Welcoming Refugees: Opera North Reaccredited As A Theatre Of Sanctuary

“They create equality between those that can afford and those that have nothing, to go and experience something together.” - Tabita, who is seeking asylum in Leeds
November 9, 2022

Opera North has retained its Theatre of Sanctuary status after being reaccredited by City of Sanctuary UK for its ongoing work with refugees and asylum seekers. It remains the only opera company in the country to have been recognised in this way.

To become a Theatre of Sanctuary, a company must demonstrate an ongoing commitment to ensuring refugees and asylum seekers feel valued, celebrated and included. Organisations are reassessed every three years to ensure they are still meeting the relevant criteria.

The reaccreditation panel were particularly impressed by the range of initiatives Opera North has implemented to increase accessibility to music, drama and opera for everyone, together with the steps it has taken to make people with experience of migration feel comfortable and accepted at its venues. It also commended the company’s determination to give refugees and asylum seekers a voice on stage, particularly through its Resonance workshop programme for music creators of colour and its People’s Lullabies project which has seen participants performing a traditional song from their home country on film.

“They make the refugees feel really welcome and special.” - Anne, who is seeking asylum in Leeds

The Arts Together initiative, which Opera North leads, and which helps community groups identify affordable, accessible arts activities in Leeds and surrounding areas, was also celebrated for being a valuable tool in building crucial social and creative connections for individuals who are often the most isolated and excluded members of society.    

“… fear to trust is one of the biggest barriers to going to the theatre or to experiences in general. Having these positive experiences allows the participants to become ambassadors for access to theatre and other cultural activities.”  - Rose McCarthy, City of Sanctuary panel

Nick Watts From The Chorus Of Opera North At PARFAS (Image: Tom Arber)

Opera North Encore Scheme, which ensures community organisations can easily engage with its work, currently numbers over 100 groups in Leeds, including many which provide emotional and practical help to people seeking sanctuary in the city. As part of the scheme, refugees and asylum seekers are offered free or heavily subsidised tickets to opera productions at Leeds Grand Theatre, as well as concerts, talks and films in the Howard Assembly Room. They are personally welcomed by Opera North’s Community Partnerships team to performances, special events and celebrations throughout the year, and are offered bespoke workshops and taster performances in their own venues by the company’s singers and musicians. 

Zoe Scott FitzGibbon, Community Partnerships Manager at Opera North, said: “We are thrilled to have our work with refugees and asylum seekers recognised in this way for a second time. Being a Theatre of Sanctuary is so important to us as it encourages people living in an unfamiliar place and who have frequently suffered traumatic and life-changing experiences, to engage with us and to discover what we can offer them.

“We strongly believe that music can be an incredibly powerful way of building community and forging connections, overcoming language and cultural barriers to create shared experiences. Our work with refugees and asylum seekers in Yorkshire reflects our desire to share our work with as many people as possible, particularly groups who may feel excluded or wrongly believe that theatre, opera or live performance in this country is not for them.”

Opera North is always seeking new ways to enable musicians who have been forced to leave their home country to continue to develop their artistic practice while living in Leeds. A Resonance residency has been offered to composer Babak Mirsalari, originally from Iran, who has refugee status, and the company are also working with Iranian singer Amir Behmanesh to create original work that blends traditional Iranian and English folk music.

Header Image: Opera North's Theatre Of Sanctuary Open Mic Night. (Image: Justin Slee)