Burns in Bergen

The Immortal Memory

“Then, all unknown,
I´ll lay me with the inglorious dead
Forgot and gone…”

So wrote Robert Burns, far from forgotten this January 2016, close to 260 years from his birth.

How might he have reacted to us celebrating his life at a Burns Supper? – he´d be – I suspect – bewildered, but just a little intrigued.

As a child I went to many Burns suppers – my grandfather, who was an academic but also a Church of Scotland minister, had a very beautiful singing voice, and he was always asked to sing. I was about nine or ten and a violinist, and he had very lovely arrangements of Burns songs with violin obligato. So I would be dragged along scowling (I was not a willing performer, although I loved it once my Grandfather started to sing) and we would weave the tunes between us. Wonderful tunes – the tough calls to arms and the dreamy ones that Burns´s mother had taught him. She couldn´t read or write, but she had a treasury of words and music in her head. That – the music – is part of our Immortal Memory too – that we sing Burns perhaps even more than we speak him. Beyond all the sepia tinted pictures, the shortbread tins and the bagpipes and haggis, it’s hard to think of another poet who commands the love and respect of generations: his poetry just has so much to say to us, that we cannot contain it without celebration.

As we lurch home tonight, our mouths still powdery with haggis, our knees sore from reels, our heads still nodding with Auld Lang Syne and maybe a wisp of Ae Fond Kiss, in some far country, another speech will be beginning. Another knife will plunge into the haggis “Oh what a glorious sight! Warm-reeking, rich!” (those from the West, forgive my Scots; I come from Edinburgh). In Australia, the ex-pats are done with this year´s feasting and singing, in America they haven´t yet begun (in a whole number of senses….)

Burns started life in a rough cottage. He always knew that his life held possibilities. He wrote to his mentor Dr John Moore “My social disposition was without bounds or limits”. It´s dismal business, tonight, to consider inauguration speeches – in fact I´ll fine anyone 100 krone if they mention a certain T-word this evening – but think, say, what Burns would have made of OBAMA´s inauguration speech – remember what he said about social needs, about greed and about political irresponsibility?

“Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune. 

(We Americans) have never relinquished our scepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone.”

Burns always was always responding to society. His poetry even now always responds to today´s world. He even wrote about banks:

“Had I to guid advice but harkit
I might, by this, hae led a market
Or struttit in a bank and clarkit
my cash account.
While here, half-mad, half-fed, half-sarket
Is a’ th’ amount.”

He thought – and reflected – on politics, about how his people were represented, about the origins and limits of political authority. At the opening of the Scottish Parliament on 1st July 1999, Sheena Wellington sang:

“For a’ that an’ al’ that
It´s coming yet for a’ that
That man to man the world oe’r
Shall brothers be for a’ that”

Back to Obama – we could have easily have sung that on 20th January 2009 or 2013.

I was just reading a copy of The Spectator magazine from around that time, where I guess we were all a little more light-hearted. There was a story about a poetry competition – about entering heaven. The Almighty heard the most appalling racket going on at the Pearly Gates. Wouldn´t you guess: English and Scottish football fans. “Right” he said “I´m not putting up with this for the rest of time. I gather that you are as usual quarrelling about which Nation is top dog. Well you´ll resolve that dispute now and for eternity. So, both groups, nominate a poet.” The Scots chose Burns, and the English, Wordsworth. And God said “You have 20 minutes to to produce a four line poem including the word Timbuktu – rhyming.”

It took the Wordsworth gang no time at all. The Scots were thoroughly depressed, because it sounded awfully poetic:

I went unto a foreign land
I came across a silver strand
A sailing ship hove into view
Her destination: Timbuktu

BUT suddenly, from the back of the Scots corner came Rabbie Burns – and he saved the day:

Tim and I a’walking went
We spied three lassies in a tent
Since they were three and we were two
I bucked one and Tim buck’d two!

But perhaps it´s the extraordinary range of Burns´s songs and poetry that gives us his immortality. He was just as brilliant and fluent writing about the church´s hypocrisy – think of Holy Willie´s Prayer – as he was in beautiful, tender love poetry. In John Anderson, my Jo, he captures a whole marriage in two delicate, heart-rending stanzas. Remember:

John Anderson, my jo, John,
We clamb the hill thegither;

He makes us laugh, and he makes us weep.

He´s the poet who can make us look at ourselves again, who is always reinventing himself, because we are constantly remaking him, rethinking him. He was fascinated by how complex we are – all of us. “Oh wad some pow-’er giftie gie us, tae see oursel’s as others see us.”

So, we have a poet of the head and the heart. He shared his head – his thoughts on justice and faith – and he opened his heart to share his vulnerability and a capacity for love which he wanted us all to share. He never sought celebrity. He was a poet and musician of the mouth – his bequest is his language: sweet, passionate, funny and pragmatic.

His Scot´s language has legs, wearing a kilt in Scotland, or a sari in Sri Lanka or a bush hat in Sydney. His poems travel, surf, fly. And mostly, the haggis travels with them.

Mary Miller

25th January 2016

Prison opera – Trollet på Fantøya


Like many companies, Bergen National Opera has been engaged in “write an opera” projects for a number of years – scores of children have benefited and have produced intriguing, surprising and joyful results.

