Pandas, politics and performance


Some years back, when Stavanger2008, European Capital of Culture was still glowing from its appraisal as ‘best artistic programme ever’ I gave a speech at one of Edinburgh´s universities, where a bunch of exceedingly sparky students bombarded me with alarmingly smart questions. Some days later, a very fine certificate arrived, a masterpiece of exotic fonts and enthusiasm, rewarding my ability to survive the experience. I never forgot it, and suitably framed, this art work still rests splendidly in the Edinburgh family home. The original invitation had come from an American academic, Professor Joe Goldblatt, who leads various remarkable international initiatives in cultural event management, was then tenured at Queen Margaret College, Edinburgh. A great liberal, Joe proved to be a new and passionate convert to Scottish Nationalism and a powerhouse of cultural diplomacy, event creation, and policy. Then time passed, and we lost touch.

Then suddenly this summer, the ‘phone rang. It was Joe, sparky as ever, inviting me to China. I was to talk about the ECOC process, but also how arts organisations like Bergen National Opera can empower cities in surprising ways. And I was charged with taking about culture buildings: how they can be ‘living spaces’ and function well beyond being mere venues.

Chengdu, he told me, had set itself the target of becoming China´s ‘culture city’. Fascinated by Edinburgh´s status as a ‘festival city’ Joe had been charged to assemble a team to advise the city. We turned out to be a mixed and international bunch – a university boss, a council chief who happens to be an excellent musician, a leading Hollywood scriptwriter and director, the UK-based creator of Olympic and Commonwealth Games ceremonies, and the boss of an opera company with a small budget and fiercely international aspirations – i.e. yours truly. I googled Chengdu – a ‘small’ population around 20 million, an extraordinary history, a fabulous mix of ancient culture and futuristic technology. Great food. And pandas.

The occasion was to be the 2018 Chengdu Global Events Summit, themed grandly Cultural Creativity and the Rise of World Cities, and sponsored splendidly by NBD, the National Business Daily, a kind of Chinese FT with, in its media group, an astounding 50 million readers. In charge of our visit is the hyper-energetic, super-organised Dr Chris Wang, a Goldblatt pupil and now the new managing director of Joe-initiated The American Event Management Institute.

Sir Timothy O´Shea, ex-principal of Edinburgh University and current Chair of Edinburgh Fringe Festival and I arrive blinking from London into a murky Chinese pre-dawn. Chris is there, beaming and spry with Li Yijia from NBD. She and I bond immediately over a loathing of early mornings and a love of shopping. We arrive at the Shangri-La Hotel, where the lobby is the size of a respectable football pitch, sumptuous flowers are everywhere and a bunch of Texans are roaring at the deeply embarrassed front desk team. Sleep perhaps? No chance. We will breakfast with Chris and Yijia in a dining room with twelve international food stations ranging from porridge and coco-pops to spicy noodles. I have an odd mix of cucumber juice, pancakes and dimsum.

After an uneasy nap, we walk miles along the river, find one of Chengdu´s fourteen universities, then a park full of beautiful planting, pilates classes, teahouses, outdoor hairdressers and some rather doubtful temples.

Next day, there is a strict plan. We climb onto a small bus with dainty lace curtains and cross the city to the new Buddhist Creative Art Park, a marvel of studios for contemporary ceramics, print, fabulous furniture and vast oil-painted canvases layered with knotted rope. We lose Joe briefly, to recover him from a vast sculptural woven cane sofa where he is faking a blissful coma. On to the elegant Museum of Contemporary Art, then to Chengdu´s great pride and joy: the Giant Panda Park. And there they are, natural clowns, huge and bumbling, lolling on branches, munching bamboo, batting their cubs. They are enormous, slightly grubby, extremely woolly and absolutely charming.

After this, pandas are inescapable. They appear on headbands and nail art, billboards, car stickers, elevator signs, high-fashion T-shirts and cakes. At the Kuan and Zhai Alleys where we dine, we count seventeen panda merchandise stores in one block. Next morning one of our party, a little perturbed, says that he dreamed that he was conversing with a panda about the costs of child care.

Next day we are to meet the Chengdu Government Leaders to learn about their plans, and to exchange questions. They are serious, articulate and able. And all but one – who more than holds her own – are male. The interpreters, Chengdu natives but graduates of the UK´s Bristol University, are challenged as the conversation swerves around ‘profit’ as in financial terms and ‘achievement’ as in growing self-esteem and softer benefits. Then, off to Marquise Zhuge Liang temple full of gloriously dressed statues commemorating great generals. There is much discussion about their girth. “Ah” says our guide “they have generous tummy”. We nod happily. Yijia whispers in my ear: ‘generals´ tummy is an important status symbol. We nod gravely. On to the new Hibiscus Park near the airport where vast glass hangars are soon to open to new technology start-ups and creative industries. Dinner, where Sir Timothy cheerfully refers to one of us as a ‘party animal’ – a late-night bar session is mentioned. He is corrected politely – a small but significant cultural difference in the land of less liberal speech…

The Summit opens the following morning, just as Norovirus chooses its victims. It strikes me around 01.30 with the force of a large panda paw. Yijia appears early with sinister files of Chinese medicine from her mother; these taste like bitter liquorice. She comes back with a doctor who applies a stethoscope to my stomach, shakes her head, says ‘frantic intestine’ and prescribes a bouquet of pills and powders. Down the corridor my US colleague Tak is in a worse state. An ambulance is called.

