Case study

CASE STUDY: The path to becoming a carbon neutral opera company

By Jamie Saye

How did Opera North make impactful changes in a short space of time to set themselves on the path to becoming carbon neutral by 2030?

Two women on stage standing side by side with their right arms up punching the air
Not Such Quiet Girls (2018). Opera North. Photo credit: Justin Slee.
“We are very proud of our 2018/19 environmental achievements. But this is only the start of our journey. With the help of ACE’s Spotlight programme, our Music Works capital project, and company-wide engagement, we are confident we will meet our pledge to become carbon neutral by 2030.” - Richard Mantle, General Director, Opera North

The challenge

Opera North is a national opera company based in Leeds, and a leading UK arts organisation. Our award-winning work tours to theatre stages and concert halls throughout the North and beyond, including to London and major international festivals. We curate an eclectic artistic programme of gigs, concerts, spoken word and film in our 300-seat Howard Assembly Room. As part of a busy and wide-reaching programme, Opera North’s pioneering Education department delivers high quality music education to over 1800 young people in the Leeds city region through the In Harmony project.

In 2019 Opera North declared a climate emergency and pledged to become net zero carbon by 2030. The board and wider team knew that this commitment would have a significant impact on the way we produce and implement our creative output as a large organisation that tours.

The solutions

To initiate the process, the Senior Management Team of Opera North nominated its General Manager as the company lead on sustainability. He began by putting out an open call to all staff to start an executive-led ‘Green Team’.

The Opera North Green Team includes representatives from all departments of the organisation. They are responsible for engaging with the Company on sustainability, and ultimately attempting to change behaviours and processes towards improving sustainability. Two members of Opera North’s Senior Management Team advise the Green Team on the feasibility of its suggestions, but don’t lead the team. This ensures that the team is empowered to make changes themselves, without waiting for senior management approval. The Green Team began by focusing on the “quick wins”:

  • Building the case for a 100% renewable energy tariff across all Opera North owned buildings, and implementing this change.

  • Replacing lighting with LED where possible across the Opera North estate.

  • Focusing on reducing electricity usage via a “switch off” campaign.

  • Installing water-saving devices across all Opera North buildings.

  • Swapping disposable items for more environmentally-friendly alternatives.

Cross section of architect's impression digital impression of opera building
Opera North Music Works redevelopment project - architect impression

Moving beyond the quick wins, we realised that we would need external support to draft a roadmap for the next few years. Produced in collaboration with sustainability consultants Julie’s Bicycle, the resulting plan outlined the need to embed sustainability within the Company via staff training, leading Opera North to become the first opera company to roll out Carbon Literacy training for all of our 250 staff, with the target of 100% Carbon Literacy by April 2021.

With the help of Julie’s Bicycle, we are also taking part in the Arts Council England Spotlight programme, which allows us to take a closer look at our energy management practices, and to set realistic and achievable environmental impact reduction objectives (EIRO’s). As part of the programme we are also looking to become ISO 50001 (Energy Management Systems) compliant.

Concurrent with this activity, Opera North is embarking on an £18 million redevelopment project, Music Works. Our Senior Management Team were clear from the outset that sustainability would be central to the project, and ensured that environmental considerations were embedded from the beginning, including:

  • Full replacement of existing lighting with LED twinned with passive infrared sensor technology.

  • Installation of solar PV panels.

  • More efficient plant equipment.

  • Intelligent Building Management System control.

The company is sharing the knowledge it gains by combining with ITV and other influential arts and creative companies in the region to lead on the formation of the Sustainable Arts in Leeds (SAIL) network.

The Senior Management Team constantly keeps the Trustees of Opera North apprised of the actions of the wider company, including regular reports on sustainability work. On a Trustees’ away day in December 2019, Opera North’s sustainability champion and sustainability lead led a session to engage the Board more deeply by working through the company’s environmental route map and delivering a taster training session on carbon literacy.

Silhouettes of two men in World War 1 helmets looking at rigging and lights on stage
The set from Not Such Quiet Girls (2018) made entirely from recycled materials. Opera North / Leeds Playhouse. Photo credit: Justin Slee.

Top tips

Top 3 tips for boards to overcome sustainability challenges:

  • Empower your staff to act, rather than allow sustainability to be something which is solely dictated from the senior management team of your organisation.

  • Embed sustainability into every area of the organisation, making sure it is a regular item on the board meeting agenda. Scrutinise every process: how can it be changed to make it more sustainable? Usually there is a strong correlation between sustainability and financial saving, so it makes financial sense to do the sustainable thing.

  • Share your successes. Shout about every change, no matter how small. What is obvious to you, may not be to other organisations. Build networks around sustainability, and take action together with one voice. Talk to existing networks (talk to us!)

The outcome

There have been many positive outcomes from acting on sustainability.

  • Reduced costs.

  • Increased staff engagement via Carbon Literacy.

  • Winning “Best Newcomer” award at the 2019 Creative Green Awards.

  • The Company has a voice in the wider conversation on sustainability, that includes local governments and national creative industries.

We also learned that sustainability could have been given an even higher priority as part of the building project, as cost efficiency initially took priority over carbon reduction. Given the knowledge we have now, we would have instructed the professional team to design fossil fuels out of all of the buildings in their earliest drafts. The message for boards is to put sustainability questions at the forefront of every business decision.

For more information about Opera North please visit:

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