But earlier this year, BNO decided to push things further: what about write-an-opera for adults? So we chose a fairy story – one with all the right Norwegian ingredients: a troll, a princess, a lonely boy, a greedy “bad man”. We summoned the great bass-baritone Sir Thomas Allen, chose two young Norwegian singers and invited 17 somewhat startled amateur singers from Førde to join. And we made an opera which astounded its audience in the packed tiny barn at Åmot Gaard, as part of BNO´s Mimi Goes Glamping Festival in August.

Island prison opera

The idea of took hold. Hanne Frosta, Food Director for Mimi and supervisor at the island prison at Ulvsnesøy, a remarkable facility where the inmates play a major role in building and sustaining their own community, asked us to visit the prison to see if we could find a mutual project. Now, a new opera has been born:Trollet på Fantøya, which premieres on Saturday December 10th.

BNO believes profoundly in the power of opera, that most open-minded and flexible of art forms, to bring people together. Stories told by music combine our two heartfelt instincts – the need to share our words and feelings, and to express our voices in song.

Yes, BNO as a company stages major operas in custom-built venues and employs some of the world´s greatest artists. But to work with a prison, with people totally new to opera, and to build something from scratch together is a new, unpredictable and inspiring experience. Together, this random team is coming together: we all want quality and every single one of us wants to be as proud as can be, come the premiere.

Finding a voice

We started the process with meetings. Some were shy, some were wildly ambitious, some were bored, some were excited. We talked and talked, shared food, sang a bit, discovered surprising skills and stories, and settled on staging the show in a big tent, serving food, running a Christmas Market, and involving everyone on the island. Solveig, the supplies manager will play the Troll (after much persuasion); we chose a princess (very shy) and a prince (even more shy) and as they told their own personal stories, director Tom Guthrie began to shape the show.

Now we´re on a roll. Inmates and staff are memorising lines and tuning strings, building the set, making props – great birds on sticks – and cutting branches to make an indoor forest. Others a cooking up a feast from the local lamb. We´re all singing with a bit more confidence and a fair amount of giggling. Some of BNO´s young chorus singers have joined us, we´ve formed a basic orchestra from drum and guitar playing inmates along with Hardanger fiddle. Everyone is furiously knitting warm seat covers for the tent – our drummer Tor Ivar, with his massive ear-piercings and whole arm tattoos is becoming expert – and as we all get to know each other better, there are a lot of “wouldn´t it be great if….” conversations.

And, the press are taking note: TV and print journalists are paying attention, and a magazine journalist is coming from the UK. A paper for prisoners and staff – called, unbelievably, Insider Times – has asked for pictures. One of the writers, curious about the mix of opera and inmates, said “OK, so this is something completely different from art?”. No, no – we said. This is what art does. It changes peoples´ lives, in institutions, in draughty tents, on islands, in the rehearsal room. If we´re lucky, after Saturday, we´ll never be quite the same again.

Mary Miller

Photo: Monika Kolstad

Fabulous Fabio


In the thick of rehearsals for Bellini´s I Capuleti e i Montecchi – a notoriously difficult opera to stage – with complex chorus choreography, exhausted soloists and the alarming possibility of Tebaldo accidently stabbing a stagehand (yes, we have real swords) – a small figure remains serene. Fabio Biondi, conductor, Bellini specialist, baroque and classical violinist supremo is smiling calmly and discussing rubato with his Spanish assistant, José Ramón Martín Díaz. José is fiddling with the piano and playing snatches of The Way you look Tonight. Fabio is singing quietly ’…. La tremenda ultrice spada…’

Talking to him is like experiencing a gentle blood transfusion – inspiration flows from him in an extraordinary way, as though he himself is discovering new wonders as he speaks. He´s telling me about how bel canto, in present times, should really be described as bella musica – ’bel canto was really about writing music for the stars, about celebrating the spectacular voices. Now we try to show how deep this music is, how interesting, how much detail is in the chorus, the orchestra, the dramaturgy. So maybe we take a little focus away from the singers’. Hence bella musica for the 21st century.

He talks about ’the smell’ of Shakespeare´s tragedy and looking at Nicola Raab´s production here for us in Bergen, I know exactly what he means. As the curtain opens onto pale gloom, prone figures and a set where white walls drip with ink-black paint there is the sense that, inevitably, no good will come of this story. Biondi calls the opera ’a celebration, but in a terrible way’. The stars, for sure, are not aligned.

’So we hear at once’ he says ’that the music is not superficial. We have the first very important cabaletto from Tebaldo and Romeo; fabulous melody – Bellini, for me is the prince of that – and all the fantastically different elements in this intense and strong story’.

For Biondi, Capuleti is Bellini´s greatest opera. ’No, not Norma; yes, but it has a kind of monumental quality. But it´s much less human. Capuleti is like, well, it´s a multi-media opera!’ Many of course, will disagree. Capuleti, again and again, is dismissed with a shrug. ’Not my favourite’ said one critic (he´s coming to our premiere – I am trusting Biondi and Raab to change his mind….) The demands on the singers are frightening – Giulietta and Romeo both sing across a vast range – and the long, eloquent arias which cannot realistically be interrupted by any stage action must generate their own drama and hold their audience in emotional thrall. So the actual theatre of the piece is entirely in the music – a fact which thrills Biondi: ’You know, this is so good – it’s such a strong argument for showing the audience that this music is not in any way a simple accompagnata for the voice.’