At 14:00 I apply more make-up than I´ve worn since the age of 16 and make my way queasily down to the Summit with a still-white face, clutching my speech in very large print. The previous evening, Chris has requested a re-write – I cannot talk about Bergen National Opera working with the prison inmates on Ulvsnesøy, the island which bridges full incarceration with a return to normal life. Chinese prisons are different, he says darkly. I re-frame, to talk about ‘behavioral difficulties’ although it´s not confirmed that these are acceptable either. Then there are the pictures I am showing of a land sculpture project with farmers in Jæren: huge haybales arranged as a verse of great Norwegian Arne Garborg´s poem Mot Soleglad. “What is this text? Is it a message?” asks Chris, alarmed. No, it´s a meditation on the land´s relationship with the sea and sky. This makes its way past the authorities.

The Summit venue is Shangri-La´s fabulous ballroom, all gold, chandeliers and plush white chairs with the inevitable toy panda nestled in their folds. I rise to speak and find that few things focus one´s attention away from nerves more than trying to remain upright with a swimming head. Speech over, I listen to David Zolkwer´s brilliant inspiring presentation about Olympic scale events. I´m not prone to tears, but his ability to make work that is both global in scale yet brings to the audience a deeply personal experience is a rare and precious thing. Lei Ping, President and Chief Editor of NBD gives a formidable summary of the media group´s activity, as does the charming Wu Jiaming, responsible for Chine Culture Group´s corporate communications. Richard Lewis, another staunch proponent of Scottish independence and ex leader of Edinburgh city culture talks with sterling clarity about funding and political engagement. Sadly, thanks to Noro, I´ve missed Joe´s wisdom and eloquence, Sir Tim´s witty description of Edinburgh´s great Fringe Festival and Humanitas prizewinner Mark Zaslove talking about the evolution of animation, one of Hollywood´s fantastical contribution to film overall.

Later, we sit on a panel with major Chengdu impressarios. Huang Yong talks about China and jazz, Ye Dan talks passionately about celebrity, and Zhongjun Ma, a massive figure in Chinese TV (and also described wonderfully as Best President of Companies with Good Word of Mouth 2018) tries to moderate an unruly discussion. I say forget celebrities and concentrate on grass roots talent development. Ye Dan is bemused: ‘grass roots’ most probably does not translate kindly into Chinese. Joe Goldblatt, ever the consummate cultural diplomat, quotes poet Lao Tzu. David Zolkwer talks about the power of the community and we all agree about ‘living buildings’. Later I feel arrogant and ignorant – we visit a great ancient country, and after two days have the impudence to comment on its creativity… David and I discuss how panels breed inappropriate pontification.

24 hours later, I limp off the plane. The questioning (and questionable) art installation on the rock outside the airport: BERGEN? suddenly makes sense. My limbs are in Norway. My head is still in the Far East. Frantic intestine is somewhere in between.

Mary Miller

26 November 2008


Smart with a Heart

Mary Nordic Edge

I was asked to speak at NORDIC EDGE : ‘The largest smart city arena in the Nordics’. The 2018 theme was Smart with a Heart. Here’s what I said….

I´d like really like to talk about eventful cities – and how you build one, where city ‘smart’ development and cultural events grow together to shape the city, its spaces and its image. And I´d like to talk particularly about smaller cities – and how they use culture to put themselves on the map.

The smart eventful city – what does that mean? It´s not just a city full of events, but a city that understands its past, its present and where it wants to be in the future and has put culture in the broadest sense at its beating heart.

It’s a city with nerve and attitude, that has an irresistible story that it wants to tell about itself. It´s not a question of imitating big cities. It´s about place-making and a sure sense that events are bringing energy, are bringing people together and helping to develop the opportunities offered by the broadest knowledge economy. It´s about turning the city into an event in itself.

It´s not about a ‘creative’ city in the Richard Florida sense – I´ve always thought that his books create a sort of Sex in the City world full of the creative classes, overrun with people who have done degrees in media studies and who are obsessed with predicting trends. No, I mean a city where there is a highly developed sense of place – where you sense a tangible buzz: something unique that you don´t feel elsewhere – a city prepared to take risks, which is excited by the unexpected.

