Review: Leeds Opera Festival, 28th August-1st September 2020

THE valiant organisers of Northern Opera Group’s Leeds Opera Festival have remained steadfast in the face of the pandemic.

Instead of going into hibernation, artistic director David Ward and his dedicated team successfully tailored this year’s socially distanced festival to outdoor venues across the city. Events had to compete with the notoriously fickle British summer, traffic noise, city centre revellers or marauding wasps; but nothing detracted from the mutual enjoyment of the artists playing to real people for the first time since mid-March.

Most of the originally planned programme has been shelved until August 2021 but the main theme, a retrospective of 250 years of opera in Leeds, infused the majority of last week’s events.

One of the most popular operas in 18th century Leeds, Thomas Arne’s comedy Thomas and Sally, was semi-staged in Merrion Street Gardens. Northern Opera Group will shortly release a filmed performance of this tuneful English baroque opera.

Boisterous opera ballads sung by baritone Neil Balfour and partnered by violinist Chloe Hayward entertained audiences in the garden of the Tetley Gallery, Sunnybank Mills in Farsley, Headingley Enterprise Arts Centre, and Seven Arts at Chapel Allerton. A Leeds Opera Story concert of popular arias performed by soprano Louise Wayman and pianist David Ward similarly toured city venues. Facebook and YouTube audiences were able to see violinist David Greed reminiscing on his first four decades as leader of the Orchestra of Opera North. They could join in online Daily Vocal Workouts led by “Philbox” Wilcox or take part in an online panel discussion on the rise of the urban opera festival.

There are even more treats in store next year. Leeds Opera Festival 2021 will unearth three rarities from the English composer, arranger and teacher Gustav Holst. His operas -At the Boar’s Head, Savitri, and The Wandering Scholar will tour venues across Leeds and Yorkshire.

Geoffrey Mogridge