Opera North is a national organisation but we are proud to be based in Leeds and we are passionate about making a positive contribution to our local community. We share the Inquiry’s interest in the civic role that arts organisations can play, and believe that we have a duty to serve everyone in our city, not just those who are naturally drawn to our life-affirming art forms (for as well as opera we also produce orchestral performances and, via our beautiful Howard Assembly Room, offer a diverse programme of world music, folk, jazz, film screenings, talks and family friendly events) but also those who may not know us, or who may not think that our work is for them.
My name is Madeleine Thorne and I am Opera North’s Head of Community Partnerships. For the past four years I have managed our Paul Hamlyn Foundation funded community engagement project, which is one of the many tools Opera North uses to open our work up to the widest possible audience. The focus of the project is on engaging with people who may have barriers to accessing our work, whether these barriers be financial, social, physical or cultural. We have worked with over 100 local groups and organisations via a scheme we run called Encore, meaning that we reach all sorts of people including people with dementia, ex-offenders, vulnerable older people, people living in the most socially deprived parts of our city and people with disabilities. Encore members are offered free or heavily subsided tickets for opera and Howard Assembly Room performances (we have facilitated over 9,200 attendances via the scheme since the project began in 2013), plus access to specially designed workshops, taster performances and member events.
Whenever a new group joins Encore we meet them to find out more about their work, and to discuss what barriers (or perceived barriers) are stopping them engaging with Opera North. As a lot of the people we encounter have complex lives all sorts of things get mentioned – lack of confidence, transport issues, anxiety about coming into the city centre at night, etc. – but preconceptions about opera (that it is expensive, that it is long, that it is in another language, that it is for “posh people”, etc.) do come up as well.
However, we are constantly delighted by the fact that the people we work with are almost always willing to give it a go. I like to think that this is partly because, as well taking away some of the financial risk, we also aim to prove (through both conversations and through the taster workshops and performances that we create for our groups) that our work is for everyone, that its themes are universal, and that people from all walks are life are truly welcome at our performances. And now, four years into the project, we can also proudly tell new groups about the positive feedback we receive about Encore. For example, as Emma Crossley from Meeting Point (a charity which supports refugees and asylum seekers) says:
“It is a fantastic scheme which opens up the theatre to marginalised groups who would usually be excluded from such events. It is an absolute pleasure and delight to see the emotional wellbeing of attendees improve so much after experiencing a performance, and for this to continue for days and weeks after the event. It has a direct and immediate positive impact on the emotional wellbeing and integration of refugees and asylum seekers in Leeds.”
And as a participant from Making Space (a charity which supports people with mental health issues) says on attending performances via Encore:
“As you come out, you feel elated. You have escaped from all the horrible things going on in life. Opera lifts you up for a while. It is a lovely feeling. It helps to know you can go again and have the same feeling.”
I am endlessly inspired by the amazing work that goes on throughout our city to support people who are facing all sorts of different challenges. There are many truly wonderful organisations like Meeting Point and Making Space in Leeds that quietly get on with their incredible work and don’t always get the recognition and support they deserve. We at Opera North learn so much from them and sometimes it feels that what we offer in return is rather trivial.
…ultimately, we share the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s belief that engaging with the arts is life-affirming and transformative…
However, ultimately, we share the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s belief that engaging with the arts is life-affirming and transformative, and whilst there are obviously countless different ways for someone to do this, we are proud that, with the support of funders such as the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, we are able to take our civic role seriously and make a positive contribution to our local community. And of course, we are still learning and are really inspired by the work of the Inquiry – we very much look forward to following its progress as our own work in this area develops.