I’ve just arrived back in London after a month spent in Belfast with Northern Ireland Opera, performing the title role in Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, at the unusal – to say the least – venue of Belfast Zoo.
NI Opera already have something of a reputation for site-specific productions – their first full-scale production, of Puccini’s Tosca, at three different venues around Derry, won the 2011 ITTA prize for Best Opera. Staging an opera in the (relatively) comfortable environment of a conventional opera house is demanding enough; putting one on in surroundings that were designed with anything but opera in mind pushes everyone involved to their limits, and often beyond. But ultimately the rewards are worth it – at a time when all opera companies are asking the question “How Do We Attract New Audiences?”, one highly-effective answer is to take opera to people, rather than expect them to come to us. Even for a regular opera-goer, being asked to leave the comfort zone of a conventional theatre is a stimulating experience, which allows us to view the entire artform through a different prism.
At the same time, it’s crucial that the decision to stage a site-specific of any opera comes from within the opera itself, rather than being arbitrarily imposed upon it in an attempt to do something different for the sake of it. This is where the vision of the creative team comes in, and it seemed to me (admittedly from a biased standpoint) that this is something that the director-designer team of Oliver Mears and Simon Holdsworth achieved again this time.
I wanted to write here about the piece itself. Before I was engaged to do it, I knew of it but had never heard or seen so much as an excerpt. I got hold of a recording, and have to admit that I wasn’t bowled over. To an ear used to listening to “grown-up” professional opera, it can seem a bit scrappy and slightly twee.
Those reservations held only up to the point at which we began putting it together with the forces for which it was designed. Britten is very specific about which roles are to be played by professionals, which by amateurs, which by children and so on, and it’s crucial that those instructions are observed carefully – the real genius of this composition is that each constituent part is exceptionally well-pitched at the level of performer for whom it was written. The fact that the piece as a whole then weaves each of those parts into what appears to the audience as a seamless musical whole is the key to the fact that the quality of the musical writing is easy to underestimate. Some of the “grown-up” musical sections – I’m thinking especially of the Raven-Dove sequence, where balletic segments played by the professional musicians in the orchestra are interwoven with reflective monologues sung by Noye – are seriously moving, and rank with any of his great dramatic music.
The most moving moment of the whole project, however, came after the end of yesterday’s final performance, where during the post-show speeches, the China Children’s Choir of Beijing, who had formed a crucial part of the chorus during the last two weeks, surprised us all with an unexpected but immaculately-prepared rendition of Danny Boy – if there was a dry adult eye in the company I didn’t spot it. We look forward to returning the compliment when the production travels to the Beijing Music Festival in October – the first time any of Britten’s operas will have been performed in China.
What has struck me while talking about the project is how many people have responded with their own memories of performing in Noye’s Fludde as a child. Ultimately that’s the real measure of the success of the piece – that the experience it gives to so many youngsters as part of a professional operatic production will bear fruit later in their lives, as professional or amateur performers or (just as vitally) as enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience members of the future. To be part of such a profoundly important project has been an immense privilege.