Opera far and wide

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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

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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

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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.

www.mimigoesglamping.com

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

Merry Christmas

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2015 – a year of swimming pools, flying beds, glamping, science operas for kids, and finally, a chorus of dancing radishes.

Yes, I´ve been to Lyon, where the opera´s Christmas show – Offenbach´s Le Roi Carotte – defied all expectations by providing, astonishingly, a salutary and political lesson for all vegetarians: elect a carrot king, and you will end up as puree.

But one cannot but love an opera with lines like ”Tais-toi, legume affreux!” – surely one´s go-to insult for the New Year? In brief, the opera involves the witch Coloquinte, Cunegonde, Rosee du Soir – a captured princess – and everything from Ethiopian clowns to dragonflies. The story swerves from Pompeii and erupting Vesuvius, various escapades with a magic ring (much more fun than Wagner´s), the land of insects, and features a character called Pipertrunck whose identity I never quite figured. Laurent Pelly´s production relished every mad innuendo and as an insight into the whimsy of French humour, the evening was unbeatable. And ah, the sense of style: we had oysters at the post-performance party served with dainty little cartons of …. grated carrot.

Here at Bergen National Opera, awash with prosaic cups of coffee, we sit a little stunned by 2015´s achievements. Oliver Mear´s beautiful cruise ship Don Giovanni opened the year, full of unforgettable images of gorgeous costumes and sophisticated movement, with incredible refined singing from a chic young cast. Hanna Husahr, a heavily pregnant Zerlina danced on tables and Henk Neven, elegant to the last, plunged to his end in what surely must be the first swimming pool on stage in Grieghallen. And it was heated, much to the relief of Henk´s nether regions…

Our programme continued, merry with pop-up performances, children exploring environmental themes, a great show for teenagers with Don G´s three women exploring the vagueries of love, wonderful performances at our monthly Opera Pub from singers of every kind – a rare series of gathering which truly brings Bergen´s sometimes disparate musical community together – evenings at Grand Terminus Hotel where opera, champagne and dinner intermingle, talks, lectures and discussions, and our first festival Mimi goes Glamping, which certainly deserves a new paragraph.

Together with our great colleagues at Åmot Opera Farm, we decided to explore the up-market rock festival model – think Wilderness or Latitude – but instead, to build the festival with opera where all the lifestyle components: yoga, food, masterclasses, workshops, would create a weekend of intriguing activities. So August, in blazing sunshine, saw a weekend of wonder. Our marvellous Unge Stemmer – BNO´s young student singers in the thick of their overseas studies – played a critical role as troubadours, guides and a capella jingle singers, and a roster of international artists provided opera, cabaret, masterclasses and incredible generosity. Local producers and makers swarmed around, the air wafted with the scent of cheese and smoked fish, a grand old boat drifted sleepily on the fjord leaving a trail of soprano melody, and we swayed, late-night, to baroque violin, to silvery Sondheim, to Puccini.

Then back to Grieghallen, for our revival of Benjamin Britten´s Midsummer Night´s Dream in the mesmeric Robert Carsen production. 18 small boys and 2 little girls played the demonic fairies, a cast of utter beauty sang to perfection, and Puck, the bouncing, elastic, dynamo Miltos Yerolemou, stole everyone`s heart. True magic. Beds flew, imaginations took wing, hearts fluttered and a dusting of dark glitter lingered long after curtain-fall.

So let´s end with Puck´s closing words – good night unto you all, he says. Not night, but the evening of a year. On, now to the dawn of another, to more music to more marvellous sounds and sights. Our 2016 promises to be exciting. We hope the very same for you too, with happiness and success thrown in. Thank you to all our collaborators, to Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Edvard Grieg Kor and all those who build, make, light and stitch.

Merry Christmas!

 

 

 

 

Masterclasses from Mrs Slater

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None of us have ever been in doubt about the great young British Wagnerian soprano, Rachel Nicholls’ ability to sing. From Bergen to Longborough to Tokyo she has rocked the halls with thrilling sound – rich, silvered, skin-prickling. Some of us knew that she also loves to teach. Here at Bergen National Opera we had taken that on board in principal – but confronted for the first time by the reality, we were (there is no other word) awestruck.

