NI Opera Rising With Three New Productions
Artistic director Oliver Mears maintains the company's forward momentum, beginning with L’Elisir d’Amore
Oliver Mears is a naturally diffident individual, quick to modestly deflect attention away from himself onto others. Even he, however, concedes that NI Opera has made a considerable mark under his artistic directorship, in the first two seasons of the company’s existence.
‘We’ve been delighted with the reception that we’ve had for pretty much all the productions,’ he says. There have been nine so far, including major works by Puccini, Britten and Wagner. All have garnered generous critical plaudits, The Independent on Sunday, for instance, recently hailed NI Opera as ‘the youngest and feistiest of Britain’s regional companies'.
‘From very early on audiences have really responded and engaged with what we’re trying to do,’ Mears continues. ‘People here [in Northern Ireland] have been very, very open-minded about what they’re seeing. And even though we’ve been doing some very varied repertoire, in varied ways, they have stayed with us. They haven’t been put off by the stylistic variation.’
That ringing of the changes stylistically included a site-specific Tosca in Derry-Londonderry (see video below), for which the company won the 2012 Irish Times Best Opera award. There has also been a tabloid recreation of Offenbach’s operetta Orpheus in the Underworld, with updated libretto by comedian Rory Bremner, an outdoor staging of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde at Belfast Zoo, with gloriously colourful Chinese costumes, and NI Opera Shorts as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.
So much imagination, so much innovation. In selecting new operas to mount, is it difficult for Mears to keep the bar as high as he has already raised it?
‘What we’re trying to do is present the audience with as varied a spectrum of the operatic repertoire as possible. So this season we’re doing our first full-length contemporary opera, our first Verdi, and our first Italian comedy. We’ve chosen those very deliberately as a contrast to the operas we’ve done in the past.’
The ‘Italian comedy’ in question is Donizetti’s hugely popular L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love), which Mears is currently rehearsing. It opens on September 27 at Theatre in the Mill, Newtownabbey, with further dates to follow in Belfast, Omagh, Armagh and Enniskillen.
And while Mears is stridently opposed to what is known in the business as ‘director’s opera’ – where the intended meaning of the composer is often obliterated by a director’s own interpretation – he promises that NI Opera’s Elisir (pictured below) will be original in approach, and updated to the modern era.
‘For me, if one is going to choose a repertoire piece as well-known as Elisir is, I think one has to have a really strong reason or idea for doing it,’ Mears asserts. ‘Of how it could be done in a way that, as far as I know, hasn’t been done before.
‘I think the challenge with Elisir is that yes, it’s a very warm and a very sunny piece, but that can often translate on stage into a certain tweeness. Actually I think that there’s a real richness in the piece, and a lot of complexity which one can explore. It’s not just froth, by no means. And the music is sensational.’
One way of cutting through the froth and tweeness, Mears argues, is setting the opera in a period close to the present, making characters and situations more recognisable to a contemporary audience.
The rural Ireland of the 1970s is, accordingly, substituted for the 19th century Basque countryside of Donizetti’s original. Adina mutates from a rich noblewoman into an articulate young college lecturer, and her suitor Nemorino is a student. The quack doctor Dulcamara, meanwhile, becomes a self-styled scientist, with a string of bogus qualifications to his credit.
‘There’s a huge amount of naivety in the piece,’ Mears observes. ‘By setting it 30 or 40 years ago somewhere very provincial and peripheral – hundreds of miles away from Belfast or Dublin – hopefully we can retain some of the plausibility of why Dulcamara is taken seriously. To the locals he’s a great sophisticate. Of course he’s actually a charlatan.’
Deception, masks and concealed identities are also at the heart of Irish composer Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest, a new opera based on Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy. First staged earlier this year in London, NI Opera’s production in October will be the opera’s Irish premiere, with performances planned for Derry-Londonderry, Belfast, Cork and Dublin.
Though assessing new operatic work can be a notoriously approximate business, Mears is convinced that Barry’s Earnest is a quality product.
‘Ours will be the third production this year, which I think is probably unprecedented for a contemporary opera. It’s an amazing piece, it really did make a big impact on me. I’d already worked with Gerald on The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant at English National Opera eight years ago, so I knew how strong his music was, and what a particular voice he has.’
That voice, claims Mears, provides a startlingly novel insight into the characters and situations of Wilde’s comedy. ‘What Gerald brings to it is a uniquely percussive energy, to emotions which in the play, as it is often produced, are underneath the surface. He brings out the emotional violence that there is within these characters, in a way that isn’t possible in the play. It’s very volatile, raw and exciting.’
Mears is also looking forward to NI Opera’s third major undertaking of the 2013-14 season, a full-scale production of Verdi’s great Shakespearian opera Macbeth on the main stage of the Grand Opera House, Belfast, with the Ulster Orchestra on pit duty.
‘It’s a big challenge for us. Macbeth is no small piece. But there are various themes within it which we are particularly interested in – the corruption which comes from power, and leads to violence, the way in which nationalism is exploited very cynically by both sides, the fact that it takes place within a civil war situation...’
These themes have obvious resonance in Northern Ireland, and Mears relishes the idea of Verdi’s masterpiece striking chords with a contemporary audience. ‘Our Macbeth will be a very modern production,’ he promises. ‘We hope it will be, as the play is, quite shocking, because the themes are very shocking, and the violence is very shocking.’
For now, though, Mears is back to Elisir rehearsals, and to the business of scoring a tenth hit in a row for his fledgling company. And yet, for all the success that they have so far registered together, Mears is cautious and circumspect about the future.
‘One never knows what’s round the corner in the arts,’ he says. ‘And that’s why it’s so important not to be complacent, because I think that complacency in any art-form is very, very perilous. But what we have done, I think, is establish a loyalty from audiences here.
‘All we can do is to keep building that loyalty, keep encouraging new audience members to come and see our work, and make sure we have a situation where not having a company like NI Opera here would be unthinkable.’