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Why rough sleepers on the doorsteps of Belfast's Grand Opera House are invited in to watch the cast rehearse for their latest gala

Ahead of Northern Ireland Opera's performance next month, artistic director Walter Sutcliffe tells David O'Dornan about their work with homeless charity the Welcome Organisation and his desire to make the highbrow genre accessible to wider audiences

May McFettridge gatecrashes the party
May McFettridge gatecrashes the party
Artistic director of Northern Ireland Opera Walter Sutcliffe with stars of Die Fledermaus, Maria McGrann, Ben McAteer and Stephan Loges

By David O'Dornan

At Northern Ireland Opera they recognise that homelessness is literally an issue right on their doorstep. But rather than opera seeming like only a high culture pursuit, they are working hard to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to have access to the arts.

That's why they have adopted the Welcome Organisation - which provides a range of potentially life-saving services for people affected by homelessness - as their chosen charity to benefit from their gala premiere of Die Fledermaus, which will guest star May McFettridge.

And not only will they benefit financially, they will be opening the doors of the Grand Opera House, which at times has rough sleepers outside, to homeless people to watch as they perfect their rehearsals.

"Music and art and opera, all of these things, they don't just belong to one group of people," explained artistic director of Northern Ireland Opera Walter Sutcliffe.

"They belong to all of us. And all of us benefit or should be able to draw on them as a benefit for us.

"And what we do is when we're doing our rehearsals in the Opera House the week before we open the show, we have a series of open rehearsals and workshops with lots of different social groups, often it's young people but not only.

"We work with homeless charities, mental health charities, refugee charities to open this up and let people benefit because I think it's an important thing.

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"Didn't somebody say people don't live from bread alone? Other things inspire you and other things touch you and it's easy to forget that.

"So, we bring people into open rehearsals; in fact we have a dress rehearsal which is seen by all sorts of people, a thousand people from all different communities and social groups that we work with.

"The opera houses are very open places and people with homes or without homes, people can see performances, they can come and experience these things, and they do.

Artistic director of Northern Ireland Opera Walter Sutcliffe
Artistic director of Northern Ireland Opera Walter Sutcliffe

"I think it's very important. There may have been or may be a perception but often the perception is different from a reality and the reality is that this stuff is there for everyone and I'm very keen to make that as clear as possible."

The sad irony that doorways around Belfast city centre - including the city's most famous theatre - are sometimes used by rough sleepers is not lost on Walter.

He said: "I've seen a few people and spoken to a few people who sleep outside the Opera House from time to time. I don't know if they came the last time but there were homeless groups who came to the last dress rehearsal of Rigoletto, and they don't have to pay for it because they don't have money.

"But we want to have people seeing a rehearsal and it's not a paying thing, so there's ways you can share this stuff that doesn't necessarily have to mean paying for it.

"You don't just give the tickets away but you have rehearsals where it's good to get a little bit of audience feedback, it's good for the performers to have an audience, and it's not a finished product so you can change, you can stop, you can talk, you can work.

"But people are invited and get to be involved.

"It's simple, you're a member of society and these things are there for you. This is stuff like other public services - what we provide is a public service.

"If it wasn't a public service it would be a lot more expensive than it is, and it doesn't just belong to a small group of people, it belongs to everybody.

"There have been times, and I think that we're changing that a little bit, where people have been put off and said they don't want to partake of this service, and they don't have to.

"But it is there and it is something you have a right to, and we try to make that clear. The cheapest tickets for under 16s are a fiver and the cheapest tickets are a tenner. Let's be honest, we're cheaper than the cinema.

"You can come and buy an expensive seat of course, but you can buy an inexpensive seat, and I just think we are open."

Walter was also full of praise for the tireless efforts of the charity staff at the Welcome Organisation, having visited it to see first-hand the work they carry out on a daily basis.

The Duchess of Cornwall called into the Welcome Organisation during her visit here in May
The Duchess of Cornwall called into the Welcome Organisation during her visit here in May

He said: "I went down to Welcome when we'd done our thing with Inspire and that was fantastic. I think it's fantastic the variety of things that they do.

"There's the drop-in centre and services all through the night, but there's also these creative programmes that they do there where people are upcycling furniture and upcycling clothing, they've fantastic amounts of different stuff.

"Sandra (Moore), the CEO, has put together a fantastic team. We're in touch with different charities all the time to see if we can offer them something different, hear some music or they'll see a show; it's a good thing.

"The focus is more the service users in terms of bringing them there, the people coming to our opening nights and they'll be happy to see also that they're enabling what they enjoy to be shared by other people as well."

Born in south London, Walter's career has seen him arrive in Belfast via a stint in Germany and freelance work around the world.

He said: "I loved growing up in London in the 1980s and 1990s. It was such a diverse place.

"Private school kids mixed with state school kids, all multi cultures and different backgrounds.

"There was much less gentrification than now, and smart rich streets bordered tough council estates and you got used to both. I had a scholarship to a 'fancy' school, Dulwich College, and that education got me a place at Cambridge, but I used to spend my weekends dropping my h's and t's with my neighbourhood friends.

"I always played a lot of music -classical piano and bassoon, but also I played guitar in a grunge band, and once I discovered techno in about 1995 I promoted a lot of parties.

May McFettridge
May McFettridge

"I liked directing plays at school and I really fell in love with the possibilities of opera when I was a student.

"Once I started to work, the opera took all my time, there was so much to discover and I pretty much left the UK for 15 years.

"My first job was as an assistant director in a big German opera house - the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Dusseldorf.

"I couldn't believe that I could get paid for doing something I loved, and I was basically living in the theatre for two years. I travelled a lot after this as a freelance director. I guess I've done shows in 10 or 12 countries, for about 40 different opera houses and theatres. So, by the time I arrived in Northern Ireland I was pretty well travelled."

When it comes to what he thinks of life here, he is impressed by the opportunities that exist but concedes investment in the arts is an issue that needs addressing.

He added: "I was struck by the artistic possibilities here. People are very open and willing to try things without being too pre-judgmental, and it's been great to see them loving the operas we put on.

"On the negative side, the investment in culture is such a tiny fraction of what I have experienced in other countries that I wonder sometimes if people even know what could be if they demanded it.

"If we tell our politicians that we want the same cultural experiences as other governments are able to provide, I think we could do so much here, but right now I think people have not realised what other governments in Europe are willing to invest in culture.

"Maybe we can drive this change, certainly that's one of the reasons I came here. There's a lot of work to do, but that's the point. I looked at the Northern Ireland Opera and I saw an incredible opportunity to build, and I was lucky that the board of directors chose my ideas and brought me here."

For now his focus is on Die Fledermaus and he is hoping that the local community will support their gala night in aid of the Welcome Organisation on September 15.

He said: "It's a real opportunity for people to do what they enjoy and to know what they enjoy is also contributing to the bigger picture.

"They're not only buying a ticket to pay for the opera, but some of that ticket is going to go towards providing these services for the people who may be on this occasion sleeping outside the Opera House, but at least they know there is a service that they're contributing to.

"And they know also that the end result of what they're seeing - they're seeing the finished product - but all sorts of people from all sorts of walks of society have been able to dip their toes in at previous times in the rehearsal period.

"I think this is win-win.

"There's literally no downside in this, everybody gets something out of it, which is always nice when you can do that."

  • Die Fledermaus charity gala performance in aid of the Welcome Organisation is at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, on Sunday, September 15. Dress is Black Tie. To book tickets visit www.goh.co.uk/whats-on/die-fledermaus-charity-gala/

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