Saturday 12 August 2023

Small but fierce: I chat to Cameron Menzies, artistic director of Northern Ireland Opera

Verdi: La Traviata - Northern Ireland Opera in 2022 (Photo: (Philip McGowan)
Verdi: La Traviata - Northern Ireland Opera in 2022 (Photo: Philip McGowan)

Cameron Menzies is the Australian-born artistic director and CEO of Northern Ireland Opera. Appointed in 2020, COVID travel restrictions meant that he did not arrive until March 2021, to take over a company whose Arts Council funding still remained at its 2013 level. Since then, Cameron has directed well-received productions of Puccini's La Boheme (at Belfast's Carlisle Memorial Church in 2021), Verdi's La Traviata (at Belfast's Grand Opera House in 2022) and Sondheim's Into the Woods (at Belfast's Lyric Theatre in 2022), along with creating a series of smaller-scale touring performances.

The company was founded in 2010 at the behest of Arts Council Northern Ireland, combining resources from two existing companies. Oliver Mears (now director of opera at the Royal Opera House) was artistic director from 2010 to 2017, followed by Walter Sutcliffe (now intendant at Oper Halle) with Cameron being appointed in 2020. The company's Glenarm Festival of Voice, launched in 2011, features recitals and events alongside a vocal competition for young singers across the island of Ireland.

Cameron describes the 2020/21 period as 'a challenging time to get on a plane', and taking over the company at that time was terrifying, but great. There was no way to produce live performances, which meant that he was able to take the necessary step back to look at what the company had. Yet COVID restrictions were also isolating, he was only able to meet in person with the development team and the rest of his relationships started out developing via virtual interactions. He describes the company as small but flexible, and referring to it 'small but fierce'.

Cameron Menzies at Belfast's Grand Opera House
Cameron Menzies at Belfast's Grand Opera House

Whilst the company is the only one in Northern Ireland capable of creating large-scale work, Cameron wants them to be able to create high-quality work on different platforms and scales. He feels that the company is thus, hard to define; besides an annual large-scale production (Cameron's production of Puccini's Tosca opens at the Grand Opera House on 9 September 2023) there is cabaret (including a recent trivia night), film work and the salon series which takes music to fabulous romantic locations around Northern Ireland.

That there is an audience for opera in the province is demonstrated by the fact that the company's production of Verdi's La Traviata last year had over 4000 tickets sold, the four nights were sold out and the forthcoming production of Tosca is going the same way. He has moved the company from doing two large-scale shows annually to doing one large-scale show and a large amount of smaller-scale touring work so that events like their salon series keep up the momentum whilst enabling the company to take work around the province.

Cameron feels that if there was the money available to put on a proper annual season of opera, there would be an audience for it. Most of the shows that come to the Grand Opera House are touring ones that originated elsewhere, whereas Northern Ireland Opera is almost unique in producing large-scale work that is created, designed and produced in Northern Ireland. Many of the creatives are also from Northern Ireland, as are the majority of the artists, and the company attracts audiences from outside the province.

Neil Martin: Nobody/Somebody - Northern Ireland Opera at  Belfast Children’s Festival in March 2023 (Photo: Neil Harrison)
Neil Martin: Nobody/Somebody - Northern Ireland Opera at Belfast Children’s Festival in March 2023 (Photo: Neil Harrison)

All of the company's work is designed to engage local talent and artists. For Tosca, all the chorus members are based in Northern Ireland and the majority are from the island of Ireland, the creative team is all Northern Irish except for Cameron, who now lives in the province.

Since Cameron took over, the company's annual large-scale production has been an established classic. With funding at a standstill since 2013, Cameron feels that they cannot afford their main-stage work to be a risk. Added to which, there is nothing wrong with being populist and it also helps build up the audience's trust. It is only when you have that trust can you do something left of field. With the smaller-scale Salon Series, they can explore a wider range of styles and composers with a varied repertoire including Berlioz and Mussorgsky, and Philip Glass to come.

Historically, the company has always done musicals including Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and Cole Porter's Kiss me Kate, so Cameron's production of Sondheim's Into the Woods was hardly an innovation. But he is only interested in high-quality musical theatre, he would never do a jukebox musical with the company and is firmly focused on the Sondheim-Bernstein axis, works very much of a classical bent. Also, he points out that musical theatre is a lovely gateway to opera itself. They had audience members who went to Into the Woods, dipped their toe into opera with La Traviata and are now returning to book for Tosca. He feels that it is great to see this, and lovely that they are able to capture the data to demonstrate the audience trends.

Sea Wrack - Northern Ireland Opera's Salon Series (Photo: Neil Harrison
Sea Wrack - Northern Ireland Opera's Salon Series (Photo: Neil Harrison

When we talk about funding, Cameron points out the problem of working in the arts in the province, there is currently no sitting executive though there are hopes that there might be a Northern Ireland government by the end of the year. But the company and the Arts Council continue to advocate for the arts, and there is a whole debate about how the whole sector can be funded in the province, and Cameron quotes some alarming figures about how Northern Ireland woefully lags behind in the per capita funding of the arts as compared to Wales and to the South East of England (and of course always bearing in mind that the UK, in general, lags woefully behind countries like Germany). Also, part of the point is to show that the company can do quality work, which surely should demonstrate that more funding would release more creativity. But it is also important to show that the sector is important to the economy.

Cameron was always interested in the idea of running a company as well as directing. Around 10 years ago he looked at the skills he felt he would need and gained experience in a varied skill set - health arts, outreach, young adults, directing, producing, and fundraising. He systematically put things into place and feels that it is wonderful to be both artistic director and CEO at Northern Ireland Opera as it allows him some freedom.

When Cameron took over the company, it had a fairly standard young artists programme. He looked at it and decided that it wasn't working for what the company needed. So, the company launched a chorus development programme. They cannot afford a regular, full-time chorus but they auditioned singers from all over Northern Ireland and committed to a regular year-round programme which includes the annual main-stage production but also working with different directors, choreographers and language coaches, including working with such luminaries as the chorus master from the Staatsoper in Berlin. They thus get different opinions on a piece and Cameron feels that it is interesting to watch them develop.

Poulenc: La Voix Humaine - Northern Ireland Opera's Salon Series (Photo: Neil Harrison)
Poulenc: La Voix Humaine - Northern Ireland Opera's Salon Series (Photo: Neil Harrison)

The programme gives the singers the feel of singing in a chorus, exposes them to a broad scope of work as well as developing the group as a chorus. They will arrive at rehearsals for Tosca, having participated in development work and having given broad-range chorus concert earlier in the year. Any chorus is the lifeblood of a company, and Cameron plans interesting works for them to participate in. The singers are all based in Northern Ireland, they work there and thus the sector benefits from the skills they gain from the Chorus Development programme.

Talking about the company's plans is difficult because they are funded on an annual basis, so only have concrete plans until March 2024

Cameron continues to work elsewhere as well; he feels that it is important for him and for the company that he stays relevant to the industry. In March 2023, he and the original creative team took his NI Opera production of Into the Woods to Perth, Australia, and in 2024 he will be directing in London, there may be something in Southern Ireland as well as plans for New York. He has lots bubbling around.

His dream work to direct would be Poulenc's Carmelites. He finds the piece exciting, powerful and important and feels that he has to direct it before he finishes his career. For Cameron, it questions what we need to talk about, where is the line in the sand for you. And the opera deals with these ideas in a way that is sophisticated, elegant, expressive and beautifully written. He also adds that he would love to direct a Chanel Ad campaign!

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