WHEN the war in Ukraine began, the Royal Opera House posted a call-out on social media for any Ukrainian people interested in forming a choir.

“We hoped for maybe 50 responses. We got 450 applications,” says Jillian Barker, Director of Learning and Participation at the Royal Opera House.

So it was that, against a backdrop of war, terror, loss and despair, a remarkable choir was formed - showcasing the resilience of Ukrainian people and the power of music.

The 130-strong Songs for Ukraine Choir, comprising people displaced by the war - mostly women, as men are fighting in the conflict - performed at Bradford Cathedral in December. The Christmas concert, a moving celebration of festive songs and customs of Ukraine, was the choir’s first performance outside London and it marked the start of a three-year partnership between the Royal Opera House (ROH) and Bradford’s City of Culture team. The aim is to deliver a creative programme to inspire and provide opportunities for young people and communities in Bradford.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Songs for Ukraine performed a moving concert at Bradford Cathedral Songs for Ukraine performed a moving concert at Bradford Cathedral (Image: Tim Smith)

The Bradford concert, in which the choir sang with local Ukrainian choirs, schoolchildren and the Cathedral youth choir, was deeply poignant, but also an uplifting reminder of how music can bring people together.

Songs for Ukraine gave its first performance at the ROH in March last year. “The initial project was to sing for two or three months, but the power of that collective Ukrainian voice, together with the impact of the performance on them and us motivated us to keep going,” says Jillian. “Hopefully the war will end, so the project will end, but for now we’re keeping it going.

“The thing I’m so touched by is how important it is to people who found themselves displaced, living with people they’d never met before, in a country many had never been to before. Through this project, they have grown in confidence, made friends, and found a way to cope with being far from their families.

“Bradford has one of the largest Ukrainian communities in the UK and they welcomed us so warmly. The Ukrainian Club threw a party and a lunch for us, and the Cathedral welcomed us too. We were very touched by the response in Bradford and we’re looking forward to working with the city on our creative programme.”

The ROH is collaborating with organisations including Bradford 2025, Bradford Council, Bradford Theatres, Kala Sangam and Born in Bradford on a range of events over the next three years. The ROH will deliver some of its community initiatives here - including its flagship Create & Sing, Create & Dance and Create & Design programmes, using ballet and opera to encourage creative confidence in schools.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Chance to Dance makes ballet more accessible Chance to Dance makes ballet more accessible (Image: Rachel Cherry)

“When Bradford was announced as UK City of Culture 2025 we were already planning to work with the city,” says Jillian. “Arts education has been severely squeezed in schools, young people often don’t get the chance to explore their creativity. Our programmes use the power of music and dance to unlock and develop creativity. They are curriculum linked and free to any school; we now run them in more than 800 schools across the UK.”

The ROH will bring its Create & Sing, Create & Dance and Create & Design programmes to Bradford primary schools, working towards a Big Create Day in July 2025 - the year Bradford holds the title of UK City of Culture. “We’re partnering with UNICEF on this; the focus is on the United Nations’ ‘rights of the child’,” says Jillian.

Also rolling out in Bradford is Chance to Dance, the ROH’s talent development programme making ballet more accessible and diverse. The ROH will be working with five local primary schools and dance schools, enabling children from all backgrounds to learn and engage with ballet, and also plans to work with organisations like Born in Bradford on a research project exploring the impact of ballet and opera on the mental wellbeing of children.

“I’m driven by social justice, and the power of music and dance,” says Jillian. “Through this three-year partnership, we want to make a difference in Bradford; inspiring creativity and bringing communities together. We hope to light a spark that will shine long after the programme has ended.

“We have had a warm reception from the Bradford 2025 team and we’re excited about working with them.”

Rhiannon Hannon, Head of Engagement at Bradford 2025, says: “It is great news that the Royal Opera House is invested in Bradford and is working with Bradford 2025 to celebrate the rich cultural tapestry of the district.

“Both Bradford 2025 and the Royal Opera House are passionate about encouraging communities and children and young people across the district to come together and enjoy creativity through the performing arts, both during and after 2025. We are excited about this partnership, and we are working closely with the Royal Opera House to finalise the details for future partnerships and events. More will be revealed in the coming months.”

ROH chief executive Alex Beard says: “We are hugely excited to be embarking on this new partnership with Bradford, which will see us work with a host of partners to place the arts at the heart of the community in the lead up to Bradford City of Culture 2025 and beyond. We believe the arts have the capacity to change lives. I hope this partnership and the many performances and activities that come out of it, alongside the work we will be doing with schools, will inspire imaginations across this great city over the years ahead.”