I can hardly believe that I am writing this, but last Friday I was at Leeds Town Hall to hear a concert performed by members of Opera North in a socially distanced performance to take the first baby-steps out of lockdown.

Anyone who reads my reviews will know two things; I love Opera North, and I find the seats at Leeds Town Hall to be really uncomfortable. Neither of these mattered last Friday as I would have happily listened to Black Lace sing Agadoo fifty times over whilst being seated on a bed of nails, it was that good to be at a proper concert.

The evening was always going to be as much about the process as the performance and, as you would expect both were executed brilliantly.

The concert was scheduled to begin at 6.00pm but our tickets requested that we arrive between 5.00 and 5.20, which the vast majority did and we were greeted on the door by a hand sanitising station and members of staff who escorted us to our seats. This was done group by group. As I was in a group of one – no change there then – my personal usher took me to the centre of the stalls where there was a chair surrounded by the prescribed two metres of space. There was a chap in front of me who was in a single seat as were a couple of loners behind. Clusters of chairs were grouped at either side of the auditorium in the exact numbers to accommodate the size of each party. The clusters were appropriately distanced from one another.

Socially distanced seating arrangement

After I had had time to accustom myself to this arrangement and marvel in the full two metres of legroom, as opposed to the normal couple of inches which makes the space allocated to the occupants of a bog standard Ryanair flight seem like first class in Emirates, I thought that the back of the chap’s head in front of me looked familiar. After following the one-way system to examine the toilet arrangements, I checked and discovered that he was a fellow writer whom I regularly bump into at theatrical events. I had obviously not seen him since before lockdown and, as we were wearing face masks, I stood more than the mandatory one metre away from him and the other attendees, to ask how he was. Within a couple of seconds I was given the most polite telling off of my life! One of the Town Hall staff approached and advised me that concertgoers were ‘encouraged’ to remain in their seats throughout the evening. Duly castigated I returned to mine.

The concert was billed to last for 75 minutes but it was over an hour and a half before we found ourselves back on The Headrow. This was not due to any miscalculation by the organisers but because of the lengthy bouts of applause both between sections of the concert, and as the players took to the stage to open the proceedings. The clapping continued for ages, much to the obvious surprise of the players and the leader, who kept assuming his pose indicating that they were about to begin, and then abandoning it again, it being clear that the audience wanted further to express their appreciation of the musicians just being there and their joy in being a part of the return of a live indoor concert. Eventually the applause subsided and the long-awaited music began.

The programme was a very well thought out affair which covered three types of genres; a chamber piece, songs, and a symphony.

The first section was Mendelssohn’s Octet performed by six violinists and two cellists. It was written when the composer was only sixteen years of age and he had instructed the piece be played in ‘symphonic orchestral style’. I am not totally sure what that means but the musicians extracted every ounce of power and range from their instruments, filling the auditorium with an almost triumphant sound, whilst still keeping the subtle, melodious quality of the movements. Needless to say that the initial applause were as nothing compared to those following this performance, causing the players to return to the stage twice to acknowledge them.

Socially distanced playing arrangements

The next section was a selection from Schubert’s song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin. It was performed by Nicholas Watts who I had seen singing Peter Quint in Opera North’s production of The Turn of the Screw just before lockdown. He was accompanied on piano by David Cowan, Opera North’s Head of Music, who explained that the songs we were about to hear told the story of a young miller who set off to find work in the world outside of his village. He was eventually employed in a mill where he fell for the owner’s daughter who, having led him on, dumped him for someone else when he revealed is love for her. We’ve all been there. Had it been written now it would have been classed as a concept album!

Nicholas Watts performed the songs superbly, to the flawless playing of ‘the boss’. This was no mean feat due to the lack of audience members which interfered somewhat with the acoustics.

Nicholas Watts

If you have ever wondered why theatre seats always look so opulent covered in velvet, it is only partly to do with appearance and comfort, it is mostly because of the accoustics. The coverings are carefully chosen to absorb the same amount of sound waves as they would if the seat were to be occupied. This means that there is no difference in the accoustics in an empty theatre to a full one, except that you don’t get sweet papers rustling and people talking or using their mobile phones in an empty theatre! As there was only one seat per audience member there were acres of empty space with no sound baffling making Mr Watts’ performance all the more impressive.

The concert finished with Mozart’s 29th Symphony which saw the original octet being joined on stage by a bass, and a four-piece wind section. As with the first section the orchestra members were appropriately distanced, with no need of my favourite usher, which looked a little odd but worked brilliantly well. I closed my eyes for a minute or two and it seemed as though there were far more players than was actually the case. I was not familiar with this work but now that I have been introduced to it I will seek out a full orchestral version to compare. It goes without saying that the musicianship and performance were spot-on. If the applause at the beginning of the evening and between pieces was lengthy, then those at the end were even more so, and much deserved.

I would have loved to have given further mention to those taking part and added more background to the pieces but the other casualty of this socially distanced event was a programme. I can see that there is a risk in distributing printed material and it is better to be safe than sorry so please let me off here.

We were asked to remain seated at the end of the performance, an instruction which I obeyed to the letter, until we were told we could leave. This was again done on an individual basis and within a couple of minutes we were back out in the fresh air, and rain, on The Headrow.

I want to express my gratitude once more to the people at Opera North for arranging and performing this event, it was wonderful to engage in a bit of normality. I would also like to pay tribute to the sterling work done by the staff of Leeds Town Hall who looked after us so well. I have already admitted my misdemeanour in talking to a colleague before the performance but in my defence I did observe social distancing rules and we were both masked up. What really shocked me though, although it probably shouldn’t have, was that there were several people who, on leaving the building, took off their face coverings and congregated at the top of the steps between the pillars outside of the front door, meaning that everyone else had to squeeze past them in order to ease the logjam behind. All the safety work and its planning undone in an instant, If someone picks up the virus after Friday it will be these people to blame but it is quite possible that future events of this kind might be put in jeopardy as a result. Leeds Town Hall and Opera North deserve far better than that.

Having observed the way in which people are behaving at the moment I think that once a vaccine has been developed against COVID, the scientists should immediately begin searching for one to eradicate STUPID.

Photographs supplied by Opera North

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