Bringing new life to opera in Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland Opera is about to bring the black comedy Powder Her Face to the stage of the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. It’s the last production that will directly involve their artistic director Oliver Mears who heads off to London shortly to take up the reins as director of opera at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Guest writer, Alan Meban caught up with Oliver to find out more about the production and to reflect on his time with the company.
Powder Her Face is being performed in the Lyric Theatre Belfast between Friday 27 and Sunday 29 January. The production is directed by Antony McDonald and will be accompanied by the Ulster Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Chalmers. Mary Plazas stars as the Duchess, alongside Adrian Dwyer (Salome), Stephen Richardson (Turandot) and Irish soprano Daire Halpin. It’s a co-production between Northern Ireland Opera and Opera Theatre Company.
Interviewed in a South Belfast café, Mears describes NI Opera’s most recent show Don Giovanni as “a special one” with a great cast and strong representation from Northern Ireland both on and off the stage. As a ‘rental’ of a production he directed in Norway, it was a cost effective way – though not logistically straightforward – to restage the show in Belfast. Mears says that there’s a “great advantage to have these relationships with other opera companies in other countries”. It’s one of the ways in which NI Opera has thrived and built its reputation over past year.
“When I started [at NI Opera] I didn’t want to just do the core repertoire like La bohème, Carmen and La traviata – great as those pieces are – we wanted to bring a whole range of repertoire to our audience.”
Powder Her Face is emblematic of this policy. It’s a compact piece: a chamber opera with a cast of four and only fifteen players in the orchestra. The music was composed by Thomas Adès and the English libretto written by Philip Hensher in 1995. Mears remarks that “for a modern opera, it’s rare to find one with 300 plus performances across the world”.
The two act show tells the story about the life and many loves of Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll.
“[She] was an extraordinary character who had a very bizarre life. Certainly someone who was very passionate about her relationships which became notorious, culminating in a spicy sixties scandal around the time of the Profumo affair.
“It’s a tragic story of someone who had immense wealth and privilege and through the power of her sexuality became someone who was a social outcast. In some ways that’s not surprising given the strength of misogyny down the decades even until now.
“But it’s not depressing. The orchestration is amazing. It’s varied in its musical colours and alive in terms of its characterisation. It’s very witty and richly textured.”
The opera begins with the once promiscuous Duchess living on her own as a figure of ridicule in a hotel. (Later in life she ran out of money and moved out into a nursing home.) Subsequent scenes flashback to her earlier life and work forward though marriages, affairs and tragedy.
When I look back at some of NI Opera’s recent productions like Salome and Turandot, ‘dull’ certainly isn’t a word I’d use to describe them. They’ve been both exciting and challenging, embracing the emotional power and extremes that opera engenders. Powder Her Face promises to be another edgy production, particularly given the opera’s notorious reference to fellatio amongst the real life plot.
“She was a colourful personality and certainly some of the things on stage in this show are colourful as well. Truthful to the type of life she led. I don’t think there’s anything gratuitous or salacious … it’s based on a real story, and the scandal focussed around the headless man photos that were the core of the divorce case in the sixties … you can’t escape that side of the story and be truthful to what her life was.”
Mears reminds me that “opera is simply in its very nature controversial”.
“It’s about people with extreme attitudes, extreme emotions, living on the edge in terms of their behaviour, so it’s not surprising that for some it’s a little bit too much to stomach. Opera has always been shocking down the decades.”
But he cautions that it “hasn’t ever been our intention to cause controversy for its own sake”. Besides, as W. H. Auden said:
“No opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.”
Oliver goes on to underscore the power of the opera as an art form.
“Opera is about emotion and that’s why people go and see opera because they want to be moved by the predicaments of the characters on the stage, and they want to be able to see something of themselves, perhaps, in the characters.
“If opera is not about emotion it is nothing. Wagner made very grand claims for the special place that music has in the arts because it is the art form that can move as no other art form can. And it’s particularly the case for opera because it has the potential for combining acting, design, singing and music in a complete, one-off live event.”
When speaking about NI Opera, Mears rarely says “I” preferring to speak about “we”, honouring the wider team. I ask how the company has developed during his six years at the helm?
“When we started we had absolutely nothing. We didn’t have a website. We didn’t have a name. We didn’t have an office … The progress since then has been about trying to create a culture of opera in Northern Ireland, trying to establish the idea of a national opera company and what that means. For me it meant foregrounding and showcasing the finest talent that comes from Northern Ireland and the island in general.”
He stresses the importance of the Young Artists Programme which nurtures and promotes emerging talent and gives them roles on stage: “Talent development has always been at the very heart of what we have done”.
The cultivation of an opera culture in Northern Ireland and fostering regular attendance has included the need to create a level of expectation about the shows that NI Opera produces.
“When people go to see a production by NI Opera they have a pretty good idea of what it is going to be like. They know it’s going to be brilliantly designed, very theatrical, very immediate and direct, and often it will in some way resonate with some of the history or culture or society here.”
His vision of a national opera company includes not being bound by a single building.
“We were very clear that we wanted to do work all over Northern Ireland. And that’s why we did our first show in Derry because I think there was an expectation that we’d do everything in the Grand Opera House. So we wanted to knock that one on the head and say that we can do stuff anywhere.”