’Bellini believed so much in the relationship between the sound and the dramaturgy. Romeo´s instrument is the clarinet, Guiletta´s, the horn. It runs so deep – right at the end of the opera, when Romeo is alone and distraught at Guiletta´s death – when he´s singing ’Come, come, I cannot live without you’, there in the orchestra her ’horn’ voice is calling.’

Listening to the first orchestral rehearsals, it´s clear that Fabio also loves the ’human’ sound of the middle stings. As the wind and violins strut rhythms which will support the chorus, he is leaning, gesturing and beaming at the violas, drawing rich, warm lines. (’No wonder we love him… how many conductors actually encourage us to play more’ says one happy violist at the interval). ’These long lines are so beautiful’ says equally happy Biondi; ’we must use all these elements to show the emotion in the music’.

The ’trouser’ role for Romeo is one of the last in 19th century musical development, something which bemused if not irritated his contemporaries who by then were busy glorifying the new hero tenors. ’Berlioz’ mused Biondi ’was actually a very nice man’ but he really hated this score because of the two women. But I think Bellini really understood the story´s trauma. These lovers have only just passed childhood – Romeo must have a sweet, fierce boyish voice. He is not an adult romantic hero.

’Actually, I once attended auditions in Dubai – they wanted a tenor for Romeo because of course to have two women there was out of the question. And it sounded horrible. No slight on the poor singers, but the poetry is lost.’

So, to Bergen, where Kristina Mkhitaryan and Nino Surguladze are our star-struck lovers, their voices blending in heavenly union.  Biondi is excited – the opera is a Norwegian premiere. ’Wonderful! We know that Capuleti e Montechi was a fantastic success at its debut performances in 1830. Now we have the chance to show Norway why!’

Mary Miller

1st November 2016

Integration, immigration and inter-cultural sensitivity


The European Cultural Parliament met in Batumi, Georgia at the start of the month to discuss European values, Brexit´s effect on culture and intercultural sensitivities. So, tough debates ensued, fierce with passionate statements, raised voices and, in some cases, delivered with heavy hearts.
I was asked to talk about the intercultural sensitivity question – so the topic turned to opera, of course……

Here´s what I said:

I’d like to speak today about cultural integration and sensitivity as it applies to the performing arts – my specific area of work. Performing arts may perhaps seem a small arena given the appalingness of the current horror around the refugee crisis and the massive difficulties encountered by those trying to find a settled and safe home and a life with some kind of value. But I am concerned by how the arts and those of us who lead culture organisations are responding to this in the way we programme. I lead an opera company, and it´s there I would like to start.

In the last three months I have seen a large number of operas in various European cities. Of these, five have have attempted to reflect diversity and current affairs in the way that the director has interpreted the work. Well-meaning, I suppose, sensationalist maybe, but in my view a bit misguided.

All of them – all the five operas – centred on scenes of white European men (from various centuries) raping or torturing, or generally abusing Muslim women. Oddly enough, four of these five productions were Mozart. So we have the extreme beauty of the music in our ears, alongside the ultimate ugliness on stage.

We all know that without significant growth in understanding between the Islamic and the western/Christian world, without us reaching out or responding as humans whether or not we are politicians, aid workers, bureaucrats or indeed artists, we potentially allow the world community to end in disaster.

So how, in the arts world, do we behave respectfully and acknowledge that a mish-mash showing of global cultural differences does nothing to illuminate the true depth of local culture? We, as I say, – we in general, I suppose, are the kind of people who attend opera, theatre, whatever – and also know that awful violence proliferates. We read about it, talk about it, agonise over it. So why do the arts choose to portray diverse cultures this way. And why are opera directors perhaps the worst offenders?

I ask because if we are going to use art as something which has the capacity to truly bring people together across boundaries – and which surely can be a vital tool in how we approach living together across cultures – in our performing arts there must be more sensitivity and intelligence in how cultures are portrayed. An endless debate rumbles about diverse cultures and their artistic expression in general. Should artists keep their national or local distinctiveness, diversity and distance, or should they follow the lead of so-called global cookery and aim to combine flavours in search of what might be a richer or more tasteful emulsion?

How do we find a clarity of expression which respects diverse roots, holds onto originality and integrity while finding some sort of language which still speaks to an international audience. A national or regional culture is surely how it presents itself in its own particular environment. Once that special individual expression adapts to the outsiders view of what that culture should be, it becomes homogenised into something which is merely bland and pleasantly acceptable. That emulsion, then, has little to offer as a basis for a meaningful engagement with other cultures.

To return to the issue of Islam – and Mozart – there is the question of Islam´s political and social beliefs and behaviours and how those extend to arts and culture. Are those traditional roots so deep that they prohibit any adventure which might lead to a unique modernism in artistic expression? Is Islam´s own sense of its artistic culture strong enough to allow it to develop its own ’Islamic’ style of contemporary performing art, rather than being universalised.

