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Leeds Youth Opera Company reaches its 40th anniversary

PUBLISHED: 16:14 05 April 2011 | UPDATED: 19:09 20 February 2013

Leeds Youth Opera Company reaches its 40th anniversary

Leeds Youth Opera Company reaches its 40th anniversary

Sell-out audiences add to the celebrations as Leeds Youth Opera reaches its 40th anniversary. Nick Marks reports Photographs by Joan Russell

A unique opera company which began life as a childrens chorus for a one-off production has just celebrated its 40th anniversary with a sell-out performance of Verdis tragic story, La Traviata, at The Carriageworks in Leeds.

It is all a long way from Leeds Youth Operas birth in the city in 1971. It should have lasted just a few weeks but the original youngsters now all into middle age themselves were so enchanted by taking part that they wanted to make the company permanent and stage their own shows.

At first they tackled only works written especially for children but over the next decade their ambitions grew and by the 1980s they were staging mainstream operas from a full professional repertoire. Over the years and the course of 95 productions they have tackled everything from classical composers from Mozart and Prokofiev to Stephen Sondheims Sweeney Todd and Benjamin Brittens dark tale of Peter Grimes.

Alan Daines, chair of the group, says that today standards are so
high that the only limiting factor in the choice of a work is the insistence that it should call for a large singing chorus so that as many members as possible can be involved in the performance.

In their quest for suitable material they have also tackled the most modern compositions and in 2007 staged the European premier of American composer Philip Glasss Civil War opera Appomattox to great critical acclaim.

He said: Over the years Leeds Youth Opera has built up quite a reputation and a good following too. The Carriageworks holds about 300 people and for La Traviata we had good houses and the last night was a complete sell out, which was very gratifying.

Despite its name the group now draws singers from across the region although the majority still come from school and colleges in and around Leeds. The performers are all aged from 12 to 29 years old, an upper age limit which allows singing voices to mature sufficiently to take on the demanding principal roles in the productions, which are staged every February and July.

Mr Daines said: Members come from a wide variety of backgrounds but what they all have in common is a love of the music. Most are with us from the age of about 14 through to 18 when many will go off to college or university though some stay longer. Even after they have left the group many come back regularly for the productions to see how their successors are getting on.

It has become quite a prestigious group and singers have gone on to make careers in opera with professional companies and as teachers. But for the vast majority it has been simply for the pleasure of taking part. Their passion for opera really shines through in the final productions and their commitment in combining a tough rehearsal schedule with their studies and daily lives is fantastic.

The groups professional music director, Mike Williamson, added: The team is tremendously talented and it is satisfying to give the young performers a chance to create something very special and give them a platform for a future in musical theatre.

Perhaps a little surprisingly, given operas image and recruiting from an age group that might be expected to be more interested in cooler kinds of music, there is no problem in finding singers. Mr Daines added: There are usually about 40 or so members and we get a lot of referrals from singing teachers in and around Leeds though I suppose that, like most singing groups, we do have more girls than boys.

We also make use of young players in the orchestra to provide the music alongside semi-professional musicians. If you are in a youth orchestra you are probably playing in concerts and it is a new experience to have live singers performing behind you.

Northern Life (ITV) film newsreel of the Outdoor Production of Carmen by Leeds Youth Opera Society in 1988, Tape supplied by Andrew Skinner.(Uploaded to Youtube)

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