Part of what makes Leeds such a great city is its vibrant music scene. There is no lack of venues for all genres: rock, jazz, indie, classical, world, opera. But is it not always enjoyed by all members of the community.
Alone and away from home, struggling in poverty against a bureaucratic system that might bring deportation with little warning, refugees and asylum seekers don’t often get to enjoy it. There is the expense of course, perhaps lack of awareness of what is available, but also the idea that opera and concerts might ‘not be for them’. It is a situation that is changing.Soprano Bibi Heal and accordionist Miloš Milivojevic give a taster of Opera North’s new production La Bohème during a community event in April.
April saw the official start of Opera North’s Community Engagement Project which aims to bring into the Grand Theatre and Howard Assembly Room those members of the community that don’t get the chance to enjoy the shows put on by Opera North. The projects focus on a small group of community partners, which for 2014-15 are: Leeds Together Women Projects, Emmaus Leeds, Leeds Irish Health and Homes, Little London Arts and the refugee and asylum seeker community of Leeds via key partners RETAS and Meeting Point. But there is also Encore, a wider network comprising of 47 community groups, including ReachOUT Leeds.
Funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, it is a long term project aiming to work with as many community groups as possible over the next 5 years, which saw £2.5 million shared amongst five performing arts venues across the UK for the purpose.
Emma Crossley from Meeting Point says that:
‘Meeting Point is delighted to be working alongside Opera North as a community partner. The opportunity to open up theatre to refugees and asylum seekers living in Leeds is a truly unique one, and that has the potential to enhance wellbeing in a very immediate and direct way. I am excited and confident about what we will achieve together over the coming year’
Madeleine Thorne, Opera North Community Engagement Manager, has built on existing links with community groups to create personal relationships and expand participation and engagement in the cultural life of Leeds. Through a program of workshops and show tasters taken into the community, free and subsidised tickets for performances and tours of the Grand Theatre, it introduces refugees to a part of Leeds that many would otherwise not get to experience. So far over 800 tickets have been distributed for people to come see shows, including the recent productions of Macbeth and Girl of the Golden West, as well as concerts at the Howard Assembly Room, including the Mali musician Toumani Diabaté and American jazz singer René Marie.Accompanied by accordionist Miloš Milivojevic, soprano Bibi Heal singing the character of Musetta from La Bohème.
“Watching refugees arrive somewhat unsure, and then completely losing themselves in the spectacle and the music once it starts is extraordinary”, says Madeleine. Evidently very proud of the project, Madeleine told me that though a few tickets might not seem like much, those couple of hours of music offer people a change to temporarily forget about their problems and enjoy themselves.
She is right. It is a simple thing, an evening out to the theatre, one that many of us enjoy without thinking too much about it. But it is engaging with what Leeds has on offer that makes us feel part of the city. And it is the accumulation of such simple gestures that help refugees and asylum-seekers settle in their new found home. Leeds already has many dedicated organisations and groups supporting refugees and asylum-seekers, and with this project Opera North joins them, contributing to making Leeds the welcoming city that we all love.Photo credit: Brian Slater for Opera North.