It is hard to see a nation or culture or region retaining a genuine identity without it hanging on fiercely to its own artistic definitions – while also feeling able to innovate and experiment within those distinct traditions. Surely being ’modern’ shouldn´t lead to the surrendering of local knowledge and expression to a kind of global commercial sense of entertainment.

So to return to what this panel has as its title: Integration, immigration and inter-cultural sensitivity, I´d make a plea for equality – for individual cultures to express their art as they wish, to evolve as they wish and to chose their own path with whom they wish. The world needs – God willing peacefully – to keep diversity of thought and expression and culture as a rich mix. Culture and ideas, sensibilities and aesthetics need to keep their variety without the pressure to become diluted and globally digestible.

The wonderful Sir John Tusa, head of the BBC World Service, then inspirational leader of London´s Barbican Centre – a place where every day a diversity of culture jostles, flourishes and confronts – said ”We never know which lessons from which culture may be the lesson we need to assist human survival”.

I’d urge not just opera directors but all of us who have the privilege of working with artists to listen to his words carefully.

Thank you.

Photo: Yaniv Cohen

Our anniversary season


A new season, a special season – our 10th anniversary as a company – and a great deal to celebrate.

Two days ago, our new brochure landed in the office, filling the air with that curious acrid new print smell which both excites and intoxicates. We dived into its gold-wrapped pages, flipped through the pages, ooh-ed at the photographs and aah-ed at the events. We may say it ourselves, but our sense of achievement is enormous.

Bergen National Opera is a small company. Its output is enormous and our pride in the quality therein gigantic. 10 years old is perhaps still babyhood compared to some of our European colleague companies, but it´s so good – so satisfying – to be able to read our brochure and see that certain directors are back after major successes, that favourite singers return, and that work created here in Bergen is impacting companies far beyond our shores; that kids who started in our children´s choirs are now BNO Unge Stemmer at prestigious conservatoires; that Rame Lahaj, a star in last season´s Madama Butterfly has now been asked to Opera de Paris for two major roles; that a composer and librettist who met at a BNO/AdOpera Akademi now have a 7-country hit co-production; that our productions are now in repertoire far afield and our casts are cropping up on world-wide tours.

Looking forward, from August onwards, it´s all go. At Mimi Goes Glamping, our boutique festival of opera in nature, septuagenarian Sir Thomas Allen makes his debut as a troll. Yes! He´ll star alongside a dozen local Sogn og Fjordane singers in a new community opera based regional fairytale. Unmissable in an altogether astonishing programme of events. On the main stage, super-smart duo, director Nicola Raab and designer Ashley Martin Davies make BNO debuts in our new production of Bellini´s I Capuleti e Montechi – our season is greatly centered on celebration of the voice, so bel canto opera is a must – with our Georgian/Russian Romeo and Guilleta, Nino Surguladze and Kristina Mkhitaryan.

Then, hurrah, we are off on tour with Dama til Mozart, a new eccentric little chamber piece premiering at Larvik Baroque Festival and Mimi Goes Glamping, before heading to nine West Coast Norwegian venues. Director Tom Guthrie explores Constanze Mozart´s volcanic life as a composer´s wife – lots of hilarity, but also a deeply touching piece.


A new concert series next in atmospheric Håkonsallen: great voices, Bjarte Eike´s Barokksolistene, dancer Steve Player, a Korean Koto soloist… not your average recitals.

Then on to flying cupcakes, Comedia del Arte puppets, ballroom scenes by the beach: fabulous creative team Mark Lamos, George Souglides and Guiseppe Di Iorio return (remember their astounding Golden Cockerel in 2013?) for a new Il turco in Italia with a lithe and lovely young Mediterranean cast in gorgeous clothes behaving – as Rossini dictates – with wicked abandon. Meanwhile, at the theatre, we present something different. Norwegian soprano Eli Kristin Hanssveen turns vampish in Eli sings Ella.

Another star returns – Netia Jones – whose productions for BNO with Festspillene i Bergen have changed our city, and many others’ perception of opera for ever. With film, real-time video, stage direction and design, she weaves together stories which quicken our breathing. Now she tackles the iconic: Händel´s Messiah, albeit in a new edition by Malcolm Bruno and Caroline Ritchie which takes the work back to its original conception as a secular, theatrical operatic experience. We´re collaborating on the adventure with singers from Norway, Sweden, Croatia, Belgium, Russia and the USA. Hurrah for the universality of art. And, also for Festspillene, we combine with wonderful Edward Gardner and Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra on a concert performance of Britten´s Peter Grimes. The cast, with towering Stuart Skelton as Grimes, is fantastic: Roderick Williams sings his first Balstrode with Giselle Allen as Ellen Orford.

Around all this, BNO´s schedule buzzes with school projects, development academies for composers and librettists, performances in off-the-wall places, discussion groups, all the below-radar activities at the heartbeat of the company. And of course, our Opera Pub, the most joyful, most including, most fun evening of every month, where Bergen and beyond joins to sing, to listen, to adventure and to celebrate the human voice.

