Whiling away a relaxed hour on a Saturday afternoon at Howard Assembly Room listening to professional opera singers accompanied by only a piano, sounded too good to be true. Sadly it was, but that was a consequence of their doing all they could to make everyone welcome.

There was a section on the pertinent website page entitled What To Expect, which stated the ethos of the event. As you would expect of a ‘relaxed’ performance there was a range of seating options from conventional theatre seats through armchairs and beanbags and on to cushions scattered around the room. There were to be no bright or flashing lights, no darkness, no sudden loud noises and a quiet area outside of the main room if you needed a break. Children of all ages were also welcome.

The target audience was people who would feel more comfortable in this environment rather than the normal formal one, examples quoted were people with sensory or communication needs and those living with dementia.

Howard Assembly Room had gone out of their way to make us all welcome; we were greeted at the door by a band of smiling helpers and asked if we had any special needs or required assistance. Those who answered in the positive were ushered to the performance space and made comfortable.

When they say relaxed, they mean relaxed!

At four o’clock the performers emerged from their dressing rooms behind the stage area, as did a woman and child from the opposite side of the room. For the next hour we were treated to some sublime singing marred by the shouting and running around of the youngster. The woman paid no attention whatsoever to either performance, until the child joined the singers on the stage area and then the pianist where he proceeded to finger the keys mid-song. The woman sprang into action and ambled after him to drag him away, release him and let the whole episode repeat itself.

When something like this happens I cast my mind back to a sign I saw on the Disabled toilet cubicle door in a Morrisons supermarket – not the obvious place to go for philosophical inspiration – which read ‘Not All Disabilities Are Visible’ and so I gave them the benefit of any doubt as one, or both, could have been affected by an unseen condition. It was just a shame that neither had the slightest interest in the music and were obviously spoiling it for the rest.

I must say that the performers handled the situation brilliantly with both Corrine Cowling and Polly Leach bending down and singing direct to the child whilst smiling at him. He didn’t disturb Mr Mattos.

Speaking of the singers, you have probably deduced that there were three of them; Corrine Cowling – soprano, Polly Leach – mezzo-soprano, and Dominic Mattos – counter tenor. The pianist was Opera North’s Head of Music, Annette Saunders who had also curated the programme and introduced her assistant for the day, Company Manager Jane Bonner, as ‘everyone’s favourite page turner.’

Ms Saunders gave us a short introduction to the pieces we were about to hear, which covered works by Purcell, Handel, Gluck, Mozart and Schubert amongst others, with the singers rotating so as to give the audience a bit of variety.

Corrine Cowling

Each performer introduced themselves and gave us some personal background. The first was Corrine Cowling who is Australian – American and has appeared in Opera North and Leeds Playhouse’s production of A Little Night Music. She was very expressive in her performance, even having the young interloper charmed.

Dominic Mattos

Next up was Dominic Mattos who told us that he had only recently taken up opera after a career as a trader in The City. I suppose that is why he sings counter-tenor – counter, city trader – see what I did there? I do find it odd when I see a hunk of a bloke with such a high voice but it is pure as snow and mesmerising. I also wish that I could afford to go to his tailor, his suit was superbly cut.

Polly Leach

The singer with the lowest register was Polly Leach, a mezzo soprano who is currently a member of the Dutch National Opera Studio in Amsterdam. Once again, a flawless performance. She was the most animated of the trio, especially with the songs aimed at the younger end of the audience.

Despite the floor show I enjoyed the afternoon very much but would like to make one observation. I found the pieces a little obscure for the casual opera fan. There is nothing wrong with that, I am all for expanding my experience but I thought that it would have been a good idea to have included a couple of tracks from Now That’s What I Call Opera to connect with those who were suffering from dementia and respond to the familiar.

An hour was the perfect length for the concert as, just before the end, even the children who’d behaved impeccably throughout were beginning to get a bit restless.

I hope that there will be many more of this type of programme, I am sure that they are greatly appreciated, especially at the moment when people are still wary about not just attending events, but coming out into the big, wide world again post lockdown. I know quite a few to whom this applies and could do with a carrot like this to lead them on.

To see what else is on at Howard Assembly Room please go to https://www.operanorth.co.uk/howard-assembly-room/

While you are there you might want to have a look at the main Opera North section to see their 2022/23 programme which has just been announced. I will be covering this in more detail next week.

All photographs by Stan Graham

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