English Touring Opera

Philip Hamond talks to the director of the English Touring Opera, James Conway, about bringing opera back to Belfast

It’s probably something of a coincidence that English Touring Opera is visiting Buxton's Opera House just before the company arrives in Belfast’s Grand Opera House later this month. Both theatres were designed by the legendary English architect Frank Matcham whose few remaining Victorian and Edwardian creations are still considered to be unrivalled masterpieces.

'Belfast’s Grand Opera House is my favourite venue and its acoustic is ideal for all types of opera,' Canadian-born James Conway told me. He is General Director of English Touring Opera and no stranger to Northern Ireland. For many years, he brought his hugely successful Dublin-based Opera Theatre Company here with an assortment of interesting productions, many of which he directed himself.

A Midsummer Night's DreamConway left OTC in 2002 to head up ETO. 'The company was founded in 1979 and originally titled Opera ’80. But by 1992, the name seemed a little dated! That’s when it became English Touring Opera. It had a reputation for fairly radical productions in its first decade but had gradually become more conservative by the time I took over. I felt it was ready for a change.'

He was just the man for the job. At OTC, he had established that company as Ireland’s most exciting and innovative opera organisation, visiting all parts of the island and supported both north and south of the border with arts council funding.

'It’s difficult for a touring opera company to establish a profile in specific places without regular visits. So at ETO, we tour twice annually to 33 theatres and present around 120 performances each year. This will be our first visit to Belfast but it’s somewhere we would like to keep coming back to.'

Since the demise of Opera Northern Ireland in the late 1990s, the Grand Opera House has hosted several opera companies – most notably Welsh National Opera and more recently, Opera North. Unfortunately, indigenous grand opera companies producing in Northern Ireland are just not viable at least in financial terms.

'My aim at ETO is to provide good value for money and to choose opera repertoire that we can do well, cast well and sell,' declares Conway, revealing an unusually practical streak for anyone involved in opera production. 'At the scale of our company, with an orchestra of 30 and a chorus of 15, it’s just not possible to do justice to some operas and so a lot of thought has to go into what we can do.'

Mozart and Handel are firm favourites with Conway from his previous experience, but he has shown a good eye and ear for other operatic explorations, including new commissions.

'We are so well served by the singing talent of these islands – both in Great Britain and Ireland – and Don Pasqualethere’s always a wealth of emerging and established singers from the many music conservatories here who should expect to be backed by companies like ETO.

'We can provide them with many different opportunities in main productions and in the complementary education and outreach operatic projects which we always have running with our tours.

'Although all our performers are freelance and we’re not a repertory company in the normal sense of the term, we like to develop special relationships with our singers and players that can last for many years.'

ETO is currently touring three operas, which are all set for the Grand Opera House in the coming weeks.

'I’ve deliberately chosen three comedies from three different eras which everyone will have heard of and which are just right for our scale,' Conway continues. 'Donizetti’s Don Pasquale is the perfect score in my opinion and we’ve cast the leading role as a wealthy conductor of international renown – knowing that conductors sometimes have difficult relationships with those they conduct!

'Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro is set in period as I think that this is what works best for many audiences. The third opera is Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and it’s a very specialist comedy which to some extent registers Britten’s own sexual unease. This particular tour is a revival of our 2004 production.'

You can see all three operas by English Touring Opera in Belfast’s Grand Opera House – Marriage of Figaro on Wednesday 21 April and Thursday 22 April; Don Pasquale on Friday 23 April; and Midsummer's Night Dream on Saturday 24th April. All performances begin at 7.30pm.