Spark Opera's Kate Guelke ACES It

Artistic director of Spark Opera on collaborating with Den Jyske Opera and maintaining a diverse career in the arts

How did you first get involved in the arts in Northern Ireland?

I've been participating in the arts since I was small. My mother's an actress so I would go and see her in all her productions. I remember watching Pygmalion ten times in P5 – I was obsessed with that show – and following her on tour. I was also heavily involved in the School of Music and all of Methody's school choirs for years. That had a massive formative impact on me.

Can you tell us about Spark Opera and your role there as artistic director?

Spark Opera is a Belfast-based company. As artistic director, I've spent the last three years experimenting with different formats, from workshops and mini operas to full-scale requiems. Now we've gained some experience of what works and what doesn't, we can comfortably move on to another phase, which sees a renewed emphasis on opera as an event, especially new opera, youth opera and community opera.

You also coordinate the InterAct Youth Arts festival in Derry~Londonderry. Do you find it more rewarding working with young people on art and community projects?

Young people are often serious about art in a way that adults are not. They have an intense enthusiasm for it that wanes with age. That's always very refreshing to be around.

You seem to have many strings to your bow – have you found that the best way to pursue a career in the arts?

Any career in the arts is difficult. I'm certainly not exceptional for sometimes finding it challenging. In general though I've been very lucky. I've worked with great companies and great people and am fortunate enough to have a stable creative job. I also have very supportive parents.

What were your first thoughts when you learned about the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's Artist Career Enhancement Schemes (ACES) Awards with regards to what you do?

I thought, this is worth a punt. I knew there'd be a lot of competition, but I had this offer to take up a residency with Den Jyske Opera and it seemed like a perfect match. I had to apply.

How did you feel then when you discovered you had been accepted onto the scheme?

I was absolutely delighted. What a vote of confidence. I was thrilled, of course. It's a great honour to have been accepted and I'm very grateful to the Arts Council.

How do you feel about partnering with Den Jyske Opera?

Annilese Miskimmon was previously the artistic director of Opera Theatre Company (now Fergus Sheil), and I'd met her several times as a student. I'm so happy to be working with her fabulous company. It's the first time I've walked into a rehearsal room and the set's just been there from the beginning. It feels like the big leagues, and I'm really privileged to be working in this environment.

What do you plan to work with them on?

I'm assisting the directing team on a production of Lucia di Lammermoor. The director/designer is Isabella Bywater. We've just finished our first week of rehearsals and I'm already very excited by what I see. Expect a twist on the Walter Scott tale. Forget castles and kilts, this is a violent thriller. Not exactly Taggart but definitely contemporary and narrative-driven. The mad scene's going to be devastating.

How important do you feel schemes like ACES are to artists in Northern Ireland?

I feel these schemes are very important to artists in the country. Artists don't train in the same way the majority of people do, so to be given the financial freedom and flexibility to go get some mentoring, go overseas, go shadow someone established, that's a huge boon.

It's also a genuine investment in the artist, because chances are they're going to come back with a lot more than what they write in their 'end of project report'. This is how careers are made, and it's crucial to have an Arts Council that recognises that. We're very, very lucky that we do.

Visit the Arts Council of Northern Ireland website for information on how to apply for the ACES scheme and other funding streams, and the Spark Opera website for information on forthcoming concerts.