NI Opera 2015-16 Season Preview

Director Oliver Mears on tackling a 'gargantuan work of art', venturing into uncharted territory and taking risks to challenge audiences with this year's programme

What could be nicer than a beautiful aria on a summer’s day on the North Antrim coast? What better antidote to the daily grind than an intimate lunchtime recital in an 18th century Belfast church? Perhaps a full-blown politico-comic opera is more your bag.

Or, if you fancy a bit more spice and a rock ’n’ roll emotional ride, then what about one of world’s most powerful operatic tales, with a full-blooded, hundred-voice chorus and extended orchestra to boot?

Northern Ireland Opera’s programme for 2015/16 promises a feast of outstanding music and high drama, from Handel’s comedic satire Agrippina and Puccini’s final masterpiece Turandot, to Benjamin Britten’s haunting ghost tale, Turn of the Screw.

For the award-winning NI Opera and its director Oliver Mears there’s much to look forward to. The highlight of the season, undoubtedly, will be the three performances of Puccini’s mighty Turandot in Belfast’s Grand Opera House at the end of October.

This co-production, alongside the State Theatre of Nuremberg and the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, sees the world-renowned Spanish director Calixto Bieito at the helm. So a radical, provocative treatment of Puccini’s last work is almost guaranteed.

'We’re thrilled,' enthuses Mears, 'particularly about the collaboration with Calixto Bieito and the two other European opera houses to put on Turandot. Calixto is one of the world’s most exciting directors. He always gives the audience a white knuckle ride in terms of thought-provoking and, some would consider, provocative staging ideas.' 

The scale of the Turandot production is impressive, with a hundred-strong chorus backing the nine principal players for starters. 'It’s by far the largest chorus that we’ve ever worked with,' says Mears.

Then there’s the Ulster Orchestra, whose full might doesn’t quite match Puccini’s orchestral ambition; an extra twenty performers have been drafted in for the three Belfast performances.

In addition, a seven-piece percussion ensemble will take its place off–stage as there simply isn’t room in the pit. The elaborate stage was designed in Germany and when you factor in all the technical team and backstage hands needed to pull this off then it’s clearly an opera out of the ordinary.

'There are a hell of a lot of people involved in putting this gargantuan work of art on,' says Mears. 'It’s a very large-scale opera and one that we wouldn’t really be able to tackle if we weren’t collaborating with partners like Toulouse and Nuremberg. We’re really interested to see what the Belfast audience will think about it.' 

The collaborative nature of NI Opera’s Turandot goes beyond merely teaming up with powerhouse French and German theatres. 'Opera involves collaboration in the truest sense between so many different art forms and so many different people working together,' explains Mears. 'That’s one of the most exciting things about it.' 

So many people need to be in sync to pull it off successfully that risk, as Mears is only too aware, is an ever-present part of the equation.

'There are so many things that could go wrong,' he laughs. 'In the back of your mind there’s always the question, is it going to work? When it does work that makes it even more rewarding because it has involved so many different elements.'

Given the scale of the production and the logistics involved, Turandot will only be performed in Belfast, though NI Opera has done reductions of other operas in the past, notably L’Elisir D’Amore and Orpheus, which performed in such off the beaten track locations – as far as opera is concerned - as Enniskillen, Omagh, Newtownabbey, Armagh and Downpatrick.

Turnadot 2

'There are some pieces that suit reduction, where there’s a lightness of texture,' explains Mears, 'but for something like Turandot, this great, throbbing work, then one really wants to have it as close to the original orchestration as possible. There are some operas, particularly of that era like Salome and obviously Wagner, where if you start to reduce it I think it loses a big part of its weight and power.' 

Lighter than Turandot for sure, but certainly uplifting, is the series of lunchtime recitals that will run each Wednesday from mid-July to mid-August in the First Presbyterian Church, Rosemary Street, Belfast.

'The First Presbyterian Church has actually run this recital series for many years,' says the Northern Ireland Opera Director, 'and has very successfully managed to draw a lunchtime audience of people who are in central Belfast and want to spend forty five minutes listening to high-class music. There’s a real mixture of people who go to these recitals and they’re always full.'