Audience development has been a core part of NI Opera’s mission.
“When I started I said that my ambition was for the company was to make it a company that everyone here could feel proud of and feel that ‘this opera thing could be for me’, having a really good night out to be entertained at the opera.”
From early touring productions that played to audiences of thirty or forty in small venues across Northern Ireland, NI Opera has built up its audiences to the nearly three thousand who attended the sold out performances of Turandot in late 2015.
“There’s an even bigger audience out there that can be systematically encouraged to come to our shows. The work we have done demonstrates that there is an appetite for opera which is made by a company in Northern Ireland and isn’t just brought in [from elsewhere].”
Mears reflects on the similarities between his old and new jobs.
“Audiences demand quality. They demand excitement. They demand to be moved at the opera. That’s the same whether you’re talking Belfast or London.”
On the cusp of moving to London, Mears says “it’s very humbling to behold” the rich tradition and history of Covent Garden and the experienced and passionate team he will join.
“I can’t wait to start. It is an amazing place with amazing people. I’m not just talking about the singers and the chorus and the orchestra. I’m also talking about the people in the administration, costume and … all the people who dedicate their lives to the organisation. It really is a family … and that chimes completely with my own thoughts about what makes an arts organisation successful and is what I’ve tried to do here [at NI Opera], to create this feeling of a family obviously at a much smaller scale.”
Directing an organisation doesn’t mean becoming hands off from productions.
“I love the idea of being in a position to create experiences for people in opera that will stay with them forever. That can involve commissioning work, putting teams together, but it can also mean creating work myself. I’ve been very lucky to be able to foster both aspects in my career and I would like to continue to do that.
“A lot of the most exciting opera companies in the world are led by practitioners and it’s a great facet to be able to understand other people who are working and making work in your company if you have also come across the challenges and difficulties and dilemmas in making work yourself. You understand what their needs are and how they would want to be supported and how they can give of their best. That’s ultimately what you’re doing as a director or artistic director, enabling people to give of their best.”
Would Mears’ twenty something self be surprised that a passion turned into a job and took him to the Royal Opera House in London?
“When I first went to the opera I was still at university. I was a late starter really. The first opera I saw was Káťa Kabanová by Leoš Janáček, not performed very often. But the reason I wanted to go and see that was that I was into all things Russian – books and music – and it’s based on a Russian play even though it’s an opera by a Czech composer.
“I really saw myself as going down the path of theatre. But there was something about the unique electricity that there is at the opera with the orchestra and the singers and this incredibly rich and opulent musical texture which was very thrilling for me the first time I saw an opera.
“My whole career has been about trying to recreate those moments for others in my work and to convey some of the atmosphere and electricity when I saw an opera for the first time. That’s why people have a need or a hunger to go to the opera. It’s a little bit like a drug, something that hooks you and that’s why it’s so important to keep making the case that opera really is for everybody. Because if you only give it a chance you might get hooked too.
“The problem is the barriers of preconceptions which you’re battling as well. Rightly or wrongly opera does suffer with the prejudice that it is elitist and incredibly expensive and only for a very small portion of the population. What I would say is that opera at its best should be for everybody and it isn’t just a safe establishment art form. It’s something that can be much more dangerous than that and something much more red-blooded.”
Mears promises to keep an eye on NI Opera and has had a role in programming the upcoming productions of Radamisto and Così fan tutte later this year.
“Of course I’m going to want to come back to see those productions and support the team. And I think I’ll always want to come back every now and again. Northern Ireland will have a very special place in my heart.
“We’ve grown to love the place and the warmth of the people and the generosity of the people. Belfast is a really dynamic and exciting city. We’ll certainly miss Belfast and miss the team that we’ve put together which is like a family.”
Mears isn’t surprised that the recruitment call for his successor as artistic director at NI Opera was flooded with applications. (Walter Sutcliffe takes over as artistic director in February and will speak at pre-show events on the Saturday and Sunday performances of Powder Her Face.)
“It was an amazing opportunity for me. We wouldn’t be talking about what’s coming next for me if that wasn’t the case.”
The company had been “crazily ambitious” and he credits the huge reservoir of talent, a team with energy and vision, and the Arts Council with its vision to financially back an opera company in Northern Ireland.
“How brave of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to create an opera company in the middle of the worst recession in modern times. They’ve backed us all the way. And it goes to show what can be achieved when an arts organisation does have a vision behind it and is financially backed. We’re not talking huge sums here, compared to other national opera companies.”
He gives the example of the city of Berlin which has ten times the population of Belfast. NI Opera was awarded £561k of funding from the Arts Council for 2016/17. The combined public subsidy of opera in Berlin is closer to €120 million.
“In the context of Northern Ireland and the budget that the Arts Council has to play with it shows that it is possible to do something exciting with that amount of money. I’ve never complained about the amount of money that we’ve had – that doesn’t mean to say that we wouldn’t like more, opera is an expensive business – but equally I think that other organisations like the Ulster Orchestra should be funded more as well. In general there needs to be more arts funding and more awareness of the all round societal benefits that come from funding the arts.”
Tickets for Powder Her Face are now available from the Lyric Theatre box office. Click here for further information.
This interview was written by Alan Meban (@alaninbelfast) and first appeared on the Alan in Belfast blog