Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Young ones have it all sewn up

How do you write an opera for Belfast Festival that gets young people involved? That was the challenge thrown down to award-winning Ulster composer Brian Irvine. Writing exclusively for 24/7, he explains how the experience surpassed even his wildest expectations ...

It was spring 2004 when the letter from WNO landed in my hall. The letter said that Welsh National Opera was looking for a composer from Northern Ireland to work with a writer from Wales on the creation of a new youth opera. I have to say that until that moment the thought of writing an opera had never entered my Later that evening I started to think about youth opera. What exactly is a youth opera? Had I ever seen one? I had seen a few productions of musicals and semi operas that had involved young people, but was that 'youth opera'?

I knew a few operas alright: Wozzeck, Beggars' Opera etc, and I had the misfortune of having to endure some Gilbert and Sullivan stuff at college, but I can't ever say I was really a big opera buff. Worth investigating, though, I thought. So I sent off a reply saying that I was interested and was duly summonsed over to meet the people behind the letter in Cardiff.

The more I thought about it, though, the more it interested me. You see, youth opera is not opera performed by young people, well it is, but it isn't solely that.

What I mean is that it's not Verdi or Wagner or Mozart performed by a bunch of young singers playing adults. It is really opera that can only be performed by young singers. It is opera that simply would not make sense if some 'big people' were to play the parts.

It is, in fact, a musical genre all of its own, but a genre that is equal in integrity to the more commonly known genre of 'grown up' opera.

So there it is was, a realisation but an exciting realisation. By the time I had made it to Cardiff for the interview I had decided that it was something that I really wanted to do. In fact, I wanted to do it more than I would have wanted to do a main stage opera for WNO. I had worked with young musicians before and I had always found them brave, adventurous and willing to take risks. These were my kind of people.

So the WNO team gave me the 'once over' and, lo and behold, a couple of days latter they gave me the gig. But time was tight.

After a similar procedure, the writer/librettist was selected and announced as Greg Cullen. Neither of us had ever written an opera before and I can only say that, had we known the scale of what we had just signed up to, I don't know whether we would have put our hands up so willingly.

The timescale for completing the 90-minute piece and delivering the first performance was only six months. Plenty of time, we thought.

Wrong! Very wrong! So wrong in fact the first scheduled performance, which was to be in the Grand Opera House in 2004 never happened. We just simply could not complete and rehearse the piece in time.

Operas are big complex beasts and this one was made doubly complex by the fact that it was a new work. No recordings to listen to see how it goes!

A production involves over 50 singers and musicians, designers, directors, set builders costumes designers, costume makers, lighting designers engineers, repetiteurs, musical directors, directors, stage hands, stage managers, assistant directors, vocal coaches, chaperones, project co-ordinators, assistants, sound technicians, not to mention writers, copyists, music library staff, and the list goes on.

It is a bit like film-making in that sense. It is the sort of thing that needs a solid infrastructure, huge commitment and a brilliant team of dedicated, talented and visionary people. It is by very definition a team sport and not for the faint-hearted.

To do the piece in Belfast was never going to be easy. WNO was a dedicated opera company with a whole department (The Max Department) focused on producing innovative opera productions, but there was no such company in Northern Ireland. So you would have to be pretty mad to take on the co-ordination of such a complex beast.

Fortunately Graeme Farrow, from the Belfast Festival, and Cathie McKimm are two such mad people. So with Cathie as project manager, a core creative team was put together led by director Peter Morgan Barnes, and musical director Fergus Sheil.

Auditions for young singers and musicians began in the summer and, as more and more quality young singers and musicians filed into the auditions, fear turned to excitement. After several weeks our cast was assembled and we were off.

Of course, when it comes to putting a production together the greatest joy from the composer's point of view is that essentially your work is done. The notes have all been churned out and the parts have all been constructed. What remains is pure enjoyment. I cannot express how thrilling it is to pop into rehearsals and watch a team of highly creative people make the music and the drama come alive in a manner that reflects their own individuality and character.

The energy, commitment and talent of this Belfast production has been simply inspiring. The young cast has been magnificent. They have engaged completely in the project giving it their all. They have conducted themselves throughout as professionals and achieved remarkable results. They have made the story their own and, in doing so, made something powerful and something unique.

Furthermore, they have inadvertently succeeded in questioning the cultural pretensions of opera and have produced something of true quality and relevance.

It would be brilliant if this project was really just the beginning of something. Imagine an enduring youth opera in Northern Ireland, a yearly gathering of talented young people from all corners of Northern Ireland taking on new work each year and delivering it with true vigour, quality, and style. Exciting stuff.

Hands up if you're mad enough.



The Tailor's Daughter takes place at 1pm and 7.30pm on October 24 at the Grand Opera House



Family-friendly festival highlights:

Is it possible to squeeze all seven Harry Potter books into a 60-minute stage show? Find out at the Lyric Theatre this weekend when comic double act Dan and Jeff take on the ultimate challenge of condensing the series of blockbusters into one hour.

With the help of countless costumes, brilliant songs, ridiculous props and a generous burst of Hogwarts magic, the show features all the favourite characters.

There's also an appearance from a frightening fire-breathing dragon - and even a game of Quidditch for the audience. Potted Potter opens tonight at 7pm and runs until Sunday with daily shows at 7pm and 2.30pm.



The Flea Pit is a slightly strange show rolling up to Botanic Gardens that will no doubt provide endless fascination for the kids. The quirky side-show involves a troupe of tiny circus fleas - yes, that's right - that have wowed audiences across the UK and Europe. Minds will boggle with their incredible feats of mind-reading, weight-lifting, trapeze and high-wire.

And because of the microscopic nature of the stars, their efforts are viewed through a purpose-built miniature theatre which holds just 15 people.

There's also a museum of curiosities to marvel at - where a few secrets about the fleas might be revealed. This baffling show is suitable for everyone over the age of six and is running at the Little Pavilion from today until October 28 at various times detailed at www.belfastfestival.com.

Claire Regan

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