This summer, our Unge Stemmer, young artists from the Hordaland region who have left to study overseas and are mentored by BNO throughout their degrees’ duration, came with a couple of Edvard Grieg Kor’s younger voices to be runners, performers and general assistants at our Mimi goes Glamping Festival at Åmot Operagard. Their reward was a class with Rachel, who with her bass-baritone husband Andrew, was artist-in-residence. The young singers assembled in Åmot’s charming barn, jittery, smiley and variously clutching scores, strong coffee and sheets of music.

They began – each had a 20 minute slot – and we sat in the audience listening to phrases stretch from strained to serene, breathing slow, sounds beautify, barking bass notes change to bronze and nerves vanish. Marvellous, everyone said, watching the young faces grow thoughtful, and notebooks fill with essential exercises and advice. ”Do not” said Rachel, observing ”change anything because of me. Your teachers know you and have a plan. It’s all very well for me to come in and make suggestions……” So no ego here. No diva sweeping in to bestow tiny fixes before flying off with a queenly wave and a phrase from Tosca.

Then Andrew came to Bergen to sing in Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, our wonderful production from Robert Carsen, which finished in a blaze of glory last week, in part thanks to Andrew’s brilliant portrayal of Peter Quince. Happily, Mrs Slater aka Rachel came to visit him. And because of the generosity of Unge Stemmer’s sponsor, the Kavli Foundation, we were able to bring home to Bergen seven Unge Stemmer to sing to Rachel, with Andrew as additional mentor.

It was an extraordinary day. The Åmot sessions, it turned out, had caused a minor revolution. Voices had doubled, confidence had tripled, and music poured from singer after singer. Each young artist had a full lesson. Some were encountering the Nicholls treatment – a fierce mix of common sense and magic – for the first time. Andrew and Rachel squabbled happily over methods, everyone giggled. They encouraged all manner of noises, from gorgeous to grotesque. Shoulders dropped, diaphrams swelled, mouths which had been semi-opened yawned to form perfect figures of eight. We heard Mozart, Bach, Wolf, Schumann. And a series of small miracles.

Leaving, close to tears, I began to drive home, then pulled into the roadside to think. We forget the role of the teacher, the life-changer, the force that delivers what Seamus Heaney described as “the jolt that sets steady the fibrillating heart”. I had one such old lady who taught me not only to play the violin but that the instrument was my life-connection to music, to art and to love.

Lucky Unge Stemmer. Mrs Slater will be back.

Mary Miller, November 2015

Unge Stemmer: Martina Starr-Lassen, Ingvild Schultze-Florey, Susanna Yttri Solsrud, Kristin Frivold, Marita Lervik, Sondre Landvik and Elizaveta Agrafenina

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Straight talk

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Let’s be perfectly clear: there are many, many terrific and talented Norwegian singers working all over Norway. There are a smaller number working on the world’s main stages, in addition to many excellent Norwegian early music or music theatre singers working in more intimate theatres. The current debate is fuelled in part by sound bites, and it surely makes sense to lay out the bigger picture from Bergen National Opera’s specific point of view.

The discussion is based on BNO’s perceived casting of non-Norwegian singers. As our company works with large numbers of Norwegian singers when in smaller venues, let us concentrate on our productions in Grieghallen, Norway’s largest concert hall, where we mount at most 3 fully staged shows a year, each for up to four performances. When we start to cast, our aim is simple: find the best most appropriate singers for the opera. Sometimes there are special circumstances, as when we presented an Eastern opera in Chinese, or one written for ethnic voices.

Like every opera company, our priority will always be quality. We want to give our audience the best possible experience of opera, and of the magic of the human voice combined with great theatre. So when we cast, we want to build a team where the combination of voices and personalities tells the most believable and captivating story.  It is a much more complex task than just picking a perfect soprano or a spectacular tenor – we need, every time, to build an ensemble which functions like a dynamic family. Ideally, we would like our casts to be a mix of our top national singers, and those of similar talent from overseas: the aim is a mix which is mutually inspiring, brings new talent to Norway, and shows Norwegian talent to the world.