An eventful city comes together to discuss and debate, to share space and ideas, to explore, to be curious, and to create. There are many cities renown for heritage or a beautiful environment or their wealth, or a voluble middle class. That doesn´t necessarily mean that they are eventful. The ‘heritage’ heavy city may be extremely staid and museum-like. Claustrophobic, even. I´m ashamed to say that I think of Salzburg or Bayreuth and I shudder. So, the smart, eventful city has attitude – it has a culture in the widest sense that puts culture in the specific sense at the heart of the community. It wears jeans and drinks mojitos; it dances to every culture´s tune. It feels wide open.

The cities I mean are where there is a constant sense of what I´d call cultural flow: Where the widest population is really engaged with that flow; where there is ongoing dialogue – the orchestra doesn´t just perform; it talks to its audience and the audience talks back. Its theatre company is unafraid to embrace social issues and builds productions not only with its ensemble but with kids´ participation. The opera company commissions new work and then builds it with young artists and the local prison. It is where experimental rock musicians design their own festivals, build their own instruments and collaborate across international boundaries. It´s where architects design living buildings for people, not to impress other architects; where the new and immigrant population knows that their particular cultures are respected and not diluted, and that they are integrated into city programming as much or as little as they would like them to be. I´m talking about places where no one would dream of using the words elite or integrated about art or culture because art, culture and diversity are the city´s social glue.

European Capitals of Culture were, of course, designed to offer this kind of opportunity – and in some cases they have done so with considerable success and terrific initiative. In others, matters disintegrated into dispute and chaos. Few have really managed the legacy created in a structured or honest way, principally because of lack of real leadership after the ECOC team has moved on. And sadly, few have really grasped the tremendous competence that their team accrued to build the city solidly – and adventurously – for the future.

Stavanger2008 – just to boast about ourselves – was described the following year by the evaluators appointed by the EU as ‘artistically the best ECOC ever’. We chose to focus strongly on pure culture, not on a wider urban development or capital projects. That´s not to say that there weren´t considerable issues. Inevitable, in any project with a big budget and as broad and undefined a set of criteria as that set out by the EU, there will be frictions. These tend to be predominately between the perfectly reasonable entitlement felt by local artists and the European or international element of the years´ programme.

We tried to address that by building Stavanger2008 around a broad programme based on participation, which included multi-year residencies with international companies especially chosen for their will to collaborate (theatre, dance, music theatre/opera and a radical inter-racial puppet company) who were challenged to build sustained partnerships within the community. We also had the privilege of working with the wider Rogaland region which also enabled us to work with whole rural communities on major events in landscape involving artists from all over the world, local artists, the community and its children.

Other ECOCs have concentrated on capital projects, or regeneration, or on developing tourism. I used to think that if I heard the term ‘bed nights’ once more at an ECOC related meeting that I might stand up and shout REMEMBER CULTURE? (Actually, I think I once did).

I would argue that a smart city must have a cultural habit of looking outwards, of being curious and of constantly looking at the outside world. It must search for ways to attract new cultural resources and practices to build on what it already has.  Every commune designs a cultural policy – and if I can risk being politically incorrect (nothing new), despite the usual wide consultations, they all stay resolutely safe. Compromise rarely results in long-term positive dynamic growth.

I´d really like to see clear policies that support entrepreneurism, that insist on collaboration both within the city and far beyond and that, particularly, propose a broad plan for talent development. I don´t mean competitions, or specific awards for those already identified as future stars. The commercial sector already has that covered – for instance, Equinor – ex-Statoil – has its Rising Stars awards for brilliant young musicians. I mean that built into every Kommune and Fylke´s funding for culture organisations there should be a ring-fenced amount for the structured development and participation of young artists and makers, including their development in the digital world. This policy would emphasise the need to develop fresh ideas and how to realise them. If we don´t identify and train our talents and nurture potential – not just performers, but producers, arts leaders and teachers and culture managers – we will not develop the beating heart of our cities or make them eventful.

So what are these events which underpin the vibrant smart city? What is the balance between festivals, parades, special events and the ‘normal’ August to June cultural season? For leaders and city-makers, there has to be a consensus about programming – that is, balancing what you know the audience wants with innovation and real adventure. For the city there must be a plan which nurtures venues and creates new spaces indoors and out for all kinds of expression, with a clear and sustainable strategy for digital resources.

First, there are the city´s standard existing organisations. It is not enough for the theatre company or orchestra or university arts department just to produce a user-friendly season and to sit in its venue expecting people to walk through the door. The city with nerve and attitude never patronises its people. It develops trust between its key culture institutions and their audiences – I say audiences plural, because no smart performing arts institution has just one audience. So those organisations must always lead by offering a truly visionary mix: classic work, established and emerging artists, performances – and online platforms – presented in way that dares to provoke real discussion, and lots of new, surprising work which will create its own momentum. There must be opportunities for participation, talent development and engagement with youth. Note that I say ‘with youth’ not just ‘for’.

