Before bringing Bastien & Bastienne to Belfast's Baby Grand, Opera Theatre Company director Annilese Miskimmon checks in to chat about Carmen, rising stars and getting the best from her performers
Artistic director of Opera Theatre Company, Bangor's Annilese Miskimmon is one of the UK's most sought-after directors.
Her work includes productions of The Coronation of Poppea, Ca Ira for Roger Waters of Pink Floyd in Rome, and Carmen in New Zealand.
How did you come to be involved in the world of opera, producing and directing?
I was always interested in drama when I was growing up, taking part in am-dram. I was fixated on The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. As a teen I joined the chorus of Opera Northern Ireland and although they no longer exist, I have lot to thank them for.
Do you find it difficult making your performances appeal to those who wouldn't normally consider attending opera?
Anyone who comes to see an opera of mine will have a good night out, because my work is very theatrical. The prime motivation is to be true to the piece. I get upset when people say that opera is ‘posh’. It isn’t. I’m not posh, the singers aren’t posh. Operas are the musicals of their day and Mozart was the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his time. He wanted to entertain people, and not just those with money or esoteric educations.
You've produced one of the best-known operas in the world, Bizet's Carmen.
That took place in New Zealand. It was a fabulous experience, especially as it was my first time. Carmen is a huge production with 40 in the chorus and 20 dancers and actors. It was very exciting and we did it in a big university town named Dunedin. It was the first time Carmen had been done there. It’s a great story, all about sex and death. Those are things that opera does very well. Carmen is perhaps the most popular opera in the world and even people who wouldn’t normally have gone recognise the music, from film and mobile phones! It’s a bit of a director’s graveyard, though. You really need to know opera to make it come off. That’s the irony, as Bizet thought his career was over because Carmen was too shocking for the intelligensia of the day. Most directors get asked to do a Carmen. I know it doesn’t go well for some, but others thrive on it. I was lucky, I had a fantastic team and we did a great job.
Bastien & Bastienne isn't the first Mozart that you've done. You've also tried your hand at Apollo and Hyacinthus.
That was a real event because it was produced to mark the Mozart anniversary year. Mozart wrote Apollo & Hyacinthus, which is a tragedy, when he was 11. When he was 12 he wrote Bastien & Bastienne, which is a comedy. We’re very casual with phrases like ‘born geniuses’, but he was born with an immense talent. We had a young boy on the stage, and his father sings an incredible, emotive piece about Greece. Although Mozart didn’t like the libretto you can hear this incredibly mature response to death.
Your work must expose you to a number of talented actors who are as yet off the radar of the general public. Who has impressed you, and in which productions?
There’s a wonderful singer named Doreen Curran who was in the The Coronation of Poppea, the last show that went to the Grand Opera House proper. She’s from Derry. She played the role of the Empress and blew everyone away, including the UK critics. As a result she was selected for the same role for the English National Opera, at the London Coliseum. Opera Theatre Company is a real hotbed. She’s a real Northern Irish talent.
The people who might be off the public’s radar are the three singers in Bastien & Bastienne, who are incredibly talented. They’re on the cusp of going into the profession. Claudia Boyle (soprano), Gavan Ring (baritone) and Andrew Bushell (tenor), they’re all members of our young artists associate’s programme. We help them make the leap from being a student into the wider world.
You've worked with writers like Alexander McCall Smith, on The Queen Who Didn't Come to Tea. What was it like to work with such a high-profile writer?
That was fabulous. As people know from his books, he’s a serious amateur musician. He’s very talented. I think he plays with an outfit called the Really Awful Orchestra. He’s very knowledgeable and has long-established links with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. They approached him and asked if he could write something for children. He wrote a mini-entertainment with bits of classical music, about waiting for the Queen to come to tea. The kids loved it. He’s such a good storyteller. I like working with people who aren’t traditional opera people.
What’s the secret to drawing the best from your performers?
If you have a production that has 12 principal singers in it, you have to be 12 different directors. Each singer has their own needs. Some are very method-y and have method-y needs, whereas others might take more of a Stanislavski approach. I’m not a great believer in the idea that everyone should fit into how the director thinks things should go. I think that you have to tap into what releases individuals as performers.