The programme, which is free to the public, features Northern Ireland Opera’s Young Artists – some of the cream of the up-and-coming generation – including Sean Boylan, the winner of the 2014 Festival of Voice.

Now in its fourth year, the Festival of Voice is a celebration of classical singing held in Glenarm on the North Antrim coast on the last weekend of August. This year’s festival offers recitals in a number of churches by some of Ireland’s most promising young opera singers who will compete in a Gala Final for the title of Northern Ireland Opera Voice 2015. 

With its stunning bay and views to Scotland and the Mull of Kintyre, Glenarm is a spectacular location for what promises to be a musically edifying weekend. 'Glenarm makes for a delightful trip', says Mears. 'It’s a special occasion for those people who do travel there.'

It’s also in keeping with NI Opera’s aim to bring opera to a wider public beyond Belfast, where the company’s core work is presented. 'There aren’t as many natural touring venues in the north of Northern Ireland as there are elsewhere', says Mears. 'The Festival of Voice gives us an opportunity to go to an area that we don’t always go to and which we’d like to go to more. We’d like to extend our reach, which is important to us.' 

In September NI Opera heads into uncharted territory with Handel’s politico-comic opera Agrippina. 'Agrippina is our first baroque work,' says Mears. 'We thought it was overdue that we started to do this kind of repertoire.' 

Handel’s Agrippina has been winning over audiences for three centuries and is as relevant now as it was when it debuted during the Venice Carnevale in 1710. 'All these great operas have survived because they deal with us as human beings,' says Mears. 'That’s why they live on.' 

Agrippina

The political intrigue, deception and rivalries of Handel’s witty satire – widely considered to be a masterpiece - will no doubt resonate with Belfast audiences, accustomed as they are to observing the daily opéra bouffe of Northern Irish politics.

Agrippina is a co-production with the Irish Chamber Orchestra, the Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick and Irish Youth Opera. Investing in the country’s talented youth lies at the very heart of NI Opera.

'It’s an essential part of our remit,' Mears emphasizes. 'It really is our bread and butter to offer the opportunity to young singers from across the island.' 

With the demise of Opera Ireland in 2010 opportunities for the wealth of singing talent across Ireland are limited, and whilst NI Opera has a particular goal to promote Northern Irish singers, the company extends its support across the whole island.

'I think we’ve been successful in doing that,' recognizes Mears, 'and really giving people important, central roles, not just the cough-and-spit roles, as the minor walk-on parts are called. All the young Irish singers we’ve worked with have gone on to bigger and better things.' 

Finally, in March 2016, NI Opera revisits Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw, which it performed to critical acclaim in 2012. 'It’s really our first revival, explains Mears. 'In the last few years we’ve been building up a repertoire and hopefully this will enable us to revive one of our previous productions, something that we’re proud of, every year.' 

In a relatively short number of years, NI Opera has built a reputation for productions that are colourful, contemporary and provocative. But does NI Opera set out to meet audience expectations or to challenge them?

'It’s an interesting point' responds Mears. 'I had this conversation with Calixto in Nuremberg and he was very clear about his work. There’s this idea that he’s a shock merchant, though as far as he’s concerned he’s responding truthfully to the piece and it’s not relevant whether it’s controversial or provocative or not. It’s about whether the audience respond positively to or engages with his artistic vision.

'That’s our take on it as well,' continues Mears. 'We come at it from the point of view of interrogating a piece and offering as true an interpretation of it as possible. At the same time, it is about risk-taking and about modernity and responding to Northern Ireland as a place and responding to life now.' 

The clichéd notion of opera as wigs and period costume entertainment couldn’t be further from NI Opera’s philosophy. 'It’s important not to let opera, which is so visceral, become a form of escapism,' underlines Mears. 'We do want to take risks and to be challenging but we want our audiences to come with us on that journey.'

NI Opera's 2015-16 programme continues with the Festival of Voice, running from August 28-30 in Glenarm, Co. Antrim. For further details and booking information on upcoming productions visit NI's Opera's What's On.