In the latest instalment in a monthly series on the Powered by People movement – showcasing the qualities of County Durham – PETER BARRON meets a schoolgirl whose passion for music has placed her at the heart of an exciting community arts project

AGAINST an unlikely backdrop of gleaming steam engines, schoolgirl Emma Hunt takes a deep breath and her surprisingly powerful voice effortlessly fills the cavernous space of the railway museum.

Ever since her first starring role in a primary school production called The Little Soldier, 16-year-old Emma has dreamed of a musical career – and now a “people’s opera” in County Durham is helping put her ambition on track.

One day, she hopes her stage will be in the West End but, for now, she is preparing to sing her heart out with Opera North in the improbable setting of Locomotion, the museum that magnificently celebrates Durham’s iconic place in railway history.

Emma has been given the lead role in Song of our Heartland, a grass roots opera inspired by the voices, stories and proud heritage of the people of South Durham.

In a partnership with Northern Heartlands, the production will feature the Opera North orchestra and chorus in four performances at the museum in Shildon on May 29 and 30. A “people’s chorus” – made up of 50 members of local communities, including Weardale, Teesdale, Bishop Auckland, Crook, Willington, Tow Law and Shildon – will join the professional performers on the Locomotion stage.

And Emma, who lives at Crook, is still coming to terms with being the star: “I’ve visited Locomotion with my family since I was a little girl, and now I’m going to be performing in an opera there – it’s pretty amazing,” she says.

Northern Heartlands director, Jill Cole, who has spent 25 years working in community arts and theatre, describes the opera as a career highlight.

“The whole project has been created around the history, struggles, hopes and dreams of the people living in these South Durham communities for generations,” she says. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to work with Opera North, a professional company, which has respected the communities in an equal partnership and stayed true to their stories,” she says.

Northern Heartlands was launched in 2017 as part of a Government initiative to invest in culture, and is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England. Financial support lasts until June but discussions are taking place in the hope that it can continue as an independent organisation.

Song of our Heartland is truly powered by the people of the local area and another example of how culture is being used as a crucial part of the regeneration of County Durham.

“Durham County Council has been very supportive of the work we are doing, and the opera is certainly a powerful illustration of the Powered by People movement because local people are absolutely at the heart of it,” says Jill.

The collaboration with Opera North began a year ago with eight community workshops, fronted by the illustrious production team of County Durham-born composer Will Todd and director Caroline Clegg, along with poet Tony Walsh. Locals were invited to come along with their stories and favourite objects, and the music and lyrics for Song of our Heartland were inspired by those memories.

Themes included the demise of traditional industries, such as the pits, the hardships of rural ways of life, the loss of traditional skills such as quilting, the joy of dance halls where love stories began, and pride in County Durham being the birthplace of the railways.

“What was wonderful to see was how so many stories were captured and honoured in the opera,” says Jill.

One of the workshops was held at Parkside Academy, in Willington, which is Emma’s school, and she and her mum, Liz, were among those who turned up.

At the time, Emma was disappointed that the school choir had been disbanded due to the music teacher leaving on maternity leave, and she voiced her frustrations. Her passion resonated and so did the quality of her voice when she later auditioned for the lead solo. Indeed, Caroline Clegg was moved to tears.

The story begins with the funeral of Harold, a former miner, and Emma plays his grand-daughter, Skylar. The character’s name reflects the familiar sound of skylarks in the County Durham countryside, along with Harold’s nickname for his granddaughter, “Little Skylark”.

“I’ve always loved musical theatre, but I’d never thought about singing in an opera before,” says Emma, who is also a clarinettist and guitarist. “The shows will be staged in the middle of my GCSEs, so it’ll be a tough time, but I can’t wait.”

Her mum Liz, a long-standing member of a community arts group, is also taking part as a member of the people’s chorus, with rehearsals taking place in Shildon Methodist Hall every Sunday through to May.

As part of the preparations, around 25 community singers travelled to Leeds to see an Opera North production of The Marriage of Figaro.

“It’s just an amazing new experience for everyone,” says Liz. “I’d have loved to have an opportunity like this when I was Emma’s age, but there wasn’t anything like it in those days,” says Liz.

In fact, a community youth chorus has recently been added into the script, so the producers are appealing for more young people to join the cast and be part of “something magical”.

It’s certainly not every day that professionals and amateurs perform side by side in an original opera staged in a railway museum…but all the signals point to a real platform for success.

  • For more details about Song Of Our Heartland, eail, search for Northern Heartlands on Facebook, or call 01833 200220. Tickets can be booked via
  • If you would like to be part of the Powered by People movement, please email to find out more.

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