Last Updated on October 25, 2021
Cameron Menzies – Lockdown Bohème and Beyond.
There is often a surreal element to opera. Stories of dragons, queens and magic flutes, of heroines getting lost in the desert and singing their final aria while dying of thirst and of stunning factory workers who seduce their guard to gain freedom. It is the fantasy that beguiles us into another world – pure escapism. Bringing a wider audience to that world is the challenge. But where do you start when the world has turned into a surreal place, trapped in lockdown?
Northern Ireland Opera was founded in 2010, born from Opera Fringe and Castleward Opera, two Northern Ireland festivals. Bringing the two together into a much larger, permanent venture based in Belfast at the Grand Opera House, was a strategic decision by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. The first creative director, Oliver Mears, stayed until 2017, when he took up the helm at the Royal Opera House, London, building a formidable list of successful productions. With his role picked up by Walter Sutcliffe Northern Ireland Opera quickly established its place in the cultural tapestry of Northern Ireland. The third artistic director, Cameron Menzies, joined the company in November 2020, right in the middle of the Covid pandemic. Of course, at that point, no one knew how long it would last. A strange environment indeed to start building your artistic vision in a new role.
Cameron, from Australia, trained as an actor and singer, was Chief Opera Director at the Opera Studio Melbourne and has worked across a range of arts productions including projects with Shakespeare’s Globe, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Opera Australia and more. He is also the Associate Artist (Direction) for Diva Opera UK. Coming to Belfast during the Pandemic though must have been a very different kind of challenge.
What to do? Well, with the Grand Opera House closed and with complicated and ever-changing rules governing indoor audiences in Northern Ireland, putting on an opera at all must have seemed improbable if not impossible. But, making the impossible happen is part of the world of opera. We were lucky enough to see his first production with Northern Ireland Opera, La Bohème set in the stunning Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church. It’s located at the crossroads of the troubled political areas and, following the Northern Ireland peace process, remained unused and derelict for 20 years until a long-term programme of regeneration by the Belfast Buildings Trust. Still socially distanced, each evening 90 lucky guests sat in their own bubble, looking out onto the bespoke sets and staging built around a striking Gothic arch.
The main stage was set behind the orchestra, with more staging encircling the players to create a truly intimate setting for this classic work by Puccini. The dynamic created was as close to immersive opera as I’ve ever seen and was quite magical, with the singers and dancers using the raised walkways to create a unique event.
The cast of local and international singers was spectacular – from the mellifluous Noah Stewart as Rudolfo to the assured and vivacious Emma Morwood as Musetta. Set in the 1920s, everything from costumes to staging was carefully thought through and immaculately executed. The acoustics of this dramatic Gothic style church worked brilliantly and lighting was beautifully thought through, at times subtle and at times adding great visual effect.
No disappointment with his first live production in Belfast, I’m now looking forward to seeing Cameron Menzies’ other creative venture with Northern Ireland Opera during the lockdown. Old Friends and Other Days is an original work directed by Cameron which is based on the music of Irish composer William Vincent Wallace and one of his contemporaries, William Balfe. Each song is brought to life as a story and the whole production was filmed by Causeway Pictures. The premiere at 6 pm in the Strand Theatre Belfast, is on 10th November as part of the Belfast Film Festival
I’m really hoping a streamed version will be available so I can see more than just the trailer which you’ll find below.
Cameron has also spearheaded the commissioning of a new teen/young adult opera written by Fionnuala Kennedy and composed by Neil Martin which will get its first performance in 2022. It’s a fascinating idea and one I’ll be curious to see on stage!
And there’s more coming soon – I’ll be reporting back when I hear more about their first production in the newly refurbished Grand Opera House.
For more about Northern Ireland Opera, do check their website.
For more about the City, take a look at my feature on essentials for people visiting Belfast
Looking for an alternative take on Opera in London? How about a new production of BlueBeard’s Castle at The Stone Nest