It´s inevitable that I mention opera given my present position, but I do believe that opera companies have an amazing opportunity to engage with the city. At Bergen National Opera we´ve expanded way beyond the main stage where we have fiercely enlarged the theatricality and visual excitement of our repertoire and expanded its audience. We´re into all kinds of collaborations with communities, hotels, chefs, video-makers, craft-makers, prisons – where certain inmates became our interns. We´ve just commissioned a young composer whose day job is writing music for gaming. We´ve formed all kinds of international partnerships which keep us on our toes in terms of design, theatricality and the kind of artists who have astounding voices but also great communication skills.

Festivals: eventful cities thrive on festivals, especially if they are positioned strategically across the year. Festivals offer fantastic opportunities for both the large city audience – for world music and rock – but also for visitors (back to bed nights….) and for niche audiences: say, for street art, experimental music, slam poetry or art film. Smart festivals offer a particular opportunity for international guests to collaborate with locals, stimulating projects which could not happen without that synergy, driving cross-border dialogue bringing new ideas, energy and confidence. Festivals also can be important to city branding. Edinburgh named itself ‘the city of festivals’ and created an excellent and effective umbrella organisation, embracing the international, fringe, science, children’s and books festivals along with the New Year fest, Edinburgh´s Hogmanay – Edinburgh Festivals – which in effect sells the city as a multi-entertainment smart destination. This ‘festivalisation’ of a city can contribute enormously to the eventfulness of the city so long as it is well-managed and kept free of clashes of identities, dates and funding. More easily said than done, but in the case of Edinburgh, strong leadership from the resolute founding chief of the Festivals Association kept the peace in a city not known for its social harmony. In Austin, Texas, however, there has been considerable resistance to cultural life being elevated to the mainstream and as such professionalised. Their branding proclaimed Keep Austin Weird! If I´m honest, as a Scot, I sometimes wish that proud, polite Edinburgh could be just a little bit more weird too.

Well-planned one-off events are also special opportunities for the eventful city to experience something spectacular, and also to gain kudos and visibility. The city of ´s-Hertogenbosch – home to the great artist Hieronymus Bosch – put itself on the map by planning an amazing art restoration event around his anniversary, which then connected a little- known city to global networks.

Don´t forget the massive potential of cross-media events – food and opera; literature and visual art; jazz and fashion – combining differing tastes and publics, building creative clashes and subversive dialogue.

I´m not going to talk about the print or digital media, because that is a three-day subject in itself – but a city that has a media culture of knowledgable opinion and honest interest in the city´s position in relation to the nation and wider world has a huge advantage over one where attention is focused on mud-slinging and celebrities’ backsides. (Pace Kim Kardashian.)

In Bergen, we are much preoccupied with new culture buildings. In recent years, few things have caused more conflict – instead of bringing people together, the plans have driven organisations apart. The discussion right now is premised on bricks and windows and vehicle access.

But a smart, eventful city must have living buildings which help to bring together the diverse needs of those who make and consume culture in the city; buildings which bring civic pride and a genuine city-wide sense of ownership; buildings which gather citizens, making them know that they make an essential contribution to a vibrant spirit and sense of place.

A smart city building is not about any individual or company´s ego or an architect´s kudos, but about creating a living hub for the city. That hub needs community spaces, education resources, cafes, casual meeting spaces. It needs to welcome everyone from singing kids to sceptical politicians, from feisty grandmothers to introvert singles. It has to underpin the way we want to live in the future.

All this needs leadership: brave, long-sighted, honest, imaginative leadership that has both thick and thin skin. Thick skin to stick to the long game of being smart and eventful, with thin-skin enough always to listen and to react with sensitivity. And, smart cities need leadership that builds teams that trust each other, share passion, and believe in the place that they are helping to make.

They also need gatherings like this one, Nordic Edge: forums to share ideas, to talk shop and to dream. I´d say the last of those three is the most important one. Let´s all keep dreaming. It will keep us smart.

Mary Miller

Photo: With co-speaker at Nordic Edge, Bent Sørensen, director for Aarhus 2017, European Capital of Culture


Knit your own opera


Downstairs in the basement rehearsal room, sumptuous Wagnerian sounds are drifting into the hallway. Bergen National Opera is rehearsing a new The Flying Dutchman production. Senta is staring enraptured at the Dutchman´s portrait. Daland is greedily fingering a sack of jewels. Director John Ramster, glasses deep in his spiky hair, is brooding over the score. And almost everyone has a cold.

