester was “currently underserved with opera and ballet. When you look at the size of the theatregoing population”, he explained, “I think we could have more. It is something we [at Opera North] have been looking at providing ourselves.”

Now that ROHM has taken a step closer to reality, (click here for the full story), Opera Now asked Richard Mantle what impact he thinks the plans are likely to have for audiences in the north-west of England, and what role Opera North will play.

Richard Mantle: “Although not resident in Manchester, Opera North has in a sense been the opera company for Manchester and the north-west. We serve Manchester as a touring company – not just during our performances at The Lowry for three weeks per year, but also through education work, concerts with the orchestra and a range of other activities. Our frustration is that within our remit we have not been able to grow the audience as much as we would have liked and which, I believe, would be possible: the potential in Manchester is perhaps even greater than for the Leeds conurbation.”

“So I’ve always believed that the idea of developing opera in a much stronger way in Manchester is something that should happen. One of the problems in the past was also the lack of good venues. Opera North now performs in The Lowry, which we love, though it does pose a few challenges of its own, such as accessibility via public transport links.”

“I welcomed the idea of ROHM when it came along. Whether it is the right solution will need to be explored in the long run. However, it has opened up the whole dialogue, and has captivated the Manchester City Council. There is now a strong consensus growing within the Council to move this project forward. Any new development on this scale of course needs leadership, and with Manchester that’s more likely to come from the City Council than from the Royal Opera House.”

Opera Now: The Royal Opera’s recent announcement about their new ‘understanding’ with The Lowry also hinted at possible co-producing partnerships between ROHM and other arts companies in the region. Opera North was specifically mentioned in this context, with ROHM positioned to "produce premieres by Opera North as part of a full programme by that company." Has a clear understanding similar to that now in place with The Lowry also been established between The Royal Opera and Opera North?

Richard Mantle: “It’s a bit early for that. Of course, The Lowry’s concern was that they would be sidelined. We all felt that The Lowry had to be part of the solution for lyric work, so the discussions that have taken place during the past few months – to bring them on board as part of this solution and establish their identity as the regional centre for dance – are very important.”

“I’m not worried at this stage that Opera North is not being cited in the same way. It has been clear from the beginning that The Royal Opera won’t be able to ‘go it alone’ with a project of this scale.”

“Also, within the Arts Council’s thinking on ‘spheres of responsibility’, Opera North is firmly responsible for delivering activity in the north-west of England, in the same way that Welsh National Opera is responsible for Wales. We are certainly not talking about a takeover and I don’t think anyone would want that. Opera North’s work will still remain distinct from that of The Royal Opera, and Tony Hall has made it clear from the outset that Opera North will play a central role in these plans if and when they come to fruition.”

“To a great extent ROHM is all about branding, since it’s clear that The Royal Opera is not going to move its base from London. In fact, the number of Royal Opera performances in Manchester will only be around 20 to 25 per year. The idea is therefore to establish a centre that provides plenty of scope for bringing in partners and other collaborators.”

Opera Now: With Opera North already presenting its productions at Sadler's Wells, do you think, more broadly, that ROHM will help to open up a stronger dialogue between arts organisations in London and the north-west of England?

Richard Mantle: “These reports always seem to be London-centric, as if we’re sitting in the regions for crumbs for the table, but it’s not like that. Opera North is the largest publicly funded arts organisation in the north of England, so if this project goes ahead I would like to see it opening up more of a two-way street, for example by creating more opportunities for London audiences to see performances by Opera North, while The Royal Opera could perhaps look even further afield with a view to developing a national remit.”

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