Q & A: Artistic Director & CEO of Northern Ireland Opera Cameron Menzies on Creating a Meaningful Program of Imaginative Works for the PeopleBy Alan Neilson
Anyone who has cast their eye on the state of opera in the Republic of Ireland over recent years will no doubt be aware of the renaissance that has taken place there. Yet, far fewer people will know of the recent progress that has been made north of the border, where Northern Ireland Opera has emerged from Covid with an imaginative program of works founded on its Salon Series, which has enabled it to leave its base in Belfast and tour the province, visiting towns and cities of various sizes with considerable success.
Much of this success must be attributed to the forward-thinking and imaginative direction of its CEO and artistic director, Cameron Menzies, who was appointed to the posts during the pandemic. The constraints he faced in taking up his positions were quite daunting; it was not just the COVID restrictions that hampered his work; there were also strict financial constraints that limited his options in creating a meaningful program of work for the people. Yet he has managed to overcome them with a remarkable degree of success. Following on from the company’s sold-out production of “Tosca,” it is about to present five performances of Philip Glass and Robert Moran’s rarely performed “The Juniper Tree,” which in itself is a testament to the Menzies’ ambitious and imaginative approach.
Having recently reviewed the company’s production of “Sea Wrack,” OperaWire met up with Menzies for what proved to be an interesting and detailed interview about his work, approach and ambitions for Northern Ireland Opera.
OW: What is your background and what made you want to become a director?
Cameron Menzies: I started by training to be an actor in Sydney with the well-known American actor and director, Hayes Gordon. He had been resident in Australia since leaving the USA at the time of McCarthyism and was credited with bringing the Stanislawski method to Australia. I then moved to Melbourne to study a postgraduate course in opera at the Victorian College of the Arts. So, I am trained as a classical singer and although I did some interesting work, including the performance of contemporary settings of Shakespearian texts, I had a dream of making the pictures which music so wonderfully encompasses, and I switched to directing.
I see my role as director more as an interpreter than a creator. I recall an article published while I was working at the Deutsche Oper in 2008, which talked of the death of Regietheater in Germany, and I shall never forget the sentence, “Young Directors should never forget that the genius is not them but Wagner, Puccini, Mozart…” and although I am not a purist, I do adhere to this. If I could do better in writing opera, I would be doing it.
OW: What made you take the job of artistic director at Northern Ireland Opera?
CM: Having freelanced for over 20 years, I had built up a lot of experience and I had always wanted to run an opera company. I was living in Melbourne at the time the job became available, which was in lockdown thanks to Covid. It was a terrible time: in just ten days I lost five years of work and was looking for a new project. I knew I had the necessary skills: fund raising, producing, educational outreach as well as stage direction. So, when this job came up, I thought I would give it a go, although I wasn’t particularly optimistic about my chances. At the time, I had never seen any of the company’s work, even though I knew about what it was doing through many of my colleagues who had worked there.
After two interviews, I was asked if I wanted to take on the role. I knew it was going to be challenging, but it was a wonderful opportunity and I felt blessed in being given the chance.
When I took over, it had no programming in place, so it meant I had a clean slate to work with, but on the other hand I had no time to sit back and watch how things worked.
My first project was a film called “Old Friends, And Other Days.” It was a sort of song cycle using the music of the Irish composer William Vincent Wallace. It was a great start; it was really successful and went on to win many awards.
Also, I rebranded the company when I arrived; brand recognition is now very important. We created a new logo and everything we produce is focused on promoting this awareness. I think it is now very strong and people are beginning to trust us and are prepared to give our productions a go. Although our price point is not high – a ticket for the Salon Series is £20 and the top price for a full opera is £52, so, it is not prohibitive – I genuinely believe that it is brand recognition that is getting people to come through the door.
OW: You say you see your role as more interpretative than creative, however, many of your productions have had a large creative element, such as “Sea Wrack,” which formed part of your Salon Series. You chose the songs, had them re-orchestrated and brought them together in a staged performance for which you designed the costumes and set. Does this suggest you are pushing towards the creative?
CM: The Salon Series is an idea that I have had in my head for a long time. It was actually part of my pitch in applying for the job here at Northern Ireland Opera. It has allowed us to get out around Northern Ireland: they are very portable productions, they are very mobile, they are not very long, usually around 50 minutes to an hour, and designed to play in non-theatrical spaces, such as the Crumlin Road Gaol and Hillsborough Castle, and also saves us money on sets. We are currently looking at an old gaol and a library space in Armagh with the view to performing in those spaces.
