Diva Diaspora?

Cormac Newark on how Dublin's Opera Theatre Company is bringing NI singers back home

This season’s tour by Opera Theatre Company of Dublin, which includes two venues in Northern Ireland and two in the Republic, features one of the oldest of all operas, Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643) – or rather, The Coronation of Poppea, because OTC, in keeping with their down-to-earth ethos, sing the work in English.

And it also raises one of the oldest questions in the opera business: home-grown vs foreign singers? For OTC have instituted a Young Associate Artist Programme in order to offer singers an opportunity to bridge the gap between training and earning a living in this highly competitive world. One of them, Daryl Simpson, is from
Northern Ireland.

The hope is that, given the right opportunities at home, the island’s most promising vocal talent won’t immediately and inevitably flee overseas, and that audiences here won’t always be heard voicing the complaint that has been echoing round opera houses practically since Monteverdi’s time, which is that there are too many foreigners cluttering up the stage and getting all the best tunes (historically this has usually meant too many Italians).

And not before time, because it’s surely impossible for the opera companies to justify the considerable public subsidy they receive via the Arts Councils if they end up putting on shows with foreign artists (nowadays often Eastern European – the Italians have become too expensive) for the benefit of foreign tourists.

Wexford Festival Opera, for example, are always getting into trouble with the Irish press for not employing enough Irish singers; they in turn complain that they just don’t get enough good native singers auditioning. It comes as no surprise to learn that they have recently launched their own artists’ development programme.

Poor local nurturing is of course a big part of the problem, and
Northern Ireland
is worse off in this respect than the South because there is no conservatoire in the province. Various institutions and individuals have tried to address this lack. The
University of
Ulster
’s undergraduate music programme, for example, is genuinely serious about performing, and there is a new masters course available to performers too.

Yet many in the business would argue that nothing prepares young musicians like a proper conservatoire, and Barry Douglas, the internationally renowned concert pianist from
Belfast, has in the last few years been pressing the decision-makers to set one up in his home town. So far without success. The fact remains that many of the best young singers from the North will go to music college in Dublin, or straight to
Britain
and beyond.

But the lack of high-quality teaching here is not the whole story. Even the singers coming out of the
Royal Irish Academy of Music or Dublin Institute of Technology Conservatory of Music and Drama tend not to stick around on the island long.

And in any case, this is probably a good thing. Young performers can only benefit from a wider range of experience. For audiences here, maybe it doesn’t really matter where they train, or even where they live – as long as they come back.

From this point of view, perhaps Barry Douglas got it right first time with Camerata Ireland, the chamber orchestra he formed in 1999 to (in the ensemble’s own words) bring together fine musicians who live and work in Ireland, and (crucially) Irish musicians who play and work abroad.

This may seem a strange advertising slogan in a business sector that has seen free movement of workers around
Europe for longer than practically any other. Singers and instrumentalists have made their living abroad for centuries; in Monteverdi’s time an ensemble would have been more likely to boast about having exotic foreign players, and even today it’s difficult to imagine similar initiatives in other European nations. Naturally, part of Camerata Ireland’s appeal – and part of the reason
Ireland
is a special case – is political. Sure enough, as their blurb goes on, their mission includes the noble duty to ‘carry the vision of a new
island of
Ireland
to the world’.

Stirring stuff. It’s true that there is still something of a diaspora mentality lingering in certain parts of the Irish music world, but sometimes it’s as much a problem with audiences back home as with the singers that are lured away. What those in the business here know from occasionally bitter experience (and what the new Arts Council initiative Audiences NI presumably hopes to address) is that people often only come in numbers to known quantities, whether it’s familiar repertoire or performers with some local link. Maybe it’s to
Ireland
itself that this new vision needs to be carried.

Political history notwithstanding, though, at least the kind of cross-border activity implied in the Camerata Ireland charter is now flourishing. OTC are the living proof of this, because they receive funding from both the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Arts Council
Ireland/An Chomhairle Ealaíon.

And they’re also doing their bit to bring accomplished native performers back to Ireland: in addition to those on the Young Associate Artist Programme, OTC have engaged six Irish singers for Poppea (more than half the company), three from the South and three – Doreen Curran, Alan Ewing and Rebekah Coffey – from the North. There has even been talk of OTC reopening their office in the North.

In the light of the success of last season’s Bohème, which played to large audiences across the island and was the first opera ever to fill the Millennium Forum in
Derry, let’s hope they do. Because even if the audience doesn’t find singers they know on the programme, it’s important that the company knows its audience.

OTC’s The Coronation of Poppea is playing at the Millennium Forum in Derry on Friday September 23, 2005 at 8pm.

Cormac Newark