One floor up, tubas and trombones crowd the corridors, shiny-buttoned uniforms abound and band-masters are talking importantly into mobile phones about flugelhorn solos and how the band from Odda had just robbed them of third place in the mid-junior league. February, don´t forget, means the NMS National Championships, when Bergen swells with chest-busting brassy pride and the streets around Grieghallen bristle with the curious self-importance of navy suits and peaked caps.

But on the third floor, a gentle rhythmic clicking floats from the doors as though some dreamy animal is tapping its teeth. Outside on a long rail, hang dresses for the Dutchman chorus – the sort of between-the-wars rather fetching tea dresses with nipped-in waists, covered buttons over the bosom and swirly skirts. Such dresses need cardigans, and the BNO staff knitters are busy. They seem to be everywhere. In the wardrobe room, our costume chief is pulling a fluff of blue wool from a satchel. In Artistic Administration, there´s a shawl in process. I go, a little bewildered, into the communications office, to enquire… and Ida Marie, temporary assistant, whips a half-jumper from her bag. BNO, it must be said, has a staff team with initiative… and a chorus who now won´t catch a chill.

Dutchman´s designer, Bridget Kimak, has been committed to rooting Wagner´s version of the story in its Norwegian setting – Sandvika, on the southern coast. The set is an abstract marvel of stark coastline and a ‘ship’ which looks as commanding as a Richard Serra sculpture. On stage, the chorus ladies will knit for their menfolk, rather than sew. First we´ll see the start of jumpers, and as the opera progresses, the garments will grow. The yarn is local – beautiful oiled wool from Hillesvåg Ullvarefabrikk*, a fourth generation family business begun in the late 20th century – from fierce Norwegian sheep grazing close by. There are no fancy patterns here – these Nordic sailors wear a clear navy or cream.


Knitting and opera, however is not a first. As part of Stavanger2008, European Capital of Culture, we presented Odysseus Unwound, composer Julian Grant´s wonderful opera which, improbably, brought together a team of knitters from Shetland – formidable ladies who could click at virtuosic speed – with opera singers from London, all masterminded by Bill Bankes-Jones´s tirelessly inventive company Tete-a-Tete. While Stavanger2008 came into the process relatively late-on, Tete-a-Tete´s initiative was astounding. Flying Englishmen, they sailed to Shetland with Julian Grant and a clutch of singers. Imagine the scene, in a far Northern village hall – ladies who have never left the island confronted with artists distinctly Southern and urban; needles and arias at the ready; an operatic score of sounds curious, strange-coloured and fantastical to folk-tuned ears.

Julian remembers: “My personal epiphany notwithstanding, it struck us all that the Odyssey is rife with references to the crafts we were investigating, most obviously Penelope at her loom; then there was Odysseus’s island hopping, which resonated most naturally with life in the Shetlands. Yet there was still trepidation… Would this improbable cocktail of talent work at all? Starting with a simple skills-sharing session (knitting singers and singing knitters) within days what had seemed improbable became inevitable.”

His version of the story, with librettist Hattie Naylor, somewhat bucked our sloppy thinking – they had no truck with a glamourous swash-buckling Odysseus “to whom” Julian says “we are introduced in our childhood is first as a hero of brightly coloured children’s books, a victim of superior forces who has fabulous Boys’ Own adventures, outwitting monsters and treacherous ladies of dubious repute”  For a more realistic story, he suggested, we should read, The Iliad about the terrible carnage of Troy, and the needless destruction of Cicones. Julian took a sober view: “Odysseus is a flawed con man, a smooth and suave psychopath, whose tales of his own adventures conjure up a nightmare of blood-letting, which ultimately does him in.”

The opera, for six singers, five craftspeople and seven instrumentalists, in fact premiered in timely fashion at the National Knitting Show at Alexandra Palace before its journey to Norway. We staged it in Sandnes, home – until the 1980s – to a vast knitting industry; today the sheds are a shopping mall. In Sandnes Culture House, I´m not quite sure who was the more startled – the Shetland knitters or the audience. But the musical language was arresting – touching, fierce and luscious.

Meanwhile in Bergen, the knitting continues. Edvard Grieg Kor´s first soprano – the ensemble is the hub of BNO´s chorus – is hard at work, and so, she says, is her mother. If there is rigour in the rehearsal room, it is matched by tension of a different sort as yarn is tweaked and stretched, sleeves emerge and hemlines achieve a woolly frill.

For sure, every premiere has its own glorious personality. On March 10th, Wagner´s opera will triumph and will deliver new truths in John Ramster´s vision, sung by stupendous voices. But there´s a certain pride in the design. In amongst Bridget´s dramatic set are costumes truly, veritably home-made. Now, pass me my pins….

Mary Miller

More info: The Flying Dutchman

*Hillesvåg Ullvarfabrikk :

Future sounds from Bergen

Oslo, minus several degrees, the landscape monochrome with luminous streaky skies. Bergen National Opera is in the capital at Operaen with a fine mix of nationalities and three Nordic composers to develop new operas for premiere in March.