In ten years that operatic voice here in our city has grown to a resonant shining fortissimo. Happy birthday to us. And happy listening to all of you.

Mary Miller

24th June 2016

See the program for 2016/17 here

Farmers & Fiddles


Planning for Norway’s quirkiest festival – Mimì Goes Glamping 2016

We are standing amidst chintz and gleaming crystal in the exquisite downstairs dining room at Åmot Operagard talking about slaughtering sheep. The evening sun is catching climbing strands of honeysuckle outside the window, we are drinking champagne and the group of Austrailan farmers currently visiting on a Grand Tour are not in the least concerned with ambience. Not for them any lyrical chat about fish leaping in fjords or limpid azure skies. No, they want to know about fencing and grain quotas. Fresh from days in Iceland, a landscape from which they have emerged a little bewildered – more different from Queensland one cannot imagine –  they are off at dawn to Oslo, then Stockholm. Then, bizarrely, Bejiing.

So talk about opera doesn’t quite hit the mark. We’re visiting our partners Steinar and Yngve to make final plans for Mimì Goes Glamping, our boutique and somewhat quirky festival of opera, drama, food, nature and all kinds of fun. The Australians listen politely as we explain about Sir Thomas Allen as artist-in-residence, young Norwegian stars in the making who will sing arias on boats on the water, and bonfires with fiddles and folk music. They escape, possibly with some sense of relief, to dinner upstairs. We hear them chattering happily – the beef is delicious – and no doubt discussing its butchery.

Next morning to Førde, to talk to the hotel about festival guests, free passes to the spa and a possible opera brunch. Norway’s hotel workers are on strike and are sitting playing cards in a jolly yellow tent outside. Sunnfjord Hotel’s management, currently running a family chain gang, look tired but seem immensely cheerful. The spa, it turns out, is enormous and designed for suitably sybaritic lounging – we look with some longing at marble-lined pools where the water steams gently, and huge windows give on to meadow. No chance – we are due at the Farmers’ Market where a chill wind is scudding round the stalls and the temperature is close to zero.

The region’s producers, busy setting out fish, cheese, home-cured meats, artisan chocolate and juices, are critical to Mimì’s success; while they will bring a fabulous market to the event and their produce will feed our guests and artists, we want to celebrate them more. In Førde centre, this morning’s range is astounding – salami from young goats, dark, rich berry syrups in glinting bottles, salmon cured in local herbs. Grills spit and spark with roasting lamb threaded on sticks with wild asparagus, the scented warmth curling fingers into the air. It is now threatening to snow. Harald is slicing home-dried lamb and singing lustily. Hurrah. We hire him straight away to entertain late-night at the bonfire.

We talk to Sunniva who makes cakes and has just bought a beautiful vintage red van from some obscure part of Poland which she will turn into a mobile shop. We order a Mimi chocolate from Janne and discuss a possible festival cocktail made from blackcurrant liqueur. I begin to jitter from large mugs of tar-like coffee.

At the Kulturskule we plan a new opera involving local singers in which Sir Tom will star as a troll, and discuss fanfares with Angedalen-Brunns Brass sextet, a group who play on vintage instruments and dress -for reasons a little unclear- as though they are resident in pre-war Yorkshire.

And, we devise our own distinctly eccentric version of Blind Date for the festival. By August we will have assembled a gleaming new Volvo estate (the local dealer is a sponsor), a large shiny blue tractor, and a wonderful ancient Buick, along with three very cheerful young singers. Pay 100 NOK, blind-pick a ticket and you have a 15 minute date with one of these fine vehicles and your very own diva. Just think: a gently stylish drive around glorious countryside with the wind in your hair, and music in your ears!

More meetings, more decisions and a long drive home. On the ferry we eat appalling sausages while discussing the day’s gourmet offerings, the music, the weather and the way forward. Arriving home in Bergen close to midnight, small boats plough out of the harbour. The light is still grey-pale and blue clouds rush north.

Sleep. Dreams of redcurrants and vintage trombones. And possibly a date with a tractor. Mimì’s going glamping. I can feel the joyful madness settle into my summer.

Mary Miller

Opera far and wide


Last week’s report from Telemarksforskning emerged as a fierce and thorough piece evaluation of opera funded by Norway’s Culture Ministry, exploring district and regional organisations outside Oslo. Ten companies! – the number in itself is startling and surely confounds the thinking that only the capital cities can be centres of excellence. Norway should be proud – of the music, the singers, the hard work and above all, the variety. And so we are – from Tromsø to Kristiansand, the clear message is one of passion for an art form which sears both eyes and ears, which tells often improbably stories through amazing music and which transports us to worlds of romance, fantasy, hard realism, violence and sometimes magic.

The researchers had been clear about their process. Provided in advance with extensive rafts of material from each opera company, in the course of systematic meetings they met each management and worked through a hefty pile of enquiry. They quizzed groups assembled by the companies themselves: stakeholders, politicians, collaborators, board members, representatives of the respective city´s cultural community.

