Opera in Northern Ireland – struggling but back in business

Londonderry's protestant cathedral

If things look bad for opera in England – with Arts Council cuts, withdrawal of local authority support, and disappearing sponsors – there’s some small crumb of comfort to be got by looking over the water to Ireland where things are even worse.

In the economically devastated south, there’s a state of chaotic suspension with little happening except for the Wexford Festival in late autumn. Opera in Dublin seems to have completely collapsed.

In the north, there’s been a radical contraction of already limited forces. Opera Northern Ireland in Belfast went out of business years ago. Castle Ward Opera – a small, semi-pro country house festival in the summer – has gone. And so has the small, edgy but very part-time Opera Fringe in Downpatrick.

The only good news is that some remnant of all these northern companies has been absorbed into a new organisation called NI Opera that launched last year with £450,000 of public funding and has just staged its first major production.

Significantly, it wasn’t in Belfast but in Londonderry, because NI Opera has a mission to be regional rather than metro-centric. And the choice of Londonderry had not a little to do with politics. As the historic focus of sectarian conflict in the north, Derry (the town goes under two names, dependent on your religious allegiance) is also a continuing focus for peace initiatives and public spending. In 2013 it acquires the title UK City of Culture. And it’s starting to position itself in readiness for what it hopes will be a new kind of profile – no longer related to riots, bombs and bloodshed but to arts initiatives.

This NI Opera debut was in some ways a preparatory exercise for 2013, and an ambitious one. OK, it was standard repertory, a Tosca. But it was done in a non-standard way, as an itinerant production with each act in a different venue and the audience, singers and orchestra marshalled from place to place during the intervals.

It wasn’t a completely new idea: itinerant opera has been done before, and there was once a famous broadcast Tosca that played in real time from the ‘actual’ Roman locations. But for obvious reasons, it doesn’t happen often and tends to be accident-prone when it does. I recall plans for a mega-Carmen that would have shifted thousands of people around the streets of Seville except it proved impracticable and was cancelled. Attempting such a thing is brave. It requires the logistical planning of a full-scale military operation. And no less, it requires successive venues interesting enough to justify the effort.

For NI Opera’s show, two of the three venues were stunning. Act I happened in Derry’s protestant cathedral which, for the purpose, was temporarily transformed into a Roman basilica complete with Marian statuary, wreathed in flowers, and processions of biretta’d clergy, wreathed in incense (a peace gesture in its own right that couldn’t have happened ten years ago).

For Act II, Derry’s exuberant neo-renaissance Guildhall became Palazzo Farnese. And the only disappointment was that in a walled city with plenty of spectacular possibilities for Tosca’s terminal jump, Act III took place in a conventional auditorium with a proscenium stage and enclosed-room set – which meant she had to open a conveniently unlocked window and leap into a painted backdrop.

The big surprise of the show, though, was the standard of singing – which was far higher than I’d expected. For obvious reasons, the company had taken pains to cast a Northern Irish soprano in the title role; and although Giselle Allen had a slightly hard edge to her tone she was tempestuously alive: in every sense a strong vocal personality that projected well and carried conviction.

I wasn’t so thrilled by her Cavaradossi, the Mexican Jesus Leon. But Paul Carey Jones made an incisive, sharply observed Scarpia; John Molloy a fulsome Angelotti; and Andrew Rees (who shone recently as the oily breast-enhancement surgeon in Covent Garden’s Anna Nicole) delivered another curiously memorable cameo as Spoletta – a role you sometimes barely notice but done here with striking detail as an eager-to-please subaltern who likes his job too much.

Why Oliver Mears, the stage director, set everything in what I assume from Cavaradossi’s flares and Tosca’s furs to have been the 1970s, is hard to know: the period didn’t particularly illuminate the narrative or bear any special relevance to it (unless we’d been transported to a police state in South American, which we clearly hadn’t). But there was firm, capable and unsentimental conducting from Nicholas Chalmers (assistant chorus master of ENO); and the pick-up band, drawn largely from the Ulster Orchestra, sounded surprisingly good in all three acoustics.

So, a good start for a new venture. NI Opera’s next production won’t be until September when it shares an Orpheus in the Underworld with Scottish Opera. And after that comes a Hansel and Gretel of its own in December – which means the company is taking its time to come together. But that’s no bad thing. If it can build on the promise of this initial Tosca, it will have something serious to offer Northern Ireland.

The only pity is that its contribution to the fostering of peaceable civility in Londonderry seems not to have been universally acknowledged. The morning after the Tosca opening, I went back to the cathedral where the company was setting up for the next performance. Or at least, they would have been, but for the fact that much of the surrounding area had been cordoned off by the police. Another bomb scare. It goes on.

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