Oliver Mears Has Big Plans for NI Opera

The artistic director of NI Opera on defying expectations, commissioning Rory Bremner and finding our next star

'It'll never work.' That was the encouraging opinion expressed to Oliver Mears by certain local cognoscenti when the artistic director of Northern Ireland Opera announced his plan for the brand-new company's inaugural production.

It was, admittedly, an alarmingly ambitious project: Tosca in Derry-Londonderry, far from the cultural and commercial comfort-zone of Belfast (by far the region's densest centre of population), and in not one but three separate locations (one per act). In the event it was massively successful, a three-show sell-out, receiving standing ovations each night.

The morning after the premiere, Mears recollected the emotions in relative tranquillity. 'We were overwhelmed by [the response], none of us were expecting that,' he confessed. 'Quite a few people were in tears at the end. Hopefully for the right reasons...'

Mears arrives at NI Opera with an impeccable track-record. He ran his own company (Second Movement) in London to an excited buzz of approval from the capital's hard-nosed opera critics. But the attractions of Belfast were, for Mears, immediate.

'It's very, very exciting to start something from scratch, with a completely blank sheet, and make of it what you can.' he comments. The new company, when he got there, had neither name, website, launch date, nor any idea of which operas it might be performing. 'To do all that is very, very exciting. Those sorts of opportunities come round very rarely. I feel really lucky to be here.'

So lucky, in fact, that he has wasted no time relocating to Belfast. 'I live here now,' Mears beams. 'I think it's important to be here and to be with the people who are going to watch the shows, and have a sense of the general arts scene as well.'

The arts scene in Northern Ireland has not, I suggest, been exactly generous in its treatment of opera in the past, despite the valiant efforts of now-defunct companies such as Opera Northern Ireland, Castleward and Opera Fringe. Mears, though, comes to Belfast carrying no baggage.

'To be honest I wasn't really aware of the history of opera in Northern Ireland before I started,' he admits. 'One of the things that was a big attraction to me was the history of the place, and where it's come from in the last 12 to 15 years.' He is also adamant that quality counts, whatever the setting or context. 'I know if you produce work that has integrity people will enjoy it, no matter who they are and what they are and what they're into.'

So what exactly is the Mears' agenda? What is he bringing to Ulster's operatic table? 'When I direct a piece, I always try to look for the most immediate way of engaging an audience, but also the most truthful way.' In Derry that meant the stabbed Scarpia remaining blood-soaked on a table, in touching distance of an audience adjourning for interval refreshments, and gruesomely realistic police executions in Act Three.

It was Tosca as searing political drama, the parallels to the region's own bloody sectarian conflict painfully evident. Mears insists, however, that the factors influencing the Derry production were more broadly European in nature.

'We were inspired by the whole generational clash in the late 1960s and early 70s between the young Left (for example, the Baader-Meinhof Group and the Red Brigades) on the one hand, and what was perceived as state authoritarianism. There was that element in Northern Ireland as well, where groups felt that they were challenging the status quo. That's what the piece was about, the clash between the individual and the state.'

The same spirit of direct engagement with the audience informs Mears's decision to commission an updated libretto for the opening production of NI Opera's first full season, Offenbach's operetta Orpheus in the Underworld. Most will know the famous 'Can Can' in it, fewer that the piece was originally a scathing comic satire on the French Second Empire. Which is where impressionist Rory Bremner comes in.

'I wanted to get someone on board.' Mears explains, 'who would be able to write something that was very contemporary, very satirical, very topical.' Offenbach's in-jokes are ditched, Bremner's new ones substituted. The music is unaltered. 'Potentially there's a lot of humour there,' is all that Mears will reveal at present. The show tours to Omagh, Newtownabbey, Armagh and Downpatrick in October.

Equally enterprising are plans for a second 'site-specific' production, Noye's Fludde in Belfast Zoo in summer 2012. Quite how many of the zoo's inhabitants will be co-opted into Mears's staging of Britten's Ark-opera remains to be seen, but with tickets including access to the animals and up to 80 schoolchildren participating, it has the makings of a real community project.

In between come stagings of Humperdinck's fairy-tale opera Hänsel und Gretel, based on Mears's acclaimed Opera North production, and more Britten, the Henry James-based Turn of the Screw, with Belfast soprano Giselle Allen featuring.

Fostering local talent is one of NI Opera's specific remits, and is reflected not just in the hiring of experienced singers such as Allen, but in the vocal competition the company is mounting this September, showcasing the talents of young, upcoming Irish singers.

Hailing the initiative as 'very important', with an Ulster Orchestra concert awaiting the winner, Mears adds an important rider. 'We have to tread a very fine line between promoting local talent and having very, very high quality,' he explains, carefully.

And that is the overriding impression you take away from talking to Oliver Mears: he's passionately interested in connecting with ordinary people ('My whole role is to say opera can be for you, it is for you'), in opera as real, living drama, not some kind of comfortably bourgeois snoozefest.

'One of the preconceptions we want to challenge is that opera is very long, it's very boring, and people kind of waft around the stage in frilly costumes. Actually it doesn't have to be like that.' With Mears in situ, opera in Northern Ireland has the potential to be many things over the next few years. But it won't be frilly, it won't be wafty, and it most definitely won't be boring.

NI Opera launch their inaugural season programme today (June 7). Visit the link below for more information.