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Opera North's Carmen - the chorus on stage singing in front of a neon sign saying 'Girls'

A History of Opera at The Grand

Over the years Leeds Grand Theatre has welcomed a host of companies and artists through its doors, but several have been particularly influential in making the theatre what it is today.

The Grand is proud to have a long history bringing the very best of opera to Yorkshire and to be ‘home’ to Opera North. To celebrate the upcoming season, we have taken a look through our archives to explore the birth of Opera North.

Written by Bryony Jameson.

The early days

From the theatre’s opening in 1878, opera took a prominent place in the event programming alongside plays, music hall and ballet.

One key company that appears prominently in our archives is the Carl Rosa Opera Company. Founded by German musical impresario of the same name in 1873, Rosa’s aim was to present opera in English to audiences in London and across Britain, reaching new opera audiences by opting for popularly priced tickets. Responsible for premiering many operas in the UK, it employed a mixture of well-known stars and young singers.

Our earliest playbill of the Carl Rosa Opera Company dates from 1891 for a performance of Wallace’s Maritana!, but we’re almost certain this wasn’t the company’s first visit to The Grand. It would continue to appear in our programme throughout the next two decades. Playbills of the time tell us that it brought the following iconic operas to Leeds: Verdi’s Rigoletto (1905), Bizet’s Carmen (1906), Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (1909) and The Magic Flute (1913).

Carl Rosa Opera Playbill from 1891

Monday, 2nd November, 1891. A playbill advertising the Carl Rosa Opera Company's performance of Wallace's Maritana! Credit Leeds Library and Information Services - Playbills Collection

Another big opera name that begins to appear in the early 20th century is D’Oyly Carte – created as a platform for the legendary Gilbert & Sullivan repertoire. The company appear multiple times in our archive, bringing audience favourites to Leeds such as The Pirates of Penzance (1907), The Mikado (1910) and Iolanthe (1962).

An interesting story emerges from the 1947 season when a reporter noted that the performance was ‘dimly discernible through a haze of tobacco smoke’.

After an outbreak of coughing by a member of the company, an attendant went round the audience asking them to extinguish their pipes and cigarettes. Smoking in the auditorium was not banned until 1965 when all the ashtrays were removed.

A collage of D'Oyly Carte Opera Posters from The Grand archive

A selection of D'Oyly Carte Opera posters from the Leeds Grand Theatre archive. Dating between 1907-1989. Credit Leeds Library and Information Services - Playbills Collection

Time for a change

In 1970 the Arts Council decided to set up a scheme known as DALTA (Dramatic and Lyric Theatres Association) which would revitalise the touring of opera, ballet and drama in Britain. DALTA brought countless seasons of work to The Grand, including seasons from Sadlers Wells Opera, Welsh National Opera and Scottish Opera. Notably in 1975, the English National Opera (ENO) and Sadlers Wells Opera teamed up to present the entirety of Wagner’s epic The Ring of the Nibelung at The Grand.

The success of The Ring Cycle would be the catalyst for change at The Grand and for the ENO. With touring proving expensive and challenging to maintain, it was decided that the London-based ENO needed a regional base. With a company based in Leeds, they would be able to take on the responsibility of touring the north.

In 1978, the English National Opera North was formed and made its stage debut on The Grand’s centenary – 15 November 1978 – with a production of Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila. Critics at the time hailed Opera North as ‘a reality greater than the promise’ and that ‘a star was born in Leeds’. Opera North would continue to produce operas specifically designed for the Leeds stage and sought to challenge established preconceptions of opera. The Grand would shorten its pantomime season to make way for three operas a year with the rest of the schedule dedicated to a mixture of musicals, plays, concerts and children’s shows, alongside seasons from Northern Ballet.

Opera North posters through the ages from 1978-1994

Opera North posters through the ages from 1978-1994. Credit Leeds Library and Information Services - Playbills Collection

Going solo

Opera North became fully independent in 1981, no longer relying on the ENO’s facilities or title. Now in its 44th year, the company has gone from strength to strength, pushing the boundaries of opera. Notable performances over the years have included world premieres such as Rebecca (1983) and The Adventures of Pinocchio (2007), musical theatre revivals of Show Boat (1989) and Carousel (2012), and a scratch-and-sniff version of Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges (1989)!

So, what’s next for Opera North? From 1 June, Opera North debut one of their biggest productions to date – Wagner’s epic, Parsifal. Boasting a 90-piece orchestra and 60-piece chorus, Parsifal will prove to be a truly unique and rare chance to sit back and bask in one of the greatest achievements in music.

Tickets for Opera North productions, including their new 2022/23 season can be found here.

Opera North Productions - Samson and Delilah 1978 and Carmen 2021

Opera North Productions past and present - John Tranter as An Old Hebrew, Gilbert Py as Samson and Katherine Pring as Dalila in Samson et Dalila, 1978 (Credit Forbes Henderson) and Chrystal E. Williams as Carmen, 2021 (Credit Tristram Kenton)