The series also allows us to explore interesting themes and gives singers great repertoire to sing, “Sea Wrack” being a perfect example. We don’t get many chances to perform fully staged operas, but we need to give our singers and audiences work that is meaty and meaningful; it has proved an excellent method for encouraging people to try out something they are not very interested in, or maybe don’t know they are interested in. It is one of the reasons why we wanted variety within the series; there is cabaret, Russian and German art song, French chanson and opera. I created a piece with Conor Quinn called “The Lost Boy” about young men going off to war with music by Kurt Weill and Cole Porter.
The Series has been very important in creating a foundation for us. We are now looking at another series. So, there are a host of reasons for doing the Salon Series. But I agree, they are essentially creative. The only one really designed to be staged was Poulenc’s “La Voix Humaine” which is the only really truly opera piece in the series.
OW: What has been the audience feedback?
CM: We have had amazing feedback. They have enjoyed the range included in the series and the numbers in the audience who return, has been very encouraging.
The Series has also acted as a gateway into our main stage works. They act as a taster for people; many people who went to see one of the series and who had actually never been to an opera before went on to buy a ticket for our production of “Tosca.”
OW: Has the series been well attended?
CM: The uptake has been really good. Although they have been designed for intimate spaces, we also performed them at The MAC in Belfast and The Playhouse in Derry, which are more traditional spaces than I had envisioned, but they worked well. We sold out at most venues.
OW: That is very encouraging, especially for events that are not mainstream.
We performed Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder” and Musorgsky’s “Songs and Dances of Death” as a pair, which contain quite dark and heavy themes, but they talk about things that are happening today. The grief that comes with the loss of a child is universal and eternal, and they speak to people today and when they are staged, they speak in an interesting way. I feel it is, therefore, important that when a piece is not sung in English the audience receives text sheets with the lyrics so that they can read about the pieces.
OW: Is the touring aspect something important to you personally?
CM: It is funny really, as I am asked a lot why an Australian has come to run an opera company in Northern Ireland. I came because it is a very musical country with very musical people, even when they speak it sounds like singing. Also, they have a tradition of storytelling through music, and this is threaded into the fabric of this country. Pieces like “Sea Wrack” and the Salon Series are an extension of that. It allows us to get the company out across Northern Ireland. We are situated in Belfast, but we are the national opera company and so we need to get outside of the city.
Of course, touring is part of our mandate, and we receive funding specifically to do this. If we are going to be a national company, we have to be seen across the region. It is important for people to know who we are and what we are doing.
But yes, it is also important to me, not just as the CEO and the artistic director, but as an artist.
OW: Have you considered touring in The Republic of Ireland?
CM: We can get funding from the Republic, and it is something we are looking at. The first couple of years of my tenure coincided with covid and it has taken more time than I would have liked to get to know Northern Ireland which is obviously my priority. I had never set foot here before I got the position. So I am playing catch up, but I am learning quickly.
I would love to take productions down South; the Salon Series would be perfect for that. However, it is such an unknown environment for me so I feel that I would need to pair with somebody in order to navigate that environment.
There is nothing stopping us from putting on shows in Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan, which are part of Ulster, even though they are not in Northern Ireland for example.
OW: Your tenure at Northern Ireland Opera started with three well-known, popular operas, “La Boheme,” “La Traviata” and “Tosca.” However, you have quickly moved on and have scheduled Philip Glass’ “The Juniper Tree” and Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” for the next two operas. Is this a deliberate attempt to widen the repertoire?
CM: I felt that during the early years, it was important for me to establish ourselves with a few popular works, so we did “La Boheme” “La Traviata” and “Tosca.” We were also very fortunate to have Siobhan Stagg make her role debut here as Violetta in “La Traviata.” Both “La Traviata” and “Tosca” sold out and this gave me confidence to widen the repertoire slightly. However, there are also development and other artistic reasons for my programming decisions.
“The Juniper Tree” is a work that is not presented very often. I think this will be only its fifth or sixth performance, but it is something I have long wanted to do; it is a brilliant piece that can be performed in a relatively small venue, and it is the perfect work as a vehicle for our Chorus Development Programme. For me, the chorus is the life blood of an opera company, so I wanted a really strong chorus, but when I arrived in Belfast the chorus really didn’t have enough work. It wasn’t going anywhere, and it didn’t help its members develop. Therefore, in 2022, I wrote the company’s Chorus Development Programme. We went out and recruited singers from across Northern Ireland; some of the singers were established while others were emerging.
As well as providing the chorus for the main stage operas, they perform a yearly concert, and we bring in music directors, language coaches, movement choreographers and so on to work with them as a group in order to train them, providing them with experience, the necessary skills and confidence, so that when they go on stage, it is not like it is their first day at school. They know how to work together, and they have choral sound. This cohort has been with us for two years and I wanted to extend their experience by giving them their own showcase and a chance to perform in solo roles, and “The Juniper Tree” is a perfect opera for this.