So in general, it’s good to know that the researchers’ findings are uniformly healthy and the conclusions thoughtful. Unsurprisingly, there is recognition of a collision between the market which wants what it knows and can measure financially: top ten operas, with Carmen unassailable at the very top – and the need for Norway as a country to develop the new, to take risk with the lesser known. No-one, for sure grows from stagnation. And importantly, the report celebrates the diversity of the opera offer available – from the annual historical epic performed each year outside Trondheim, to the introduction of European classics little known in Norway which contribute significantly to Bergen National Opera’s overall vision, to the enthusiastic local participation at Nordfjordeid.

There is much talk about quality – and much valuable discussion about the balance of professional and amateur activity, and how this relates to values and standards. For democratic Norway, this is uneasy territory. We love equal opportunity, all kids having a chance, the trees growing to the same height. There is, though, nothing democratic about art. We cannot all be brilliantly talented as singers or designers, any more that we can all excel as distinguished doctors or flyers on football´s left wing. Leif Øve Andsnes and Martin Ødegaard are stars because of sensational ability and hard work, not because a national ethic.

Thus our approach to opera manifests a considerable split: opera as an ‘activity’ i.e. involving enthusiastic participation from amateurs, often along with chosen professionals, or opera as a fully professionally curated process with highly trained personnel. The report, remarkably, addresses this without flinching. There´s comment from a variety of interlocutors about how being professional would ‘change things’ – as though quality is somehow corrupting. Hints, too, that professionalism is somehow less worthy than the honest joy of the amateur. It’s a curious fact: when an amateur or semi-amateur company puts on an opera, quality is routinely celebrated and applauded; when a professional company creates a fine show, it is assumed to be elitist, and only for an exclusive audience. In truth, almost all professional arts organisations prioritise accessibility and strive to take their work to as wide an audience as possible. Admirably, the report´s conclusions do fairly address the measurement, in terms of quality, of the two strands and are clear that evaluation must be appropriate to the type or organization.

We are, all of us working culture, a little thin-skinned. Talking to researchers is a curious business. They haven’t, generally, seen the work on which they are reporting – although to be fair to our Telemark colleagues, they had been to various productions in Bodø and Halden. It’s famously hard to talk about art and its effect – one is talking about how opera makes people feel, and emotions are impossible to show on a flow chart or PowerPoint. Streams of words like passion or colour or erotic symbolism really don’t do the trick. Each company´s panel, assembled to talk on its behalf, was assumed to present a balanced body of opinion. The researchers also talked to various ‘experts’ and to others whose names were not disclosed to those us being scrutinized – a fact which not unreasonably caused us some raising of eyebrows. Some odd opinions emerged from this overall scan, which ultimately provoked another disturbing overall conclusion: how little we seem to know about each other. Surely the national Opera Norge network should be a forum for common causes and shared experience? We simply don’t have a grasp of the details of each other’s production and we seem, as both management and associated commentators, to talk a great deal of nonsense about the principals by which each of one of us creates. So it is important, in digesting the document, that we separate stated opinions from reported facts.

One can imagine that last weekend all those whose operation have been scrutinised were unified by a very human response – what did “they” get wrong? What sentences have misrepresented the beating heart of what we do, what we fight for, what we so desperately want to communicate to our audiences? In truth, very positive and constructive things were said about Bergen National Opera – and the criticisms are ones which we will do well to consider. The report drew favourable attention to the multiple activities BNO produces outside Grieghallen’s grey walls – the diverse programmes and events which develop new audience, inspire children and develop young voices. But our development work with innumerable emerging singers – nine of whom will be featured at our up-coming Mimi Goes Glamping festival seemed to slip under the radar, and it is endlessly depressing to read that we primarily rent in foreign productions – can we please knock this on the head? BNO has created 11 new productions in 5 years, and in fact has a further five in the up-coming 2016/17 season. How is it that we communicate this so badly? Nor was there any specific mention of BNO´s formidable track record of collaboration at home and abroad.

Other findings: for sure, our leadership of Norway’s AdOpera collective (companies outside Oslo who have established collaborations with their local symphony orchestras) must further drive development amongst new Norwegian composers and librettists. We need to be sure, nationwide, that young Norwegian singers get appropriate chances and support: I´d underline the word appropriate as huge municipal venues are no place for a fragile young voice. We need to work more together – across international borders as well as within our own national networks. I´d also add a personal plea that we need to be more outward-looking, and routinely to put our work into the widest European context to ensure continuous learning.

It’s all possible, and nearly all of it is good news. The message is clear – variety really does spice our lives. So hurrah for risk. And thanks to a government with the guts to encourages its proliferation.

Foto: Magnus Skrede. Mimi Goes Glamping 2016 – Singers from Unge Stemmer.

Words across the water

Opining has always been Ireland’s national sport. Arriving, it hits you head on, mouthy and contentious.

Taxi Driver 1: “I tell yous, this city – bozzing, absolutely bozzing! Will yous look over there – all that building. Magic. This country’s flying!”

Taxi Driver 2: “It’s atrocious. Will yous look at the flowers on that lampost. Three bullets to his spine, that boy. Wasn’t even the right guy. The city’s a disaster. All drogs. Nothing but drogs.”

