Noye's Fludde at Belfast Zoo

NI Opera stage Benjamin Britten's ark opera in Belfast Zoo as part of the London 2012 Festival

Opera in a zoo? It seems a crazy notion, but it’s happening this summer in Belfast. NI Opera will be at the old boating lake on the iconic Bellevue site for its new production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, an operatic version of the Old Testament Ark story.

‘It’s a rather unusual idea, let’s be honest,' grins artistic director Oliver Mears, with classic English understatement. It’s possible that someone, somewhere, has staged an opera in a zoo before now. But Noye’s Fludde? With so many children involved in it?

The idea seems inherently unlikely, and is typical of the sharp, innovative thinking that has characterised NI Opera (recently dubbed 'the youngest and feistiest of Britain’s regional companies' by the Independent on Sunday) since its inception 18 months ago.

Both Mears and NIO have 'previous' in the area of so-called 'site-specific' productions, where operas are set in real-world locations, away from the artificial trappings of proscenium arch and painted scenery.

Last year’s award-winning Tosca in Derry-Londonderry used three different settings (one per act) in the historic city, and resonated hugely with the local audience. ‘The level of response that we received was quite overwhelming for all of us, and unexpected,' says Mears.

‘The fact that the people who came to see it already knew the buildings, and had a sense of ownership over them, was significant. More and more companies are realising that this kind of work can be another string to their bow. It can have another level of excitement.’

With Noye’s Fludde, part of the London 2012 Festival, that extra frisson of excitement comes to Belfast. Britten wrote the opera with the specific intention of involving children round a core of professional performers, and Mears estimates that up to 150 local youngsters will be either singing, acting as animals, or playing in the orchestra.

‘Britten always had a very strong sense of connection with children,’ Mears explains. ‘He understood them very well, a bit like Dickens. It’s been suggested in lots of ways that he never really grew up himself. He always very much liked children’s food, for instance – blancmange and rice pudding, starchy foods. In some ways he was quite child-like, the way he interacted with people.’

Mears himself has previously worked on education projects at Glyndebourne Opera, and shares Britten’s view of how important it is to involve schoolchildren in music-making early.

‘He had a similar feeling to me, in that if you can involve children and amateurs as well as professionals in an event like this, then it’s a great way to enthuse them in opera, which can be seen as a very alienating or even elitist art form sometimes.’

Mears rejects the idea that writing for children inevitably involved Britten diluting the quality of his music. ‘He was always very conscious of the practicalities of music-making. His operas are extremely performable and very, very approachable. The music isn’t off-putting, not too challenging or complex, while being at the same time of the very highest quality.’

In other ways, too, this Noye’s Fludde is no ordinary production. Support from the KT Wong Foundation, whose aim is 'to build bridges between China and the wider world through innovative cross-cultural collaboration in arts and education', has led to a significant oriental influence in the staging.

‘We’ve gone down a rather non-traditional route in having a Chinese flavour to the appearance of it all,’ explains Mears. ‘Particularly with the animals – Chinese lantern animals are being shipped from Beijing, where they were hand-crafted. So it’ll be very different. I don’t think there’ll ever have been a Noye’s Fludde quite like it!’

The KT Wong connection also means that NIO’s Noye’s Fludde will travel to Beijing in October, for a performance at the city’s International Music Festival. It’s almost certainly the first production of any Britten opera in China, and a huge feather in the cap of Mears’s fledgling company.

‘It’s going to be a great privilege for Northern Ireland Opera to be the company that brings this work to China for the first time,’ he comments proudly.

Mears is full of praise for Belfast Zoo’s readiness to host Noye’s Fludde, by any standards a logistically demanding project. ‘It would have been impossible if we hadn’t had the enthusiasm and the absolute commitment that we’ve had from Mark Challis, the zoo’s chief executive,’ he comments.

‘He’s been supportive from the first time we mentioned the idea to him, a bit like Dean Morton in St Columb’s Cathedral, Derry. Without the support of people like that and their enthusiasm, it would be impossible to do site-specific work.’

And what a site for staging Noye’s Fludde Belfast Zoo offers. The Cavehill setting provides a stunning backdrop, and there’s a real lake, with real water, trees and bushes, to put the Ark in.

‘Unfortunately there aren’t any boats on there now,’ says Mears. ‘But there’s a couple of flamingos, who’re being moved for the duration of the performances. It’s very, very beautifully situated. It’s a fantastically progressive zoo, the animals seem very happy there.’

And, as a special treat, you can actually go and see the real animals being happy, either before or after the Noye’s Fludde performance. Entry to the zoo is included when you buy your opera ticket – a substantial bonus, especially for the family audience.

Proximity to the zoo’s inhabitants, says Mears, importantly underlines one of the opera’s more serious underlying messages. ‘Noye’s Fludde is particularly relevant in the environmental situation we find ourselves in,’ he comments.

‘There’s a sense of the valuing of nature, the valuing of the creatures, which is expressed in the score and which is ever more pertinent now. If children and families can see the real animals while watching something which also appreciates them, that’s got to be a good thing.’

So what are you waiting for? Grab a ticket, pack a blanket and a picnic basket, and book your spot up by the boating pond, in the shadow of the old Floral Hall building.

Mears promises ‘a real spectacular, wonderful music performed by very enthusiastic kids with a mixture of pros and amateurs, in a context which is really unique for opera. It’s a great deal. Not only can families see an opera with Chinese lantern animals in all their glory, they can see the real animals at the same time. I think everyone’s a winner really!'

Noye's Fludde runs from August 17 - 19. Book your tickets via the NI Opera website.