Masterclasses from Mrs Slater


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



Straight talk


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