I interviewed Oliver recently on NvTv and he explained that his first proper encounter with opera came at the age of 22 when as a student he attended a performance of the little known Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk. The combination of “the powerful opera, strong production, the music and the staging” had “an electrifying effect” on the young director who soon switched from theatre productions to work on operas.
Recognising “the thrill of hearing this extraordinary moving music in combination with the drama”, he agrees with Wagner that opera is “the total artform”. But it’s an artform that tends not to be part of the school curriculum, and one that can be alienating through lack of familiarity. Oliver benefitted from student discounts to see shows and sees a need to break down preconceptions and introduce young audiences to what can be viewed as the purview of an older demographic.
So far NI Opera productions have been sung in English, rather than the Italian, German or French.
Opera has an image problem and one of the parts of the image problem is that opera is sung in a language that I don’t understand therefore I’m not going to give it the time of day. And as soon as you sing it in English, one of those barriers is down. Particularly in comedy it’s really important that people can understand the humour as it’s happening rather than looking up at surtitles.
Big stages, big characters, big flouncy costumes, lots of drama, emotions everywhere … pantomime and opera are quite similar. Both presenting spectacular stories with a moral.
Opera’s not all about huge productions on large stages. During the Irish Opera, NI Opera took a brand new piece Love Golf Love Opera to the streets of Newcastle. Composed by Brian Irvine (Belfast music laureate) and written by Owen McCafferty, the 25 minute production was witty and contemporary.
Germany has 80 opera houses. The UK has 6 or 7 full time companies. But Northern Ireland is still on the operatic map with Heather Harper singing professionally between 1954 and 1995, and Bangor singers like Giselle Allen and Bruno Caproni carving out international careers. NI Opera’s Young Artist programme takes a handful of Irish singers each year and gives them opportunities to sing at recitals and taster events, participate in masterclasses, and understudy lead roles in productions.
In February’s Salome, NI Opera trapped John the Baptist in an oil tank on an American Deep South drug baron’s ranch rather than in Herod’s palace two thousand years ago. There was a mild hullabaloo in the media over the dance of the seven veils.
I think the controversy is incidental really. What is important is that another one of the barriers associated with opera – that this is about other people – is broken down …
[It’s] important that people can look at what’s on stage and they can relate to it. As soon as you put people in period costume it becomes about escapism … I’m always very reluctant to do that and all of our productions do have this modern slant to make it that much more engaging and that much more immediate and for there to be resonances and echoes with people’s own lives. And suddenly opera does become about you and me rather than people who existed thousands of years ago …
Working with partners like the Ulster Orchestra and the Grand Opera House, and collaborating with other companies makes it possible to tackle large ambitious works.
Puccini’s Turandot could be staged as a Chinese fairy tale. In a collaboration between NI Opera and the State Theatre of Nuremberg and Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, director Calixto Bieito has re-sited it in a Chinese sweat shop, the kind of slave labour factory which manufactures the hi-tech electronics we so like to buy. Consumerism meets capitalism meets slave labour under totalitarian rule. That makes the production “topical, relevant and political” says Oliver Mears. [See Steven Hadley’s earlier introduction to Turandot over on Slugger O’Toole.]
What Calixto has done in his production is make it very, very about now, and very, very political, and in some ways, very, very angry about the way in which we do depend on these things for the quality of our lives. What are the human costs? That’s what he explores.
Turandot promises to be a huge spectacle with a huge chorus and a large number of principal singers. It starts with a Chinese emperor and his daughter who have unlimited power and control over a vast number of enslaved people. But there are costs to this power and political corruption.
Amongst the “luxurious, almost decadent, orchestral textures and almost unlimited melodies which tumble over one another all the way through the opera” the best known song is Nessun Dorma, made famous by Luciano Pavarotti and the BBC’s coverage of the Italia 90 World Cup. Of course, it’ll be sung in English in this production.
So many operas are about the difficulties that people face when they love each other, and what society does to that love, and how that love can be compromised by social conditions.Compare the €45 million annual budget of Nuremberg Opera (in German terms, a relatively small opera company) with NI Opera’s £500,000.
In the context of the NI arts scene, what we get is extremely generous and we make no complaints about what we get. But it does mean that we are – to some extent – not able to do what other companies can do.
This leads NI Opera to innovate and brings about creative partnerships like their recently announced link up with Deanes restaurants.
Would Oliver Mears prefer to be on stage performing rather than directing?
When I was young I did a bit of acting at school and at university. I would always get terrible stage fright when I did it and didn’t really enjoy being in the limelight. I much more enjoy the process and discipline of directing, and also the excitement of programming and running a company and setting the direction and strategy … It staggers me everyday when I see what singers accomplish, but it’s not for me!
Turandot is being performed at the Grand Opera House between Friday 30 October and Sunday 1 November. The three performances are nearly sold out, but some seats are still available. Tickets £19-42.