Review: Opera North in the City – Millennium Square, Leeds. 26 July.

Review: Opera North in the City – Millennium Square, Leeds. 26 July.
July 26, 2019

The third incarnation of Opera North in the City kicked off on Millennium Square in Leeds this evening with ‘80s Classical’ – and the night was the biggest and best yet.

A DJ set from the Sonic Yootha trio, who were clearly enjoying themselves every bit as much as the crowd, set the atmosphere perfectly for the first of three big nights in Leeds this weekend, in partnership with Leeds City Council.

The exquisite Orchestra of Opera North – probably the hardest working and most dynamic ensemble in the country today – under the baton of Cliff Masterson, wowed the summer evening’s crowd from the outset with their arrangements of Huey Lewis’s Power of Love and Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is a Place on Earth.

80s Classical 02_credit Sarah Zagni

Nostalgia on this scale can go one of two ways – and I was a bit nervous about encountering T’Pau’sCarol Decker for the first time since the late 80’s. This was the woman who inspired me to stop consuming industrial amounts of Wagon Wheels – and start running. She provided a jet-fuelled soundtrack to much of my youth. If she couldn’t replicate her performances from 30 years-ago, how could I carry on?

Ms Decker opened proceedings with a barnstorming ‘Heart and Soul’ – and I know I wasn’t the only bloke in Millennium Square who ‘had a moment’. The crowd soaked-up and sang-along with this classic tune, which when released in 1987, helped many of us deal with the fact Thatcher had just been re-elected.

Johnny Hates Jazz were next on stage – and both Clark and Mike from the band clearly have some sort of oxygen tent regime going on – or they’re involved in wizardry stuff, because it’s just not possible to look and sound exactly like you did 32 years ago. I’ve been a fan for years. Their tracks feature on my Spotify playlists – and like Carol Decker – they surpassed themselves in West Yorkshire tonight. The audience interaction from Clark, talking about his link to Leeds College of Music was really appreciated by the crowd. ‘I Don’t Want to be a Hero’, followed by ‘Turn Back the Clock’ had everyone singing along like they were back at the end-of-year school disco.

After Toto’s ‘Africa’ from the orchestra and singers and with the Air Ambulance landing on the roof of the L.G.I. – the uber-cool Howard Jones strode onto the stage like someone who’d headlined Live Aid last week – not last century. With a haircut most of us could only dream of, he encouraged us to ‘throw off our mental chains’ as his ‘New Song’ went down a storm with an audience who had begun to regress to a time when Eddie Gray was still in charge at Elland Road.

At the bar, BBC Look North’s Amy Garcia was showing a cardboard tray of drinks who was boss, just as another ‘Peter Pan’ type was getting a lot of love from the crowd. Jimmy Somerville is an artist whose stock has increased exponentially ever since he brought us Bronski Beat in 1983. His rendition of ‘So Cold the Night’, followed by ‘You are my World’ – together with his stage presence that if anything, is even more impressive than it was back-in-the-day, brought the first part of the concert to a close, as dusk settled in – and the first drops of (welcome) rain arrived.

80s Classical 10_credit Sarah Zagni.jpg

The interval saw Sonic Yootha back on the decks. How have I not seen these chaps before? They’re excellent. The Liverpool based trio need to get over the Pennines as much as possible! Based on their performance tonight – I’ve decided that when I grow-up, I want to be a DJ. You couldn’t have Scouser’s playing an 80’s DJ set and not include Frankie’s ‘Relax’ could you? Thankfully they obliged. The crowd went mad.

Kids who’d grown up with fish fingers, fried eggs and Rubik’s Cubes, were tonight live-streaming proceedings on expensive smart phones for the young folk back at home. The 80’s loving generation might not be able to do a 360 on a Raleigh Burner these days, or crimp their hair before going out, but they’re no technological dinosaurs and as retro tunes filled the air, Mums, Dads, Grandmas and Grandads were capturing it all in a way you couldn’t do in 1985.

The Opera North Orchestra opened the second section of the night with ‘Can You Feel It?’ – and by this point – lots of people clearly could. It was a revelation to watch the stresses and strains of the week leave those gathered in Millennium Square tonight, as collectively there was something special going on.

Johnny Hates Jazz disconnected temporarily from their backstage, pumped elixir to bring us ‘Shattered Dreams’, followed by Carol Decker with ‘China in Your Hand’, which got a massive backing vocal from thousands of northern pop stars.

By now, with the rain falling steadily – and being a 48-year-old Dad, I started getting a bit concerned about the potential for calamity with the water/electricity mix on stage – but my colleague for the evening was lost in an orchestral arrangement of ‘Sweet Dreams are Made of This’ and I worried she might thwack me with the umbrella that she wouldn’t let me deploy, if I ruined the moment – so I kept quiet.

80s Classical 04_credit Sarah Zagni.jpg

Howard Jones returned to the stage with ‘What is Love?’ and ‘Hide and Seek’. I might not be totally sure what love is, but tonight it was heart-warming to see so many couples who obviously spend most of their time ‘just getting through’, taking a moment – thanks to the music and atmosphere – and finding each other again.

Nik Kershaw brought us ‘Wouldn’t it be Good’ which reminded everyone that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. He ended with ‘I Won’t Let the Sun go Down on Me’, which could have been this evening’s mantra.

All of the artists on the bill still ooze credibility and professionalism – and if anything – have honed their craft successfully since those heady days of the 80’s, but for me one stood out in particular: Closing the show, Jimmy Somerville’s class, artistic ability and connection with the crowd shone through and he’s every bit as ‘current’ now, as he was three decades ago.

5 Stars. A brilliant evening, showcasing the very best Leeds, Yorkshire and the North has to offer.

Colin Petch

The Orchestra of Opera North will return to Millennium Square with special guest vocalists for the third instalment of The Symphonic Sounds of Back to Basics on Saturday 27 July, with a live soundtrack screening of Jurassic Park to close the festival on Sunday 28 July.