This morning we slither over hard-packed ice to the rehearsal room to work on Øyvind Mæland´s new opera – one of three short works which Bergen National Opera has commissioned for Borealis Festival. The violinist is missing, the bass player is deep in discussion with conductor Steffen Kammler, and the singers are practising small swooping sounds and spitting consonants. Øyvind´s little opera is about tiny emotions – twitchy moments of apprehension, compassion, embarrassment – and the music is lucid, varied, and wonderfully eccentric.

Yesterday, Rebecka Sofia Ahvenniemi´s opera – a ‘trailer’ involving Beyoncé and female power – provoked fierce conversation. Ahvenniemi herself, an animated elf of fizzing energy, has a way with words: “Guitar” she says “you have an important role in creating confusion at this point.” The guitarist plucks with enthusiasm. Rebecka´s music here is full of collisions. Baroque vocal lines underline splintering string sounds, and Beyoncé song quotes croon over Straussian harmony. “Let´s go into this late-Romantic porridge a little earlier” she says briskly, adjusting her score.

In the canteen, singers from Operaen´s in-process production of Bellini´s Norma – the director is upcoming young Norwegian star – are noisily at lunch. A large baritone in fur, cape, Tolkien-like garb, is munching salad and barking on his phone. Long straggly hair, large boots and facial hair abound, along with Hollywood blondes and some startling make-up. Meanwhile the ballet corps are fiddling with their feet and giggling – other than a tiny ballerina who is crying quietly in the corner. Our guest BNO director, Sjaron Minailo, is wrangling cheerfully with dramaturg Gaea Schoeters. “How can you ask the composers about their ‘point of urgency’” says Gaea, rolling her eyes “it´s such a nineties question”. Sjaron mimes indignation “Really? Well how do we put it for our new cool age? Where´s the edge? I want to know their critical message.”

He had asked this of all of the writers at yesterday´s session. Our third composer, the quiet, thoughtful Lars Skoglund, had talked about how his opera – which takes place in a library where three people, an awkward triangle, converse in fractured whispers – reflected his fascination about how conversations chose words in a space where texts line the walls. Rebecka had talked about female assertiveness – a line in her opera talks about Beyoncé wanting to ‘wear a suit, go to meetings’. Our only male singer present, Halvor Melien, a proud recent attendee at a Beyoncé concert, spoke up fiercely ‘What! I don´t recognise the male sexuality you´re talking about!’ and we hastily moved on to how new violin bowing might produce white noise, and how to scream elegantly “without sounding like a horse” says Halvor helpfully, recovering tranquillity.

On Day Two, Annelies Van Parys – award-winning Belgian composer whose Private View Bergen National Opera co-produced with seven European partners in 2016/17 and is now with us here as a mentor – is discussing microphone techniques with singers Elisabeth Holmertz  and Lore Lixenberg, Lars Skoglund is handing out revisions and Øyvind Mæland is doubling as rehearsal pianist. Ahvenniemi is in the canteen writing furiously.

Exciting times – to have three new works in development, each one brilliantly individual in its sound world, each one topical, each one visually distinctive, is remarkable. Don´t let´s worry about our future opera. It´s all in good hands.

Mary Miller

January 9, 2018

Otello the Outsider


Downstairs in Grieghallen, we have just started rehearsing Verdi´s Otello for later this month. We´ve celebrated with cake and coffee, sympathised with singers who have just stepped off red-eye ‘planes. Now director Peter Mumford is delicately picking at Shakespeare´s characters: the tortured Moor general, the growling, prowling adjutant passed over for promotion, the newly elevated Cassio.

If Otello´s agonies begin some pages into the opera, Iago is wracked with fury from the very opening chords. Iago, the soldier, the opportunist, the man with the bleak heart, has emerged from the ultimate world of trust: man together with man in the face of the enemy. He and Otello have soldiered together, faced death together, trusted their being to each other. Together, they have killed, smashed cities and broken lives. Now Otello has betrayed him. Iago is stuck in the hot-house of barracks with no plan other than revenge. And into this turmoil, Shakespeare introduces sex: the fragrant Desdemona, the Moor and mighty general´s young wife. It´s a terrible, provocative story. Nicholas Hytner, chief at the UK´s National Theatre, about to direct Shakespeare´s play and feeling alien to the world of the military, consulted a senior figure recently returned from Basra. Sex and the violence of war do not march well together, he learned. The hot-house will boil.

Centuries of performance have insisted that the play, and consequently the opera, are about race – that Otello is defined by his African roots, that the fact of his black skin makes inevitable his actions. As late as the 1960s, productions aligned his native ‘barbarism’ with his raging, uncontrollable jealousy. In the noughties, white actors still strutted obscenely with painted brown faces. And forget not that in recent memory, a good deal of pretentious babble preceded Jonas Kaufman´s Otello at the Royal Opera – would he be black, white, or merely tanned?

