Northern Ireland has a new opera company. It’s called, unsurprisingly, NI Opera. But its artistic director Oliver Mears is determined that this will be one of the few predictable aspects of an organization that aims to break down cultural and social barriers and dispel preconceptions surrounding the art form. When it is announced that its first independent production will comprise “three innovative, site-specific performances” of Tosca in Derry, the initial reaction is that its main selling point must be a final scene in which the central character throws herself off the city walls. Not so, says Mears, wryly adding, “We couldn't afford the singers!”
Eschewing the use of the g-word - gimmick - he prefers to think of the company’s début this week as “an event”, insisting that there are solid artistic and financial reasons for choosing to open in what will be, in 2013, the UK City of Culture. “We want to achieve with NI Opera,” he says. “I want it to bring new adventures and attract new audiences. I’m pledged to giving it a region-wide remit, as I’m conscious that, to date, opera has been produced mainly in Belfast and County Down. Our base may be the Grand Opera House in Belfast, but that certainly won’t be the only place people can see us.
“Of course everyone associates Tosca with the heroine throwing herself off the battlements, but actually I was drawn to the heritage and atmosphere of Derry’s buildings, which fit perfectly with the theatricality and political themes of the opera. There are a number of old warhorses in the operatic repertoire, which I was initially keen to avoid: Carmen, Bohème, Traviata and, yes, Tosca. But people have so many choices of entertainment these days, be it cinema, television, dance. Opera has to fight for its place. Puccini wrote with tremendous flair and theatricality. Tosca is set during the turbulence of the Napoleonic wars in Europe. By staging it in a place which has so many historic and political resonances, you're halfway there.”
Mears, who grew up in Norwich and whose grandparents came from South Wales and Skibereen, began his career in theatre, directing undergraduate productions at Lincoln College, Oxford. Professionally, he started out assisting the distinguished, controversial playwright Howard Barker before going on to direct at the King’s Head, the pub venue in Islington, London, where much high quality work has seen the light of day.
But a change of course was precipitated when he saw English National Opera's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, by Shostakovich. He recalls being blown away by it. Already a proficient jazz saxophonist and music fan, that experience charted a course into a brave new world of directing in Tokyo, Basel, Milan, Copenhagen, as well as for English National Opera and the Royal Opera House in London. “What I particularly love about opera is the way in which it combines so many different disciplines,” he says “There is huge excitement in making work which brings together elements of design, singing, orchestral music, staging. It is a tremendously unwieldy genre, which has the emotional power to move people to tears.”
Given the rocky road that opera in Northern Ireland has travelled over the years, one wonders what could have lured him here. With refreshing enthusiasm, he answers that it was simply the case that he had never before worked in Belfast and that the city possesses an irresistible edge. Heading up the new company offers challenges, which fit neatly with his artistic philosophy.
But those on the inside track may identify some of his most difficult potential challenges as emanating from what composer and arts correspondent Philip Hammond describes as “Northern Ireland opera’s split personality”. As performing arts director for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI), in 1998 Hammond presided over the demise of Opera Northern Ireland, which a commissioned review had deemed too costly to continue. Between 2005 and 2007, he was seconded to run the Rediscover NI festival in Washington DC, returning briefly to ACNI as arts support director before retiring in 2009.
But that was not before another strategy review for opera in Northern Ireland had been commissioned.
“As long ago as the 1960s, Northern Ireland Opera Trust vied with Havelock Nelson’s Studio Opera Group,” Hammond recalls. “That latter organisation became, in all but name, Castleward Opera and, in the 1980s, it vied with Opera Northern Ireland. Opera Theatre Company also became a significant player in the North, and was seen by many as stealing the resources of the locals.
“Then in the 1990s, Opera Fringe appeared out of nowhere. Based in Downpatrick, it was quirky and interesting. But, in spite of itself, it was seen as vying with Castleward Opera. All these competitive forces allowed for more opera of a sort to happen here, but it was often of a quality level
that was hit and miss. Quantity therefore didn’t necessarily contribute to the development of opera here, one way or the other.
“It’s time to face up to the fact that there is not a wide audience for opera here, so the new company should be allowed to be realistic. It should not be expected to pander to the very restricted tastes of our so-called ‘opera audience’. My vision for a new opera focus was always that it should create something unique in Northern Ireland, of international quality, maybe concentrating on the small scale, a combination of new and baroque opera, looking to the whole of the island for partnerships and artists from a base which was simple but unusual. This combination could provide a unique selling point of interest to the arts world outside the province.”
In setting out to achieve his vision for NI Opera, Oliver Mears looks to the template forged by Second Movement Opera, the company he set up in London with two friends in 2004. “We wanted to produce short, small-scale work at a relatively low cost, always working with excellent singers and an orchestra,” he explains. “We built up quite a following and staged a number of UK premieres. I’m keen to bring that philosophy to Northern Ireland. NI Opera does not have huge financial resources, but I don’t want to get too hung up on that. I’ve met some nay-sayers, who tell me it will never work. But in these times of cuts and closures, it’s fantastic that something new is being created. We hope to recruit a fundraiser to look at imaginative ways of supplementing our core funding.”
The company has already performed a concert with Camerata Ireland and has just finished a tour of Menotti’s short opera, The Medium, in co-production with Second Movement. Over the next six months, Mears aims to put his imagination and straitened finances to good use. There are projects planned
with the Ulster Orchestra, including a concert for the Belfast Festival at Queen’s in the autumn; a production of Hansel and Gretel, involving a children's chorus from Belfast schools, and a co-production with Scottish Opera of Orpheus in the Underworld. He is also considering the intriguing prospect of staging a production of Noah’s Flood in Belfast Zoo in 2012.
But for the moment, his attention is entirely focused on Tosca, in which Northern Irish singer Giselle Allen is cast in the title role. The first act will take place in St. Columb’s Cathedral on the city walls; Act II (right) will unfold in Derry's Guildhall, while the dramatic climax will take place amid the Gothic splendour of St. Columb’s Hall. In a tricky piece of logistical risk-taking, the audience, singers and musicians will
move through the city between venues.
“It’s thrilling that one of the oldest Church of Ireland cathedrals in the country will stage Act I, which is awash with Catholic imagery,” says Mears. “Dean Morton has been very open and supportive of the idea and has even allowed us to construct another altar for the purposes of the plot. It’s a great tribute to his sense of the ecumenical. From there, we move to the Guildhall, with all its associations as a centre of Protestant power.
“The historical context is vitally important. It’s a subversive piece whose themes include conflict with the authorities and the clash between the artist and the establishment, issues with which Derry is familiar. I hope this production will make a real impression on its audience. I want it to be an experience that people will never forget.”
Jane Coyle is a Belfast-based arts journalist, critic and screenwriter, who reviews for the Irish Times and The Stage.
Tosca opens at St Columb's Cathedral, Derry on Thursday, 31 March, finishing on Saturday 2 April. www.niopera.com