It’s a Bear of a Show for NI Opera
Oliver Mears, whose vaunting confidence in Northern Ireland’s opera singers and audiences has brought Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw and Wagner’s dauntingly legendary The Flying Dutchman to local stages, is the man behind NI Opera. The man under NI Opera, however, would be Nicholas Chalmers.
Well, he’s in the orchestra pit anyhow.
As the conductor of choice for NI Opera, Chalmers might be present – keeping his baton on the operatic pulse, so to speak – but only briefly seen during encores. So it’s a treat to catch up with him as NI Opera prepare for opening night of The Bear, William Walton’s operatic adaptation of a play by Anton Chekov, at Theatre at the Mill.
‘I’d offer you a chocolate,’ he says apologetically, moving the tray aside. ‘But they are part of the set.’
They do like very nice chocolates, but not quite on the scale of the set designed for The Flying Dutchman – with bottles, ships and the occasional thrown in.
‘The Bear is short (just 48 minutes long), simple and funny, with a cast of just three characters,’ Chalmers says.
Those characters are the ferociously mournful widow Popova, the contentious creditor Smirnov and the wry servant Luka – who meet in the drawing room of the widow’s house. As Smirnov and Popova clash, some long-held secrets are unearthed.
With its manageable cast and staging, Chalmers describes The Bear as being ‘very much a touring opera’. However, while it might not have the size and scale of a Wagnerian production, it’s still very much a complete thing in its own right. Nor are NI Opera stinting any of their customary rigour in staging the opera.
‘It’s actually a very difficult staging, because the singings have to run around so much,’ Chalmers explains. ‘There are a lot of intricacies that we have to capture. It’s quite intense.’
Of course, that’s the point of being a conductor. ‘You have to always be on your mettle; you can’t afford not to focus,’ Chalmers’ explains. ‘It’s like firefighting with music.’
So far though – to run with that simile – Chalmers has kept the operas from burning down under some pretty challenging circumstances. There’s the technical demands of a opera like The Flying Dutchman, the site specific challenges of the zoo-based Noye’s Fludde (Britten again) and the technically demanding, site-specific, promenade version of Tosca that introduced NI Opera to their audiences.
‘It helped that Oliver and I had some experience with site specific productions before Tosca,’ Chalmers admits.
In fact, Chalmers and Mears were co-founders of the Second Movement Opera company, which specialised in not being run of the mill. They used young singers, non-standard operas and unusual venues (the best of which, just for the sake of the odd, being a Covent Garden banana warehouse).
So when the Arts Council of Northern Ireland wanted to set up a new operatic company, one who would make opera accessible to new audiences, Mears was the obvious shoulder to tap. As for Chalmers…
‘I think Oliver just figured, better the devil you know,’ he grins. It sounds about right. The decision probably had nothing to do with Chalmers’ reading music at Oxford, working as chorus master and being an accomplished organist and pianist.
‘I studied music from an early age,’ Chalmers admits. ‘I think having an instrumental background is important for a conductor. It helps the musicians’ respect that you know what you’re talking about.’
There’s no question about that with Chalmers and Mears. Their approach to NI Opera from the beginning has been focused on achieving the specific goal of putting on great operas that attract new audiences. Chalmers notes that the idea ‘opera might be dying’ and what could be done to remedy had been something both men discussed before the Arts Council of Northern Ireland approached Mears.
‘It needs to be accessible and visually exciting,’ Chalmers says earnestly. ‘We need people to think that, you know, it’s cheaper than going to the football and it’s something different.’
With The Bear that something different element is more than just the fact it’s not that often staged opera. Instead, still working on that accessibility angle, NI Opera welcome a different chorus to the stage in every venue. Drawn from the local community, they will be performing George Shearing’s Songs and Sonnets from Shakespeare before The Bear.
As for what’s next for NI Opera, we’ll have to wait and see – although it will probably make a fair go of being spectacular. If Chalmers had his way though?
‘I would love to do Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Dmitri Shostakovich,’ Chalmers says (and yes, I did make him write it down for me).
It’s not something that might spring to everyone’s mind (or roll off certain journalist’s fingers), but NI Opera do like the unusual. And after all, who doesn’t love a good tale of murder, mayhem and mushrooms?
the MAC in Belfast on March 26
and Riverside Theatre in Coleraine on March 30.