Performing on the stage of the Lawrence Batley Theatre in her home town, 26-year-old Huddersfield opera singer Jenny Stafford was delighted to see so many young people in the audience.

Among them were two friends who had never seen her perform before. “And they had never seen an opera before, but said afterwards that they will go again,” said Jenny.

Jenny took one of the leading roles in the sell-out performance of Young Opera Venture’s touring production of The Magic Flute.

She says:“In Huddersfield there is so much music around and people are so interested. It was a really good audience.”

But she’s well aware that opera is often seen as a high-brow art form and that many of those who say they don’t like opera have, in fact, never been to one. “It has a stigma and people don’t expect to enjoy it,” she explained.

She was raised in a musical family — her parents Jim and Frances Stafford, who live in Kirkburton, met at the former Huddersfield School of Music and studied music at King’s College in London. Jenny herself was not interested in opera until going to university.

“Classical music has always been a big part of my life but I hadn’t seen an opera until I went on a freshers’ trip,” she says. “Towards the end of my time as a student I started going to the theatre using the student deals, but I was more into musicals than opera.”

And yet by the time she graduated she was won over and decided to train as an opera singer, enrolling with the English National Opera training organisation, Opera Works.

“I had two years doing opera courses — and waitressing,” says Jenny, a former Kirklees Young Musician of the Year and Mrs Sunderland Music Festival prizewinner, who is now based in London. “Opera singing involves a lot of acting, which was something I hadn’t done before.”

Since launching her career, Jenny, who was also a member of Huddersfield Choral Society, has sung with two small companies taking an innovative approach to opera. One is Silent Opera, a fringe company that offers audience members headphones through which they can tune in to a pre-recorded orchestral track and live singing. The other is Young Opera Venture, which takes productions to small venues where opera is rarely seen.

Young Opera Venture singer Jenny Stafford from Huddersfield will be appearing in The Magic Flute at the Lawrence Batley Theatre
 

She is now auditioning for new roles and says she would love to appear in one of her favourites, the much-performed La Traviata.

Initiatives to attract new audiences have also been adopted by the country’s major companies, including Leeds-based Opera North, the largest Arts Council supported opera company outside of London, which works hard to engage non-traditional and young audiences.

The company’s general director Richard Mantle acknowledges there are problems with opera’s image as exclusive, expensive and difficult to follow but says it’s all a question of getting first-timers to step through the doors of an opera house. He said: “I always tell an anecdote about when I worked in advertising and we used to look after Guinness. Opera is like Guinness in the sense that until you try it you don’t know what to expect.

“We’re like everyone else, we need to constantly renew our audience. We have to break down the public’s perception that they can’t understand opera because it’s in a foreign language. Sometimes we do perform it in English and when it’s in a foreign language we provide an English translation alongside it.

“We’ve addressed the issue of cost by launching our under-30s scheme, which has been an amazing success. We have 1,400 young people who have signed up free and can access performances for £10. They come all dressed up and make a night of it.” (Details from www.operanorth.co.uk/under-30s)

Christopher England, who runs Huddersfield’s Opera Circle, an organisation that seeks to widen appreciation of the art form, agrees cost doesn’t have to be an issue. “There are cheap seats that still give you a good view and if you become a ‘friend’ of the opera you can often book seats for very little, occasionally even free,” he said.

However, comparing British attitudes to those of other European nations, Christopher believes we have a long way to go. “In Italy opera is part of their life and culture and they don’t think of it as abnormal to go to see an opera, while here there is a feeling that it is highbrow. It’s not regarded as that in any other country. Opera should be sung in its original language because the music follows the rhythm of the words, but that’s not a problem because opera houses put up surtitles so you can follow the story.”

He’s been an opera buff for more than five decades, having been raised by musical parents, and believes that opera’s influence is under-estimated: “People are not aware that quite a lot of the wonderful and well-known music, like Nessun Dorma for example, that they hear on TV and in films, is from opera,” he explained. “They think it’s something they wouldn’t understand. The music grows on you when you have heard it a few times.

“One of the things I have always done is to buy CDs of opera and play them in my car as quiet background music so I get to know the tunes, then when I see the opera I know the music and enjoy it more.”

The Magic Flute by Young Opera Venture

In fact, initiatives by opera companies are working. At this year’s production of La Boheme by Opera North as many as 51% of audience members were new attenders and in just 10 months the company attracted audiences of more than 106,500. Its community engagement and education programmes have reached 62 different community groups and 15,000 people in the North of England.

As Richard Mantle explains: “Opera is a great art form to engage young people in. You are telling a story, which young people respond to, but with drama, music and singing. It’s powerful stuff.”

As well as producing operas, the company includes musicals such as Carousel and the more contemporary Sweeney Todd in its repertoire — a way to encourage audiences into the Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House and, hopefully, get them wanting more.

“Musicals are a more accessible genre,” says Richard, “and only a step away from what opera does. We hope people enjoy them enough to get them coming back for opera.”