Switch On: Opera North announces new projects for Autumn 2020

  • Abel Selaocoe composes new soundwalk for Leeds, As You Are
  • Will Todd’s community opera, Song of our Heartland, will be released as a film
  • Live outdoor, socially distanced performances of ‘Whistle Stop’ Hansel and Gretel 
  • Digital project will bring Act III of La bohème to cities across the North

Opera North today announces Switch ON; a programme of new outdoor events and digital projects to take place this Autumn, embodying the Company’s commitment to make music with and for audiences in communities across the North of England.  This activity respects the latest government guidelines on social distancing and live performances, which are not currently permitted to take place indoors.  The Company plans further announcements in the coming weeks of concerts and staged opera either live or available digitally as it responds to the changing guidelines.

The Leeds-based national opera company has postponed its previously planned season of large-scale operas, which was due to tour to theatres across the North of England from September.

The new Switch ON projects include As You Are, a new soundwalk for Leeds by South African cellist and composer Abel Selaocoe, which will open in November; a digital premiere for Will Todd’s new community opera, Song of Our Heartland; a new animation re-interpreting La bohème to be shown in cities across the North in the run up to Christmas; and an outdoor tour for family audiences of Whistle Stop Opera: Hansel and Gretel, beginning on Tuesday 18 August.

Richard Mantle, General Director, Opera North, comments:

“We are extremely pleased to be able to announce such varied projects today as the first newly planned activity for this Autumn. Switch ON is our first step back to sharing music and performance with audiences in villages, towns and cities across the North of England. We have not been silent during lockdown, with thousands of people from around the world engaging with films of our work online from the Ring cycle to The Turn of the Screw, and over 1,000 amateur singers taking part in weekly lessons alongside the Chorus of Opera North in From Couch to Chorus, but we are delighted now to be announcing this first selection of new work.”

“The overall picture regarding live indoor performances remains unclear over the next few months. We hope to be able to plan and present more live performance of great opera and music for audiences across our region, in as many different cities and communities as possible, once we are able to perform within social distancing guidelines. We are currently undertaking detailed planning with our partner venues in Leeds and beyond to ensure that we will be ready to restart performances safely and with financial viability, once there is a clear green light from the Government.

“Tickets for Switch ON events will all be accessibly priced and we hope as many people as possible will have the opportunity to experience music with us either live or digitally. We are a partner in Leeds Says Thanks, an initiative by Leeds City Council to thank NHS and frontline workers for their enormous efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic; as part of this we will ensure that tickets to As You Are, our soundwalk for Leeds, will be made available to frontline staff.

“We remain committed to our purpose and whatever challenges we face, Opera North will continue to use music to create extraordinary experiences every day for and with the communities we serve. Live or digitally, in classrooms, theatres, homes and public spaces; we will continue to share music with people of all ages and backgrounds.”

All productions previously planned for Autumn 2020 (La traviata, Jack the Ripper, and Trouble in Tahiti / West Side Story Symphonic Dances, in association with Phoenix Dance Theatre) and Winter 2021 (Carmen, Alcina, and The Girl of the Golden West) are postponed and will be rescheduled over the next two years.

Opera North’s new concert staging of Parsifal, scheduled to be performed at concert halls across the country in Spring 2021, remains on sale.

SWITCH ON: Event information

As You Are

As You Are, an interactive outdoor soundwalk for Opera North’s home city of Leeds, will be composed by South African cellist Abel Selaocoe. The journey will start and end at Victoria Gate, following a route exploring many of the city centre’s most recognisable landmarks as well as its arcades and side streets and the waterfront of the River Aire.

Audiences taking part in the soundwalk in small groups will each be given a set of headphones connected to a wireless receiver, triggering new musical chapters at different points on the walk through Leeds, experiencing the cityscape through a new and transformative journey.

Taking inspiration from his South African heritage, Abel Selaocoe is creating music that embraces the healing power of walking. At times uplifting with full orchestra and chorus, at others reflective with just a single voice, As You Are expresses acceptance that there will be difficult times, but that we will come through to the other side.

To record the music, Abel (cello) will be joined by guest African musicians including Sidiki Dembele, as well as the full Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North.

Abel Selaocoe, composer, As You Are, comments:

‘It is exciting to be writing during a time of incredible personal and collective change, focusing on the importance of celebrating resilience and being adaptable to change, by walking and exploring what is around us while we listen.”

As You Are will run in Leeds city centre from 14 November 2020 – 6 January 2021. Tickets will go on sale in September.

As You Are is supported by Victoria Leeds

Song of Our Heartland

A new community opera, Song of Our Heartland, was originally due to premiere at Locomotion in Shildon, County Durham, in May 2020. Written by Durham-born composer Will Todd, with astoryline by Caroline Clegg and libretto by Emma Jenkins, the new opera was developed in partnership with members of local communities. It was commissioned by Northern Heartlands, the Great Place scheme for County Durham.

Following the cancellation of rehearsals and performances earlier in the year, Song of Our Heartland will now be created digitally, with different elements recorded separately under social distancing guidelines and pieced together as a 60-minute film. The film is expected to be released in October 2020.

Participants in the Community Chorus and members of the community taking solo roles in the opera have been rehearsing with Opera North’s music team via Zoom sessions during lockdown; their parts will each be recorded individually.

Set in a town marked by declining local industry and loss of civic spaces, Will Todd’s new community opera Song of Our Heartland is both a love letter to the landscape, the heritage and the people of the area and an act of storytelling by three generations of indomitable women.  