In Bergen, we´ve taken a fierce and deliberate line with a tacit agreement that we will concentrate fully on exploring identity and character – and of course, on presenting sounds which seize the heart. We have a white Australian Otello, and African-American singers as Desdemona and Iago.

Why, we´ve asked, presume that Shakespeare is writing about race? Far more, he is writing about the other, the outsider, the man alone in a writhing web of strangers. Otello is given his lofty position by the Venetian Court, who routinely appointed foreigners to command so as to avoid vicious muttering within their own elite. And in The Merchant of Venice, Shylock, defined as mean and an abuser, is referred to simply as ‘the Jew’. We call Otello ‘the Moor’ in much the same careless way as Hamlet is deemed ‘the Dane’ – it is a means of definition. Otello, paranoia apart, is aware that he is different – but his colour is only a part of his head-banging insecurity. He worries about not having ‘those soft parts of conversation that chamberers have’; about being a generation older than his wife; about being a military man amongst ordinary people. He´s not a murderer because of colour, but because he is a complex, frail human taunted by the perfection of his highly-born child-wife, driven to utter despair by his conniving peers, and given to feeling before he thinks.

The rehearsal begins. Poison is lapping round the rim of Iago´s being. Desdemona, a trembling teenager with a violent, volatile husband, is bewildered. Cassio is drinking heavily. Verdi is knitting stupendous swerving lines into a furor of dissonance. The drama is social realism at its most acute and distasteful, set to music which inflames the soul.

This is Verdi from two centuries past, but opera at its most raw and modern. Past, present future. Emotions never change.

Mary Miller

1st December 2017  /  Otello at Bergen National Opera


Photos from rehearsals in Grieghallen: 1) Stuart Skelton (Otello) and Lester Lynch (Iago)  2) Lester Lynch vents fury in the role of Iago

Witches and Wonderland

In Os´s spectacular fjord-side culture house, a witch with a long silver tail is dancing with a bloody saw and cackling horribly. Hansel is trapped on top of a hospital trolley and Gretel is hiding behind lurid pink boxes. Welcome to the opera!

Bergen National Opera is rehearsing Humperdinck´s wonderful work for all ages, a new production with a singular lack of sugar and gingerbread but with all kinds of spookery and gruesome effects guaranteed to delight fiendish young minds and thoroughly unnerve their parents.

Right now we´re watching video of skeletal hands flickering on the front of a particularly grimy oven, and working out how Gretel will stuff the witch, her tail and her massive bouffant wig into the cooker without dislocating a limb. As it is, one hand is dangling limply out of the door. “Don´t light the legs too much; it´s confusing” says director James Bonas to lighting designer Martin Pettersen, who sits behind a jittering computer screen and a battery of switches. In the gloom just before her demise, the witch has sharpened an unsavoury looking spike, Gretel has snatched the magic wand and is singing ‘hocus-pocus’. So the siblings will defeat evil, kill their horrid captor, find their hapless parents and live happily after…

The brief from BNO to Bonas, designer Tom Paris and music director Stephen Higgins was to create a ‘suitcase’ opera, to be taken on tour from north Hordaland down to the southern Rogaland town of Bryne, performing in eight venues and scooping up school class 7 as participants in the show. We have five wonderful young Norwegian singers in the principal roles (the witch doubles as Hansel and Gretel’s somewhat despairing mother). Then, a school class local to each of the venues will have a walk-on role and a glorious chorus to sing – all accompanied by a virtuosic piano version of the orchestra score. Along the way, we invited a couple of school classes in to evaluate the process as the opera grows through rehearsal – Bergen´s Montessori school had plenty to say on their visit last week: ”Can´t hear the words; why does she (the witch) do that? We want more scary bits!”

But by now, the suitcase has become a truck, the production has grown from a few flat-pack boxes into a set resplendent with huge, albeit gorgeously painted, boxes, and the props list bulges with oversized blood-bags, grotesque stripy candy sticks, brooms and glittery shoes. The painted floor – a critical part of the decoration – coming by van from Poland, is currently AWOL somewhere north on E16. It might arrive this evening, but … The driver´s voice is lost in a tunnel.

The video, created by Siren Halvorsen and Fredrik Rysjedal, is fantastic – as we watch, birds flock across walls, trees grow spindling branches, and beetles creep over sleeping bodies in the forest. Lit by flickering, trembling skeletons, the boxes transform into eerie nightscape as Hansel and Gretel shiver and whimper.

Tomorrow, Class 7, Os Barneskole is coming for their first rehearsal. They´ve had workshops with BNO´s Ann-Terese Aasen, but now they´ll put on their hoodies-with-wings and become angels. Next, they don orange boiler suits to emerge as the lost children who find freedom at the opera´s end – a moment as tear-jerking as any in music.

