NI Opera Bring the Music of Mozart into the Roaring Twenties

Award-winning soprano Aoife Miskelly on wrapping her voice around the Italian language for Così fan tutte's glittering makeover

With exquisite music from Mozart, stunning sets and costumes, and a cast of superb opera singers, Northern Ireland Opera is pulling out all the stops for its latest production, Così fan tutte. Throw in a rather fabulous story with oodles of comedy and capers, and a score performed by the Ulster Orchestra, and you have the perfect ingredients for a great night out at the theatre.

Having opened at Belfast’s Grand Opera House this past weekend, Così fan tutte played for three nights before it heads to Derry~Londonderry for a show on November 23 at the Millennium Forum. Award-winning soprano, Aoife Miskelly, who plays Despina the mischievous maid in the production, says the cast is looking forward to the next show.

'We’ve had a very busy week, but we’re all set,' she says. 'This is a new interpretation of Così fan tutte by Welsh director Adele Thomas, so it’s a brand new production that has just had its world premiere.

'Adele’s been working on this for the past couple of years. It’s set in the 1920s in a New York apartment owned by the wealthy Don Alfonso (James Molloy) – a man in his forties who likes to entertain and throw parties. Two of his ex-students (Samuel Dale Johnson and Sam Furness) come along to a party and he decides to play a bit of a game with them. He asks them, if they pretend to go to war, will their girlfriends stay faithful? They then dress up and try to woo their girlfriends, putting them to the test! It’s a really fun plot.'

Così fan tutte

As Despina, Don Alfonso’s maid, Miskelly is an 'all-seeing and all-knowing' character who’s intent on Don Alfonso winning the game so she can benefit financially herself. As a result, she tries to teach the girlfriends (Anna Devin and Heather Lowe) a lesson, even dressing up as a male doctor and a male lawyer herself along the way.

'Despina has been around the block a few times,' says Miskelly. 'She likes to think she knows the way of the world. She has a crazy red Shirley Temple-type wig and is an alcoholic and a smoker. She’s really good fun to play. It all has a rather farcical ending, which the audience will hopefully find fun.'

For regular opera-goers, it might seem like a bit of a no-brainer to catch a showing of Così fan tutte, but if opera isn’t normally your thing, then Miskelly says this is the perfect time to give it a go.

'Mozart’s music is so accessible,' she says. 'It was the popular music of the day and is very memorable. There’s some really stunning duets and solos and quartets in the production and the sets and costumes are superbly designed.

Aoife Miskelly (Despina), Heather Lowe (Dorabella), Samuel Dale Johnson (Guglielmo), Sam Furness (Ferrando), Kiandra Howarth (Fiordiligi) & John Molloy (Don Alfonso)

Aoife Miskelly (Despina), Heather Lowe (Dorabella), Samuel Dale Johnson (Guglielmo), Sam Furness (Ferrando), Kiandra Howarth (Fiordiligi) & John Molloy (Don Alfonso)

'I would really encourage anyone who hasn’t seen an opera before to come along. It’s basically a comedy and is going to be sung in Italian, with English surtitles.'

Singing the entire opera in Italian does present a bit of an extra challenge to the cast but, as Miskelly explains, it’s something all opera singers have to get used to anyway in their careers.

'As an opera singer you’re used to singing in lots of different languages and by the time you get to the stage of being a professional, you should have a few years of that under your belt,' she says.

'You have to be international as an opera singer to work consistently, and be amenable to being on the road. It’s great if you do have an understanding of the language. I did A-Level Italian and Spanish, so I’m glad of that now! I also lived in Germany for four years, which was really helpful.

'It’s your job to know exactly what’s being sung at you, as well as knowing what you’re singing yourself. It does provide an extra challenge but Italian is one of the most beautiful languages to sing in. I think it’s nice that we’re doing Così fan tutte in Italian.'

Sam Furness (Ferrando), John Molloy (Don Alfonso), Kiandra Howarth (Fiordiligi), Aoife Miskelly (Despina), Heather Lowe (Dorabella) & Samuel Dale Johnson (Guglielmo)

Sam Furness (Ferrando), John Molloy (Don Alfonso), Kiandra Howarth (Fiordiligi), Aoife Miskelly (Despina), Heather Lowe (Dorabella) & Samuel Dale Johnson (Guglielmo)

Having been drawn to music at an early age, and becoming proficient as a cellist, Miskelly says it wasn’t until she went to university that she started to explore singing as a soloist performer. A former pupil of the Belfast School of Music and later, London’s Royal Academy Opera, she had always played in youth orchestras and loved singing, but hadn’t seen her future in opera.

'I went to London to do my post-graduate in vocal studies and then got into opera,' she says. 'I remember my singing teacher telling me years ago that once you get the bug, you get it for life, and I love opera now – the variety of the career and the people you meet.'

Although now London-based, Miskelly enjoys returning home to Northern Ireland to work and will indeed be getting married back in Ireland next month. The opera life may be a gruelling one – involving six days a week of intensive rehearsals when a production is being staged – but she says that she loves her work.

As for Così fan tutte – with a first-time opera director who knows the entire score from memory and a first-class team working on the production, it’s a show not to be missed, she stresses.

'I’ve been working in the opera business a few years now and it’s rare that the director can sing the whole score at you from memory – but Adele can!' says Miskelly. 'It’s been such an enjoyable process working on Così fan tutte, and with Adele and choreographer Emma Woods at the helm, it’s a very stylised production.'

Così fan tutte travels to the Millennium Forum in Derry~Londonderry on Thursday, November 23. For tickets and information, as well as news on Northern Ireland Opera's next show The Threepenny Opera, visit www.niopera.com. Photos by Patrick Redmond.