WHEN we think of opera we tend to conjure up images of opulent sets in grand theatres, filled with well-to-do audiences.

No one would ever think of an ice cream van in the middle of Bradford.

But that is the extremely unconventional setting of a new opera penned by Yorkshire poet, playwright and broadcaster Ian McMillan.

Ice Cream: The Opera is an innovative and engaging project whose aim is to ignite passion for live theatre and bring in people who do not usually watch it.

A contemporary chamber opera for four singers, the free production has been inspired by the tale of Romeo and Juliet. Two warring ice cream selling families - one Italian, one British Asian - come together through song

Ian’s love of music was inspired by his dad, who would sing at every opportunity. “He was a tenor and loved singing in the bathroom or the garden. He used to sing the same songs, one was a grand old Scottish song ‘Donald where’s your troosers?’

He admits that “like a lot of people I had a prejudice about opera - thinking it was a lot of toffs spouting stuff that other people cannot fathom.”

For many, this way of thinking remains. The audience for opera is ageing and lacking in diversity. One in seven British people would like to attend but are put off by the affordability of tickets and a sense that ‘opera isn’t for the likes of me’.

Hoping Ice Cream: The Opera will help to open it up to wider audiences, he adds that the art form is appropriate in these “angry and fractious times we live in. It is a bit like country music - very expressive.”

He hopes that people will come along and enjoy the world premiere of Ice Cream: The Opera on Sunday, July 30, at Bradford Festival. The lure of the ice cream van - which will be selling ice cream as the show goes on - will, he says, help.

“Passing members of the public who could not care less about opera can come up and buy a cornet.”

The music is in the tradition of 19th century romantic opera, with a twist - a flavour of Indian music and a libretto of unmistakable Yorkshire vernacular wit and warmth.

“You don’t often hear music on the street unless someone drives past in a car.”

Ian worked with Ian and composer Russell Sarre who is from Australia and lives in America. I sent words and he sent back compositions. We later met in Barnsley for a development week.”

Funded by Bradford Council, the opera is a co-production between Skipton Building Society, Yorkshire’s only professional chamber orchestra the Skipton Building Society Camerata and Bradford-based Freedom Studios in association with Leeds-based Spin Arts. Award-winning director Tom Wright directs.

City Park, says Ian, is the ideal location. “It is fantastic, it brings people together.”

Known affectionately as the bard of Barnsley, Ian has been working on an opera for Yorkshire dialect. “If you hear Lesley Garrett she talks like me, but sings in received pronunciation. Can opera hold a Yorkshire vowel?”

* Ice Cream: The Opera will take place in City Park, Centenary Square, on Sunday, July 30, at 1pm, 3pm and 5.15pm. Admission is free.

Helen Mead