I chose to stage “Eugene Onegin” because it is a story that speaks to the world. It is the story of two friends, one of whom dies and the other who metaphorically dies. I also believe that is a relevant work, more so today than ever. It is an exploration of aggression and of men not being able to back down. It considers idea of conflict and the lack of coming together. Unfortunately, I think this is a contemporary issue, and was a big reason for me choosing to stage it. On a practical level, we also have singers that can perform the piece. We will only have to bring in one or two from outside.
OW: What can the audience expect from your production of “The Juniper Tree?”
CM: It will be performed in The Opera studio at The Grand Opera House, which is a small intimate space, seating about 150 people. Although a small space, it is very self-contained but with an epic dimension and the audience will be quite close to the performing area. It will also allow me to do things that cannot be done on the main stage.
It is a dark fairy tale, and I am presenting it with a sense of the gothic. In many ways, the staging will be highly stylized. The costumes will have a Victorian edge to them, but not in the traditional sense. Although it will be set against a dark background, there is plenty of color on view. It will have a very different look from what people are probably expecting, but it is not experimental.
It is also a very physically challenging piece for the singers; there’s a lot of movement involved, which has been expertly and imaginatively choreographed by Jennifer Rooney.
For me, this piece is all about the text. There will, however, be no surtitles, so it is important that the singers articulate the words very cleanly.
OW: With such an imaginative programming, the question that springs to mind is, was it the lack of funding that forced you to take this route or was it an artistic decision?
CM: Before I even knew what the budgets were, I had the Salon Series firmly in mind and I pitched the idea during my interview for the job; it was one of my spearhead ideas. Even if I was given a lot more money to work with, I would continue with the Series. It is not just good for the artists, it also helps develop the experience and knowledge of the audiences. I am not saying our audience is ignorant; they are not, but we cannot stage the operas of certain composers as we don’t possess the money or the necessary resources and so their opportunity for hearing such music live in Northern Ireland is limited. I would love to stage Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” for example, but that is very unlikely to happen, but we can perform the “La Voix Humaine” as part of the Salon Series.
So, it is a combination of using resources effectively while ensuring our artistic goals are met.
OW: How do you see Northern Ireland Opera developing over the next five years?
CM: Since joining Northern Ireland Opera, I think we have managed to produce a commercially and artistically successful body of works. We also have been successful in taking the work out across the community and into schools as part of our educational program, and this is something I definitely would like to develop further; I’m aiming to thread the main stage works into our community and educational work.
I’m also interested in developing community operas. When I first arrived, I commissioned a piece called “Nobody, Somebody,” a piece we wrote with teenagers about homelessness among young people in Northern Ireland, and it proved to be very successful. We actually handed it over to professional singers and performed it as a staged opera. I think community opera is a really interesting art form. I worked with cancer patients in a hospital ward in Australia, where we composed five short one act operas and presented them, and Australian TV made a documentary about it called “Opera Therapy.” So, this type of work is in my DNA, and I would love to knit it into our program over the next five years. As CEO of the company, it’s very important to me to be open to the community,
Obviously, I’d like more funding in order to grow the company: it is important that we produce at least two operas for the main stage each season, and the more coherent our voice becomes, the more chance we will have of achieving this. I think that this is starting to happen: people now know who we are, what we do and what type of quality we bring, and this is very important for our funders and to governments.
We also need to focus on helping singers develop their careers and skills her in Northern Ireland. In some ways, Northern Ireland is similar to Australia; there’s a pull overseas to further your career. I want to create a company where people don’t have to do that or if they do, they can come back because the opportunities are here for them.
We only have three full-time employees – Laura, the general manager, Julia, head of marketing and development and me – and it’s tough going. On the positive side, however, it means we can respond very quickly in response to the changing world, something bigger companies can’t do. Also being such a compact team allows us to achieve things above and beyond what people expect. We also have the Arts Council of Northern Ireland behind us, and I think that if they had the money, they would support us far more than they are able to do at present.
OW: What are your career aims?
CM: I want to produce good work. I want to create inspiring and challenging work that speaks to audiences.
I would not leave Northern Ireland Opera just because a bigger house came along. However, I have to be realistic and when the time is right, I will probably move on. There is an end date to everything we do in life, but that is a decision that lies in the future. There are things I want to achieve and create here with Northern Ireland Opera before I consider any such eventuality.
I am very happy working here as the artistic director and CEO of Northern Ireland Opera and the fact that I can earn a living doing what I love makes me very thankful.