How do you entice people to spend a night out at the opera? How do you grow new audiences? These are questions that opera companies across the globe fret over and with good reason. Not everyone is willing – or able – to devote an entire evening during the week to a full length opera. A press officer at a major European house the other week was lamenting that midweek ticket sales for a new Wagner production had been disappointing because the start time was around two hours before most locals finished work. And assuming you can make it to the opera on time, do you want to spend the entire evening at a performance, emerging once all the restaurants are closing? Not your idea of a good time? Or perhaps a daunting prospect for potential newbies?

This autumn, Opera North may have a solution. “The Little Great: Short operas” is a series of six short operas – compact, condensed drama that contains all the ingredients of great musical theatre, minus the length. It follows on from the company's “Eight Little Greats” initiative in 2004, which was such a tremendous success that it's a wonder that more than a decade has passed before reviving the idea. In Leeds, each opera is paired with another (not always the same one) so you could catch a double bill. However, it's also possible to buy tickets for just the one work, allowing time to top or tail the performance with a meal – or even take the chance of an early night. If you're not sure if opera is for you, a single 45-75 minute immersion is an ideal – and cheap – way to dip your toe in the water, especially as £10 tickets will be available for first-time attenders in Leeds.

Opera North has picked its half dozen operas wisely. As general director Richard Mantle says, “What better way to start the new season than with a festival which really does demonstrate the diversity of operatic style.” The two big hitters of the season are where verismo (a style drawing on 'real life') began: Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci. They've been paired together so many times in the last century that they've earned the snappy abbreviation Cav & Pag. Both are set in rural Italy, both deal with illicit affairs, betrayal and vengeance, one in a Sicilian village on Easter Sunday, the other among a troupe of touring actors. In 1890, Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) won a competition for young Italian composers who'd yet to have an opera staged. It's not been away from the boards since. Pagliacci (Clowns) was Ruggero Leoncavallo's response to Mascagni's hit, based on an 1865 murder, the criminal investigation of which was presided over by the composer's father. These two gritty works are packed with well-known music (the Intermezzo from Cav featured in the film Raging Bull) and either should make for a compelling introduction to the art form. Karolina Sofulak (Cav) and Charles Edwards (Pag) give these operas a contemporary take. 

Aside from the verismo emotions of Cav & Pag, the other four are extremely different in flavour. Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti is a one-act opera in seven scenes, the only one for which the composer also supplied his own libretto. It's a dark work, a critique on the idea – the ideal – of modern suburbia. “Trouble in Tahiti” is the title of a movie watched by Sam and Dinah, but there's trouble in paradise for this married couple. Bernstein's work is a two-hander, apart from a Greek chorus – a trio in the style of a cheesy radio commercial.

Marital strife is also at the heart of Trial by Jury, a one-act operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan. A learned judge presides over a case where the Defendant (Edwin) claims he jilted the Plaintiff (Angelina) because she bored him. During the trial, Edwin offers to marry both Angelina and his new lover, but this is rejected by Counsel as "a rather serious crime / To marry two wives at a time". The Judge, however, comes up with a novel solution. Opera North casts Trial by Jury entirely from its terrific Chorus. 

Janáček's opera Osud (Fate) is very rarely performed – this is the opera in the series which will have operaphiles travelling to catch it. The plot concerns a composer, Živný, and his infatuation for Míla. Their affair is ended by her mother, but Míla is already pregnant. Years later, they are married but Živný's work on his (autobiographical) opera is thwarted when his mother-in-law's bitterness results in a tragic accident. Janáček's taut, impulsive score is a gem, its style familiar from his better known operas such Jenůfa. Sung in English, it could be the surprise package of the autumn series.

Ravel's L'Enfant et les sortilèges is a simply magical opera, ranging from the surreal to the tender and the genuinely moving. The premise is familiar – a naughty boy refuses to do his homework. When he is punished by his mother, he throws a tantrum... but is stunned when objects in his nursery spring to life, including a teapot and china cup, a clock, figures from the wallpaper and the flames from the fireplace. Out in the garden, the animals which have been tortured by the child turn on him until a sudden act of kindness forces a change of heart. Ravel's score is a chocolate box of different styles from foxtrot, ragtime and bel canto... to a seductive duet for cats! Annabel Arden directs this little gem – an opera that's perfect for children of all ages. You can also catch L'Enfant as a stand-alone matinee.

You can choose just a single opera for the evening, or see it in any number of combinations; Opera North mixes and matches the six in many ways from mid-September to mid-October. The operatically voracious could catch all six across one Friday to Saturday matinee and evening (20-21 October). With its flexible package option, you can see all six for less with the promise of insider scoops! Then the company heads out on tour to four venues, with the operas in fixed pairs. Bite-size opera makes for digestible fare, but I hope it makes you hungry for more.  

Click here for full Little Great listings. 


Article sponsored by Opera North.