Opera North's Richard Mantle: ‘The arts should be fun, not planned with a calculator’

Richard Mantle
Richard Mantle - Sam Toolsie

“What have I achieved? I’d never use the past tense. It’s an ongoing process, always changing and moving forwards, demanding different thinking.”

Richard Mantle, 76 – UK opera’s longest-standing, straightest-talking and most eminent official – is retiring. After almost 30 years as general director of Opera North, Mantle (whose OBE arrived back in 2013, followed this year by a knighthood in the King’s inaugural Birthday Honours) will step down in December.

But sun-loungers and lazy mornings are clearly not on the cards for Mantle’s mind. He barely pauses for thought during our conversation: a man in full spate, pouring out ideas as unstoppably as Opera North’s orchestra in full flow.

Sitting behind his desk in Opera North’s Leeds offices, Mantle – who has the air of a prep school headmaster, benign and shrewd behind thick-rimmed glasses – is surrounded by his very tangible legacy: the creative nerve-centre he helped to build. When he arrived in 1994, stints at the ENO, Scottish Opera and Canada’s Edmonton Opera already under his belt, he joined a successful but “rather peripatetic” organisation. The company performed in the city’s Grand Theatre, creating ambitious productions like Phyllida Lloyd’s Gloriana, but behind the scenes things were decidedly makeshift.

“We were founded very quickly in the 1970s: suddenly there was an orchestra and a chorus, but no offices. We were stuffed into ex-dressing rooms in the theatre. Stage rehearsals were in an old cinema. The orchestra rehearsed in school halls all around Leeds.”

With help from the local council, Mantle built the company a home. He set about growing Opera North into one of the biggest arts organisations outside London – second only to the Royal Shakespeare Company – with a touring scope extending “from The Wash to the Wirral”. That derelict former cinema is now the Howard Assembly Room, which hosts a year-round programme of classical music, but also folk, jazz and pop performances, films, lectures and radio broadcasts.

A scene from Carmen by Georges Bizet
A scene from Carmen by Georges Bizet - Tristram Kenton

The venue is a symbol of Mantle’s tenure: “to change the thinking about what opera was really about”, he says. “Obviously it’s about performing, but I’ve always believed that opera can have a terrific impact in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of people.”

Mantle – a home counties boy from a non-musical family, but himself the product of a grammar-school education at Kingston’s Tiffin grammar school, with its strong musical tradition – expanded Opera North’s education department of “1.5 people” into a team now pushing 50. He put learning and outreach at the heart of the company’s work. “It’s a completely different philosophy,” he explains. “It’s not just about what we put on in the opera house. It’s about how we use the operatic framework – stories, words, music – to lift the soul, to make lives better.” Opera Magazine editor John Allison describes the results as “transformative”.

During term-time, Opera North teaches some 3,000 children to sing and play instruments (a scheme whose funding the Arts Council recently tried to cut), and has become embedded in local communities. “It’s pointless going into places then just walking away. At a recent planning meeting, we asked a community leader what he wanted from the project. His answer? ‘We want hope.’ It’s really as basic as that.”

But hope comes at a cost, especially in opera, where “funding” is an F-word. “I always used to say when trustees came onto the board that, looking at our budget, no self-respecting accountant would believe that it could ever possibly work!”

Mantle’s endurance through one of the most volatile periods in UK arts’ history, owes a lot to pragmatism. While he’s a staunch defender of public subsidy – “Berlin spends as much on the arts as our Arts Council spends on the whole of England!” – he’s also a realist, with an attitude befitting an adopted Yorkshireman.

“One way or another, the financial environment around Opera North has always been fairly tight,” he says. “I actually think that’s not the worst thing; a lot of creativity can grow out of constraint.”

Creative thinking, he argues, is key in a hostile economic and cultural climate. So while Opera North has staged a multi-award-winning Ring Cycle under Mantle’s tenure – an “Everest”, he says, for any company – they did it in concert, achieving West End impact on a fringe budget. And there was a memorable tour in which opera giants David McVicar, Tim Albery and Annabel Arden were persuaded to share a single set, staging three full-length operas for a bargain price.

PARSIFAL by Wagner
PARSIFAL by Wagner - Clive Barda

“I think we’ve pioneered more flexible thinking about opera,” he says. “You don’t always want 10 tons of scenery. I get a bit bored with designers who want to build half of Rome on stage every time you do Tosca. You just don’t need it.”

Unsurprisingly for a man who started his career in personnel departments, it’s the people that matter most for Mantle.

“I’m a great believer that the artists are first and foremost – it’s the performance you go to. People generally give you their best work in beautiful settings and environments, but you can be more creative about it. It’s interesting sometimes to get out of the opera house and get a new slant on the experience.

“And I don’t mean moving into car parks and pubs as the Arts Council seems to believe – that’s a ridiculous idea, the enemy of everything – but just exploring venues where the audience can encounter and appreciate opera in a different way.” Case in point: the surprising fusion of Indian and Western classical music in last year’s Orfeo, and this winter’s “Eco-Entertainment” Masque of Might – a topical new satire built around music by Henry Purcell that’s the centrepiece of Mantle’s final season.

The Arts Council is a black hole, drawing any conversation about opera and its future inevitably towards it. Last November saw ENO lose all its funding, along with devastating cuts to Welsh National Opera and Glyndebourne’s touring arm. Opera North was one of the lucky ones, its funding was only frozen.

“It felt very savage,” he says. “It was an attack, even if I don’t think they saw it that way. They were reacting to political instruction which they should have resisted, a decision based on the wrong premise of what art means and how you sustain it. I completely support the desire to support more work outside London, to encourage more investment in smaller organisations creating interesting work, but they have done it at the expense of the larger ones. We are the ones who train and develop artists who go on to work in those other companies. Opera is interdependent; an ecosystem. If you start chopping limbs off then the whole body will start to shudder. We have been shuddering a lot recently.”

But money isn’t the real problem, says Mantle. “I think the biggest mistake is that there is no interrogative relationship. The partnership with the Arts Council should be strategic – and it should be fun, not planning the arts with a calculator and a map!”

It wasn’t always this way, he reminds me. “Were it not for the Arts Council, Opera North would never have been founded. Back then they were saying ‘We’d like to support you in thinking about how…’ rather than just chopping your head off and hoping you’d somehow keep going.”

After 40 years in the business, Mantle has seen companies, arts policies and governments come and go. If he were starting out today, would he still choose opera? He grins – no longer the headmaster but the mischievous schoolboy.

“I’m living your answer. Last week I actually became the new chairman of the Grange Festival in Hampshire. It’s a fascinating company – very different to Opera North – and they’re up for a bit of change and development. I may have been around for a long time, but I’m always up for new ideas.”

There will be holidays, he says, but retirement is looking anything but peaceful for Richard Mantle: an opera pioneer for whom achievement will always be future tense.