Following the death of Harold, a former miner and railwayman, the opera shines a light on his family, his wife Lilian, daughter Jacqueline and granddaughter Skylar, as they face a stark choice between moving away to find jobs and new opportunities, or staying to face an uncertain future. Forced to remain by Harold’s death and driven by her grandad’s spirit, Skylar fights to save the things which are most important to her; the school choir and the abandoned Moonlight Ballroom Theatre. 

Directed by Caroline Clegg and conducted by Holly Mathieson, the film of Song of Our Heartland will be filmed on location at Locomotion and the surrounding area andrecorded by the Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North and the newly formed Community Chorus, with solo roles shared between members of the Chorus of Opera North and community participants.  

Caroline Clegg, Director, Song of Our Heartland, comments:

“Having had to cancel the planned live performances, everyone involved in the creation of Song of Our Heartland was utterly determined to find a way to share this inspiring community opera with audiences this year.”

 “The people of south west County Durham have been so generous in sharing their rich and diverse stories and experiences with us. Many of the participants have been with us all the way through this project, from the first poetry and drama workshops which inspired the story, the music and the libretto, to community chorus rehearsals and ultimately now to rehearsing online over Zoom and taking part in the film. This project exists because of them and I feel privileged to be a part of it. The opera is a celebration of their cultural legacy, their strength in community, and their hopes and dreams. We couldn’t let it disappear this year.”

Jill Cole, Director, Northern Heartlands, comments:

Song of Our Heartland was intended to be the culmination of our work as a Great Place Scheme in south west Durham. Although we were not able to perform it live, I am delighted that we have found a way to turn the project into a film, so that we can share it with others in the local community and beyond. It is a real tribute to this unique part of the county, its history and heritage, and to the communities who live and work here.” 

Whistle Stop Opera: Hansel and Gretel

Devised and directed by John Savournin for four singers and accordion, Whistle Stop Opera: Hansel and Gretel is the perfect introduction to opera for families. This 40-minute performance uses excerpts from Humperdinck’s magical opera to retell the fairy tale of two hungry children, lost in the woods, and a gingerbread cottage that hides a scary secret…

Whistle Stop Opera: Hansel and Gretel will be performed in a range of outdoor settings across the North of England in August and September, with social distancing in place for audience members and performers and limited numbers of tickets on sale in accordance with Covid-19 guidelines. Tickets will be on sale for ‘pods’ of up to five people, with each space including two seats and a floor mat.* The performance is suitable both for adults and for family audiences.

Performers include Laura Kelly-McInroy (Jennie Hildebrand, Street Scene, 2020) as Hansel, Jennifer Clark (Flora, The Turn of the Screw, 2020) as Gretel, Claire Pascoe (Emma Jones, Street Scene, 2020; Witch, Into the Woods, 2016) as Mother/Witch, and John Savournin (Carl Olsen, Street Scene, 2020; Priest Fotis, The Greek Passion, 2019) as Narrator/Sandman.


  • Hansel                         Laura Kelly-McInroy        
  • Gretel                          Jennifer Clark
  • Mother/Witch             Claire Pascoe
  • Narrator/Sandman     John Savournin
  • Accordian                    Miloš Milivojević
  • Director                       John Savournin

Running time: 40 minutes

Venues and dates:

  • Slung Low, The Holbeck, Leeds                     Tues 18 August           4.30pm
  • Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle                    Thu 20 August                        1.00pm and 3.00pm
  • Ushaw House, Durham                                  Sat 22 August              1.00pm and 3.00pm
  • Allendale Village Hall, Hexham                     Tues 25 August           6.30pm
  • The Lowry, Salford Quays                              Wed 26 August           11.30am and 1.30pm
  • Harewood House, Leeds                                 Sun 30 August            times to be announced
  • Stage@TheDock, Hull                                    Wed 2 September       times to be announced
  • Pontefract Castle, Pontefract                          Fri 4 September          4.30pm
  • National Centre for Early Music, York           Sat 5 September          11.30am, 1.00pm and 3.00pm

*Exact seating arrangements may vary by venue, please check with venues for further details.

La Petite Bohème

The fourth new project announced for Autumn 2020 is an animation re-imagining Act III of Puccini’s La bohème, snipped from black paper and animated by artist and filmmaker Matthew Robins with his unique eye for emotion and humour. In the frozen streets of Paris, two pairs of lovers sing of their jealousy, passion and desire, and wonder if they will still be together when Spring comes again.

This heartbreaking scene from the core of Puccini’s classic opera willfeature a newly recorded soundtrack by the Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North, and four soloists.

The finished animation will be projected outdoors onto walls in found spaces in towns and cities across the North of England, with limited audiences at each screening listening via headphones. Projected onto walls in the familiar streets of our cities, the film and music will transform our surroundings, and have the power to transport us to another time and place.

Matthew Robins, artist and filmmaker, La Petite Bohème, comments:

“I like trying to find my own way into telling a story that already exists – how can I make these characters mine? Do I see myself or my friends’ lives reflected in them?  Working with cut-out silhouettes is a way to create my own stylised version of the big emotions and melodies that are intrinsic to the piece – the stylised cut-out paper shapes are detailed but leave room for the audience to add their own imagination as well to the piece. 

“I come from the West Country and as a teenager used to visit London about six times a year just to queue up and get cheap front-row tickets for Rent, another retelling of La bohème, so I feel like this story is deeply embedded in me, and in a way makes me feel at home exploring my own characters and settings for this story.”

Dates and locations for La Petite Bohème will be announced as soon as possible.

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