But the sun is shining, Dublin is radiant with students, shoppers, buskers and street artists, and the buildings seem to shout “look at us, we’re a truly European city!”. At lovely Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, all glass and sparkle on the water’s edge, the noise in the foyer is deafening. Glasses clink, friends holler. It may be an opera first night, but everyone is here to celebrate each other and the sheer marvel of a fine Thursday night. Wide Open Opera – a terrific young company grown out of Ireland’s chaotic opera so-called rationalisation in past years, has an enviable reputation for quirky and new work: John Adams, Donnacha Dennehy, Gerald Barry. But tonight they present the conventional, Barber of Seville as a showcase for superb young Irish mezzo Tara Erraught in a cast full of young talent and character. Excellent, imaginative Fergus Shiel, conductor and artististic director conducts a measured, disciplined overture, and we’re off into world of shifting sets, slapstick, whizzing tempi and Rossini’s own magic.

It’s all great fun even though the production is erratic, but the singing is just great. Afterwards we gossip shamelessly about UK opera; I whine enviously about Dublin’s venues – so many theatres on so many scales – plan tomorrow’s auditions and walk back over cobbles, as ever cursing my unsuitable shoes, through the city’s glamorous dusk.

Next evening, classic drama at The Gate, the beautiful Georgian space which seems more elegant drawing room than theatre. We’re to see Edward Albee’s great play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? immortalised on film by history’s most famous wrangling thespians Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. This production, set true to its heritage in a clubby, claustrophobic campus sitting room, is brilliant; disturbing, smart and painfully funny. Mildly traumatised, I buy a glass of wine at the interval (it’s a long play). “Ah” says the barman “Yer a wise woman”.

From noisy affability to cool Nordic reserve – next day to Gothenburg for BNO’s collaboration with Peter Eötvös and the city’s symphony orchestra. A large party of exhausted-looking Chinese are checking in at the hotel accompanied by a virtuosic battery of high-tech luggage. At the concert hall, opera director Eva-Maria Melbye and BNO’s production team look similarly weary. The week has been tough, time is tight, a singer is sick, and space for staging is distinctly constrained. But Eötvös’s Senza Sangue to Alessandro Baricco’s eloquent eponymous story, is superb, with vocal lines of seamless clarity and orchestra writing which seems written in perfumed ink on gossamer paper. It is followed by Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle: Andrea Melath as the nervous most recent wife, Gabor Bretz as a Bluebeard less deranged and menacing than damaged, stricken, wounded by life. Bretz’s voice is extraordinary – syrup-dark, beautiful, flexible. With Melbye’s shivering tree-scape video and Odd Halstensen’s luminous lights, one seemed to hear the piece anew, not as a searing melodrama, but as a thought-provoking, probing dreamscape.

Next morning another taxi, another driver. His name is Ulf, and he is not cheerful. “They’re probably on strike” he says after lengthy silence. I think of quizzing him about Sweden’s national sport – what does he think? At 06.15, it’s probably best not to ask.

Mary Miller

May 2, 2016

Foto: Senza Sangue in Gothenburg

Sir Thomas Allen to Mimì Goes Glamping


It’s such a pleasure and privilege that one of the opera world’s great treasures Sir Thomas Allen will bring a unique late-night show to Mimì Goes Glamping. Lucky us, lucky Norway!

But pity the poor journalist who tries to interview Sir Thomas Allen, our artist-in-residence at Bergen National Opera’s sparky summer festival Mimì Goes Glamping. Sir Tom, Britain’s most distinguished baritone, knighted by the Queen, awardee of practically every musical and vocal honour in Europe, star of everywhere from the Met to La Scala, now turned director is not prone to taking himself too seriously.

“Tell me, Sir Tom” said TV interviewer recently, wriggling a little in his chair “when you… er … re-embrace a role like Don Alfonso, is it hard to bring something fresh to the stage?”

“Oh no” grins Sir Tom “not when you’ve got a brain as small as mine…. Lucky to be singing anything at all at my age, actually….”

And so on. Ask about an opera, he’ll tell you a story about something hilarious that happened backstage. Ask about backstage, and you’ll get a ribald tale about the composer. But ask about making opera the art form more popular and expect an explosion.

Sir Tom is passionate about opera for everyone – in a speech at the prestigious Royal Philharmonic Awards he raged about ‘wet T-shirt string quartets’ and the promotion of ‘cutie’ opera stars as opposed to the development of the genuinely gifted through painstaking study. “I just want people to see opera for what it is” he says ” it doesn’t need to be popularised. It needs to be available!”.

Born in a Northern fishing village where almost every male family member worked at the local coal mine, he became a grammar school boy who sang but avoided school plays as being for ‘sissies’. Choirs were fine – part of the male voice choral tradition. The first member of his family to go away to college, he struggled with homesickness, rattled by the noisy swagger of his peers. But his voice pulled him forward. He became the college star, and the first of the important prizes followed. He sang in his first opera – Escamillio in Carmen- more by accident than design. The Queen was visiting the college, and the opera school was short of a baritone.

An extraordinary career has followed, paced by his own mix of outrageous talent and common sense. He turned down the mighty Herbert von Karajan in 1970’s because he “had a family and a mortgage and didn’t want to blow my voice on Verdi” – not reasons, one suspects, that von Karajan would begin to comprehend. But by the end of the decade he had left a regular job at London’s Royal Opera to embrace international stardom.