We cannot escape from the fact that there are important practical issues when we work in Grieghallen with Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. The hall has a large fan-shaped construction, and the back row is 45 metres from the stage. So we must always find voices with the power and bloom to carry to the back. For young singers other than the exceptional – like Lise Davidsen or Elisabeth Teige (both of whom have been offered opportunities with BNO) – Grieghallen is a challenge, and as operasjef, I would not put a young gifted singer of any nationality in a position which might render them vulnerable to confidence-sapping criticism – “we were at the back and couldn’t hear her” or “she wasn’t ready for that role” etc.

As a company, BNO has made a decision to present slightly less usual main stage repertoire amongst more known operas. Because we live in a small city and have a huge hall, each opera is given only four performances. Let’s take Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream which we are currently presenting, happily with great success. We offered 5 major roles to a number of Norwegians. It is understandable that to learn a new role in a complex opera with only four performances is a major undertaking. As it turns out, it’s a great pity for these singers, as the majority of the cast we have created here in Bergen will now take the opera to both Beijing and Bahrain. One of the major Norwegian names we approached was offered a top role in Dream, but then offered a long run of performances in a top American house. Which would you choose, as a young international singer building a huge career?

Bergen National Opera is a young company which has grown its reputation very fast – and has worked very hard – to become a significant player both internationally and locally. We don’t have an ensemble, which gives us considerable flexibility. We work on productions of every scale and also are committed to the development of young Norwegian singers, from children upwards. We routinely hire Norwegians for our chamber-scale creations. We accept that, in terms of our main scale productions with Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in Grieghallen, the balance of Norwegian to international singers is unequal for reasons expressed above. We hope that now that we are more established, the Norwegian singers to whom we make offers will begin to accept the roles we suggest. Even though we now plan up to four years ahead, our top singers have choices.

So, despite our best intentions, things don’t always work out. It is only recently that BNO has been viewed as “desirable” for Norway’s best singers. Over the last few years we have found ourselves reviewed as a matter of course in the international press; we’ve started to be approached by the “big players” like Lyon and the London houses as co-producers, and to be chased by agents offering us glamorous names. Of course the financial downturn means that everyone is searching more widely for partners, but the kind of reviews we have been receiving don’t lie. Now, too, we are selling our productions made in Bergen overseas.

But developing the reputation of opera in Norway is far more that just concentrating on main roles on the main stage. Talent development is critical. BNO is making a major effort to develop young singers. Starting with choirs for young children – 20 of whom play a major role in our current production – we have concentrated and strategic programmes for around 100 young people, including for our 9 Unge Stemmer: students from Hordaland who are studying overseas, and who we have locked into a five-year programme of mentoring so that on graduation, they return to Norway to build their careers. Every main stage opera that we present has around it a development programme for up to 700 children and young people who then come to the dress rehearsal, integrated masterclasses or lessons with cast members, our Opera Pub where chorus, students and cast soloists all perform etc. We have been midwives to Edvard Grieg Kor, now contracted singers who sing a capella, but also for both BNO and BFO.

We have countless other activities in the community, and are increasingly creating more output. We have a new relationship with Barokksolistene which will result in major projects in Norway, UK, Germany and USA. Our new festival in collaboration with Åmot Operagard already featured eight marvellous Norwegian voices. Now we are working on the beginnings of a small and larger scale touring programme which will greatly increase opportunities for our young singers. We have new collaborations with main Norwegian partners.

For us right now, it is interesting that BNO finds itself in the centre of a topical debate – don’t let’s imagine that Norway is the only land which ponders these issues. We are very happy that singers from so many countries – and in particular Norway – want to sing with us. But first of all, those of you who are commenting, come to Bergen and experience our work so that you know who we are and what we do. Then our dialogue can become even more dynamic – and further advance our common love for opera.

Mary Miller