Hosting the 2012 ABO annual conference is the Orchestra of Opera North, the only orchestra in Britain performing throughout the season in both concert hall and opera house. Andrew Green reports
‘We’re obviously delighted the ABO conference is coming to Leeds,’ says Richard Mantle, general director of Opera North. ‘Wherever the event goes it takes on the flavour of the location. Hopefully that will be the case here.’
Doubtless there will be much familiar talk at the conference of the ever-greater need in the current climate for orchestras to be flexible and reach out into local communities – and the Orchestra of Opera North offers plenty by way of an example. It is, for one thing, the only orchestra in Britain performing throughout the season in both concert hall and opera house.
‘The work of the orchestra is immensely varied,’ says Opera North music director Richard Farnes. ‘The fact that you have to adapt swiftly to different styles is a major factor in attracting good players. One day it’s a Monteverdi opera, the next a major symphonic score by Rachmaninov or Mahler. There’s less of the feeling you can get in London of an orchestra being a factory.’
There is no sense of the factory at rehearsals, thanks to the re-furbished Howard Assembly Room which, says Bob Ashworth, ‘has improved the work experience beyond measure and also enhanced the variety of arts provision in the region. It can be used for all manner of projects – as studio, concert hall, art gallery, dance space and for education work.’
Orchestra leader David Greed sees life in Leeds as ‘very fulfilling and varied – we enjoy being versatile and flexible. We’re all proud of what we do.’
Morale is good despite the economic gloom, says Greed. ‘There have been wage-freezes for all employees. Things are rather tough. Thankfully, though, Opera North’s management saw the situation coming and has acted wisely and efficiently. We’re surviving well and going in the right direction.’
Our job as a management team is to ensure that players see our determination to keep them busy
Richard Mantle and his team have had to factor in substantial Arts Council and local authority grant cuts. There have been redundancies (based on natural wastage) in various areas of the company. Touring has been cut at the margins, although the number of concert performances has remained steady. There’s been a need, says Mantle, to look at ‘fresh ways of mounting new productions, doing them more economically but in interesting ways nonetheless. For example, our production of Carousel was created in such a way that it offers possibilities for further exploitation. Overall, things are on an even keel, and reviews suggest we’re still highly regarded.’
‘We’re all aware of how morale can be harmed,’ adds Farnes, ‘so our job as a management team is to ensure that players see our determination to keep them busy. You can’t have them wandering off elsewhere – real damage is then inflicted.
‘Yes, it’s harder to be adventurous now. All productions have to be seen as winners. In concerts, a demanding 20th-century concerto has to be played by a really well-known soloist. But one of our biggest successes was created almost by accident. When the theatre in Leeds closed for renovations we started giving concert performances of operas. They’ve been huge hits – our Ring cycle, for example.’
A fillip to forward planning has been the news of Opera North’s selection to receive funds under the government’s Catalyst scheme, aimed at stimulating endowment funding. ‘Over three years we want to bring £6m into our endowment fund,’ says Mantle. ‘We’re fortunate in having an endowment scheme already up and running: we’ve generated our first million pounds. A major strategy is to encourage existing donors and trustees to develop a network of giving. The sums involved aren’t huge relative to our overall budget, but endowments offer a sense of security as well as providing some element of revenue via investments.’
Further encouragement has come from Opera North’s recent successful application for funds to set up one of the Arts Council’s In Harmony projects on the Il Sistema model. Mantle takes this as fresh acknowledgement of ‘our existing education work, spread across the breadth of what we do.’
Bob Ashworth sees such work as an integral part of being an Opera North musician. ‘It’s so satisfying to see the looks of amazement and animation on young faces. If only the government could fully realise the benefits of a proper musical training in schools.’
There are seeds of audience growth, then, which Richard Farnes already sees around Opera North’s catchment area, in Dewsbury and Huddersfield, for example. ‘We are after all the orchestra this side of the Pennines. But places like Hull remain under-exploited. And we need to encourage devotees of either opera or of symphonic repertoire to cross between the two.
‘The Orchestra of Opera North also needs to make a greater impact in Leeds itself. The connection to opera means we don’t have the same cachet the Hallé has in Manchester. But we’re well on the way.’