These days, in his early 70s, he is singing – still on glittering stages – teaching, painting and drawing, golfing, and a vital, vigorous champion for excellent performance. At Mimì Goes Glamping (and wow, we are so excited that the concept of our opera/activities in nature/great food festival tickled his imagination) he’ll treat us to an amazing late-night show where he’ll reminisce, sing and no doubt tell enchanting stories, and teach masterclasses to our young voices. And, true to his inner democracy, he’ll take part in our unique write-an-opera project with young singers and local choir members as….. Troll Murmartinstein, a beasty tyrant who eats small boys.

How good is that? No to von Karajan; yes to rural Norway! And some lucky journalist may even get a serious story.


Farewell Pierre Boulez

Many years ago, a somewhat posturing editorial appeared in one of the London papers – `Do we really need Pierre Boulez?´ it asked. The response, one imagines, was supposed to reflect England´s early 90s deep-felt and somewhat fashionable wincing in the face of intellectuals, especially those with the gall to talk unflinchingly about elitism and quality. These were the days when cultural political correctness had begun to infest our language with terminology bland as blancmange, and Arts Councils were suggesting that words like talent or gifted were indelicate, nay, dangerous. Boulez, the writer perhaps intended us to cry, was a past sell-by date pedlar of nit-picking musical efficiency with no relevance to 21st century new-age cool or to our retro-reinvented love of goopy instantly emotional tonalism. He wasn´t fun or fast, and worst of all, he was French.

Having the privilege of a Scottish newspaper byline at the time, I responded with red-faced fury. Boulez, I argued, was beyond a game-changer, a musician who had emphatically and indelibly shifted the way we perceive art, a person beyond being merely an influence: an absolute icon of quality and precision and musical excellence whose intelligence, wisdom and passion set down a critical marker in the evolution of European culture.

As a very young violinist in his London orchestra, the BBC Symphony, I had coincided with the final years of his simultaneous leadership of the New York Philharmonic. I was terrified. He would rehearse Ravel and Debussy desk by desk, hands twitching metronomically, eyes flinty. My desk partner, a very elderly Scot of supreme elegance who had played chamber music in his youth with Heifitz, would whisper ’try a third finger on that top F’ as my damp fingers skidded and skittered. Later, Boulez would summon the whole orchestra and the miracle emerged – long evocative lines which floated and swerved over the immaculate rhymnic scaffolding which his fastidious preparation had created. He made us understand, absolutely, that music is devoid of fluidity – cannot build tension and then let go, cannot sweep and fly – without the discipline of structure.

He had, in the orchestra, huge fans but also grumpy detractors – a noisy ongoing war snarled with the principal trumpet, but he and the eccentric flamboyant Polish principal trombone adored each other – ’Ah Pierre’ Alfred used to splutter tearfully ’true Europe gentleman’. The horn section at the time was spectacular but irascible, tending to erupt at inappropriate times into arrangements Souza marches if days of Globokar, Maderna or Boulez´s own Explosantes Fixes dragged into weeks. Boulez, less than fresh off an overnight flight from New York and a fierce programme of Ligeti would roll his eyes and mutter ’Please, I am in my ninth hour’.

The BBC percussion section was notorious – brilliant as benefitted an orchestra so edgy in its embracing of new work – and full of frightening wit. Rehearsing Bartok, Boulez asked for ’pozzibly…. maybe … a little more magic’ from the timpani at bar 76. We began again. At 76 the drumroll started ’Abraca-f***ing-tastic’ shouted the player.

The tuba player, doomed by history to spend long swathes of time with little to play, was usually immersed in Salinger short stories. At an important concert, he emerged from Franny and Zoe, panicked and came in loudly. And wrong. Abject with apology, he knocked on the conductor´s door at the interval. Boulez appeared clutching a box of Fauchon truffles. ’Never mind’ he said ’have a chocolate…’

Years later I interviewed him before an Edinburgh Festival visit with his Ensemble Intercontemporain. He talked about rhythms in Scottish folk music and mused about scoring in Stravinsky. I asked him why he no longer rigorously conducted the solo bassoon at the opening of Rite of Spring – was it that basson playing was better, or that he had truly relaxed? He giggled and said ’both’.

At his 75th birthday concert he was interviewed on stage, talking with his customary Gallic-inflected fluency. It was hard to reconcile this serene, superb mind with the stormy young dementor of estabishments so often described from the 40s – though he smiled about those years without apology. He was asked why he never conducted overtly political music, given his polemnic views – Shostakovich, for example. He replied ’because Shostakovich is a second-rate composer’. The audience squirmed. ’Don´t mistake me’ he said. ’He is an excellent composer, but the evolution of music would not have been altered had he not lived. If we had not experienced Berg and Schoenberg, then our world would be different’.

Only time will tell how badly we have needed Boulez, both his fevered and rebellious youth and his profoundly wise maturity. Maestro, composer, iconoclast, thinker, futurist, friend. Thank you for it all.

Mary Miller 12.01.2016

Also published in Slipped Disc: bit.ly/1ZthYMw