The magic of Humperdinck´s story is of course the astonishing score itself – rich with melody, beautiful, surprising and evocative. But no other opera story so utterly grips, bewitches and touches the specialist listener and the youthful beginner alike.

So, parents, grand-parents, aunts and uncles bring a child. Or just come. Come, and be one yourself.

Mary Miller

18 November, 2017
More info and tickets:

Hans_Grete_Oseana181017-46 nett



Händel and Humanity


In Grieghallen´s basement rehearsal room, figures in tattered grey sing Händel as they shuffle towards a table where soup is ladled from a vast battered pot. The scene is bleak. We are in Ireland – or it could be Norway – in some kind of timeless misery with freezing weather and famine, where the country´s distant officials have long ceased to care, and where the church is struggling between old-school hell-fire authority and its need to offer succour.

So, here at Bergen National Opera we are creating a staged version of The Messiah for Festspillene i Bergen in a special edition by Malcolm Bruno, created from the original material which Händel took to Dublin for the oratorio´s premiere. The director, Netia Jones, acclaimed for her layering of stage direction, film and live video, is talking with passion and extraordinary clarity about the circumstances in which the oratorio was first performed: about the text – its writer, Charles Jennens was a devout Anglican and unflinching believer in scriptural authenticity – and about 18th century English snootiness towards a religious work being intended for the theatre. She talks about hypocrisy, about rural communities where a fundamentalist priest thunders about divine retribution as his congregation sickens and starves, about political representatives turning their backs and returning to warm well-fed firesides, about Godly but kind folk with a belief in hope tending the needy. She muses on Händel, newly settled in London, writing music of genius at furious speed as public opinion turned against showy Italian opera towards a near-craze for English-text oratorios.

But in creating the Messiah, Händel swerved from what had become his norm. For this new work, there were to be no highly dramatic roles for the singers; no individual narrator and no quoted speech. Though Jennens didn´t intend his text to be a dramatization of Jesus´s life and teachings, he did want to present (as opposed to explore) what he described as the “Mystery of Godliness” through extracts from the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible, and from the Psalms in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

For Netia Jones, the Messiah tells a deeply human story. The four soloists can hardly be said to have theatrical roles as such, but their characters are distinctly drawn. Soprano Kateryna Kasper is an angelic voice, a figure of innocence and purity. Mezzo Renata Pokupic is a mother – a shy, little known member of the community with a very sick child for whom she is seeking help; urgent help, as he is stricken with typhus. Our tenor is a curate – a young, naïve, idealistic priest in his first parish, struggling with the seeming brutality of his Lord and the flickering questions which torture the basis of his faith. Meanwhile, fire, brimstone, Godliness and prejudice define our bass, an old fundamentalist priest with the Old Testament emblazoned on his brow, and anger surging in his heart at the sin of his parishioners who have brought such devastation upon themselves. The chorus personifies the village, a mix of kindness, lost hope, burning zeal and raw survival. We see them in church, in icy limb-freezing weather, and, at the soup kitchen.

So the atmosphere, in rehearsal, is extraordinary. It seems that we hear Händel´s music unfold for the first time. Freed from the bulging choral extravaganza of the British concert hall, the music seems at once extremely intimate and frighteningly spacious. We are working with Bjarte Eike´s Barokksolistene and the gut-stringed mewing sound with chittering harpsichord is acutely human. The compact chorus – a mix of our own fine Edvard Grieg Kor and Washington Cathedra´s elite Cathedra vocal ensemble – produces fantastic sounds: blazing, glowing, gasping, and what seems, at times, like an end of life breath.

There are tough questions both to Bjarte – for the singers, it´s not straightforward to follow a skittering violin bow, as opposed to a conductor´s baton – and to Cathedra´s Michael McCarthy whose beat leads the most complex, contrapuntal material. For this is chamber music on the move – hard lines to sing in ensemble while navigating all kinds of instructions on stage.

In the weeks to come, we move to Den Nationale Scene as the work takes shape for performance; from the Great Music Hall in Dublin 1742 premiere for charitable causes – prisoner debt and aid to hospitals – where because of over-crowding, the audience were requested to wear neither swords or hooped skirts – to London´s Covent Garden Theatre, where the reception was chilly (such exalted outpourings should surely be heard in a church) to a small, beautiful Norwegian theatre.

There, after weeks in a grey airless room, Handel will take the stage. And why his masterpiece has endured, through theological questioning, public adulation and disenchantment, multiple editions and orchestrations, overcharged performance and countless Christmas bawlings, will become gleamingly, movingly clear.

To Jennens´ words, Händel will spell out his own glory. In some way, we shall all be changed – by great music shown to us as humans, and by a staging of consummate humanity.

Mary Miller

5th May 2017