NI Opera's The Flying Dutchman

Singers Giselle Allen and Bruno Caproni front NI Opera's historic revival of Richard Wagner's epic opera. 'It's a thrill to be back'

I hear Giselle Allen before I see her.

I’m sitting in the Grand Opera House, Belfast, amid a small coterie of lunchtime diners munching fries and sandwiches. Above our heads, singing of a sweep and intensity rarely heard in public eating areas suddenly cuts through the piped muzak and low-level babble. It’s from a rehearsal room somewhere in the building. It’s opera – and it’s positively frisson-making.

Minutes later, the flame-haired Allen bobs down the stairwell breezily, punching a message into her mobile telephone, and flops into a sofa beside me. ‘Where’s the menu?’ she laughs. ‘I’m absolutely starving!’

As well she might be, for Allen is mid-way through an exhausting period of rehearsals for what will be a moment of operatic history: the first-ever home-grown staging in Northern Ireland of Richard Wagner’s early masterpiece The Flying Dutchman, in this 200th anniversary year of the composer’s birth in Leipzig, Germany.

It’s a highly ambitious project for NI Opera, a company that has only recently celebrated its second birthday. Not least, says Allen, because her own part of Senta, and that of the sea-wandering Dutchman she falls hopelessly in love with, are so relentlessly demanding vocally.

‘This is the most difficult role to sing so far in my career,’ she admits. ‘It’s quite high, it’s written along the passaggio, and is all highly emotional. There’s a heightened level of tension and adrenalin in the body, which doesn’t help the voice. My teacher, Anne Evans, says it’s the hardest of all the Wagner female parts.'

Evans should know. The English singer was herself a famous Senta, and a Wagnerian soprano of huge distinction. Belfast-born Allen has been jetting back and forward to London for lessons with her mentor, in preparation for her first appearances in the part.

Allen fervently believes the air-miles have been well worth accumulating. ‘Anne’s incredible,’ she enthuses. ‘She’s sung every single Wagnerian soprano role. Her insight into live performance, the pitfalls, technical hints about how to pace yourself to get to the end, because the part of Senta is huge.’

And though Allen has done intensity often before – not least in Janacek roles, and her recent triumphant appearance in Weinberg’s holocaust opera The Passenger at English National Opera – she acknowledges that Wagner has a habit of taking things to a completely different level.

‘It’s all on a grander scale,’ she explains. ‘The music, the orchestra, the singing, the vocal lines. And I’m not a singer who can hold back on the emotion in rehearsals. I give as much as I would give on stage. I have felt absolutely exhausted in the evenings, brain-dead. So I have to have a glass of red wine.’

Despite the inevitable moments of tiredness and enervation, and the immense demands that Wagner places on his singers, Allen is visibly excited about fronting a major Wagner premiere in her native city.

‘For any small company to take on Wagner is pretty huge, pretty ambitious. This is really a big challenge in every way. I think it’s going to look magnificent, the sets are incredible. The visual side of it will blow people away, and the music will too. I think it’s going to be pretty epic, really.’

Opposite Allen, in the role of the tortured Dutchman, is another locally born singer, Bruno Caproni, whose family ran the famous ice cream parlour and ballroom half an hour along the coastline from Belfast in nearby Bangor.

Caproni, whose family heritage inclined him naturally towards the great Italian operatic composers (he’s sung 17 of the major Verdi parts for baritone), agrees with Allen that doing Wagner is a uniquely challenging business.

‘It’s actually more demanding than Verdi,’ he adds, ‘which lies within a certain arc, from the slightly lower middle voice to the high. The Dutchman, by contrast, plummets down to the depths, the real bottom octave of the voice. And it goes right up as well. It’s a much wider tessitura.

‘But the more I’ve studied the role,’ Caproni continues, ‘the more I’ve been working on it over the months, I must say I’ve grown to love it. It’s a romantic, demanding opera, but there’s a beautiful lyricism there as well. It’s a joy to sing.’

The musical idiom of The Flying Dutchman may be broadly romantic, but the word doesn’t, according to Caproni, adequately characterise the nature of the relationship between the wandering seafarer and Senta.

‘It’s obsession. On both his part and hers. She has grown up with his legend, and she actually has a portrait of the Dutchman on her wall. And she has fantasised and almost fallen in love with this person before she meets him.’

The Flying Dutchman as harbinger of contemporary celebrity worship? It’s an interesting concept. Caproni, however, views the opera’s enduring popularity as being linked to more basic, visceral audience reactions to the central character.

‘It’s about the bad guy who isn’t really a bad guy,’ he comments. ‘The black, dark figure who’s actually a good guy. And you want him to be released, even if it’s at the cost of Senta. You feel his torment, knowing that there’s one thing, and one thing only, that can release him from it.’

Caproni’s travels as an operatic baritone have taken him to the greatest opera houses on the international circuit, but he has never forgotten growing up in Bangor, and that local rooting still runs deep within him.

‘If truth be told,’ he muses, ‘I’d always dreamed of coming back to the Grand Opera House to sing Verdi’s Rigoletto, which I’ve done all over the world. It’s quite a thrill to be back, it’s 25 years since I sang opera in Northern Ireland. I’ve been down to Bangor, and it’s great to catch up, and see family and friends.

‘Belfast itself seems a lot more vibrant than it used to be. I mean, look at the Opera House now compared to what it was – it’s phenomenal. All these facilities here, the cafés, the bars up and down, the Baby Grand. Marvellous, it really is.’

Talk gradually turns away from the Dutchman, as Caproni reminisces about outstanding local singers of bygone generations such as Norma Burrowes and Heather Harper, and remembers a golden era when the great Belfast tenor James Johnston ('the singing butcher') sang at the family’s ballroom of entertainment in Bangor.

Caproni and Allen are taking that proud tradition of Northern Irish operatic excellence forward, and will make history together when NI Opera’s The Flying Dutchman hits the Grand Opera House stage from February 15 - 17. It should be an unforgettable evening.