An opera for County Durham

Published: 26 February 2019
Reporter: Peter Lathan

Opera North and Northern Heartlands are to co-operate on the creation and performance of a new large-scale people’s opera in County Durham.

Northern Heartlands is one of sixteen “Great Place” schemes in the UK funded by Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England. Its “Great Place” is in County Durham and includes the catchment of two rivers—the Tees and the Wear—extending from their sources in the North Pennines to the lowland arc through which they flow.

The project will involve communities from across south and west Durham to create a work inspired by the county, its people, landscape and heritage. As yet untitled, the opera will receive four performances in May 2020 in the exhibition hall of Locomotion, the National Railway Museum in Shildon.

The new opera is being composed by Durham-born composer Will Todd (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Mass in Blue; The Call of Wisdom), with a libretto by Manchester-based poet Tony Walsh, who came to worldwide attention in May 2017 when he recited his poem This is the Place at the vigil following the Manchester bombing. It will be directed by Caroline Clegg who has worked with Opera North, Royal Scottish Conservatoire, Scottish Opera Young Company, Feelgood Theatre Productions and Welsh National Opera.

The designer will be Madeleine Boyd who has worked for Braunschweig Staatstheater in Germany, Opera Zuid (Maastricht) in the Nethherlands, L’Opera National de Lorraine in France and The Israeli Opera (Tel Aviv). She was the set and costume designer for Opera North's 2012 production of Don Giovanni.

The production will feature the Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North alongside soloists and community performers.

Over the weekends of 19 and 20 January and 2 and 3 February, there were eight workshops across different venues in the area, starting in Barnard Castle on a sunny Saturday and ending in St John’s Chapel on a snowy Sunday.

Enthusiastic and curious community members from all backgrounds and ages joined in; no one knew what to expect from the workshops but at the end of each one, all the participants were “buzzing with excitement and creative energy".

According to Northern Heartlands, "we uncovered some fine singers, poetic souls, heart-warming and gut-wrenching stories and some beautiful objects, all of which highlighted how special our part of County Durham is.

“The opera will tell the story of County Durham, of its coal and lead-mining, its industrial heritage, its farming and scenery, of early Christians and ancient pilgrims and of railways. Above all, it will be a story about the people who live there.”