The Monthly discusses La bohème and new opera with the new Artistic Director and Chief Executive of NI Opera, Cameron Menzies

How did you become the Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Northern Ireland Opera?

I was in Australia and had just completed a production of Salome at the Palais Theatre in Melbourne and then Covid hit and I lost everything as all artists did at that point. There was no work and we were into a long Lockdown and I was looking around and wondering what was possible, and I saw the job advertised for Northern Ireland Opera.

I had actually been watching the company for a few years because at some point I had ambitions to run a company so I had kept my eye on NI Opera. I applied for the job and In the depths of Lockdown in Melbourne I was actually appointed CEO of the company in November 2020.

Cameron Menzies – Artistic Director and Chief Execuitive of NI Opera (Picture:Ian Campbell)

We were also in Lockdown shortly after your appointment. Did that make it difficut to travel here?

Yes, it took me until March before I could get here physically. I’ve been resident here in Belfast since then.

The interesting thing is that when NI Opera started about 11 years ago now, it was described as one of the most exciting start-up Opera companies in the UK in a long time. It has really gone from strength to strength and I am looking forward to leading the company into its second decade.

Would it be reasonable to say that opera has a particular reputation or that people view opera in a particular way?

No matter where you are in the world there certainly has been an attitude from sections of the community towards Opera, that some people think Opera might not be for them, and it is completely valid in some respects.

We are producing a new production of La Boheme, which isn’t being performed in the Opera House, it isn’t being performed in a traditional space, it is being produced particularly for the Carlisle Memorial Church which is at the top of Carlisle Circus and is a beautiful old, now slightly decaying, Methodist church, with beautiful acoustics.

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I think the incredible thing about opera is that while what we do requires specialist training and that means that the skills people aquire are at high level, the people who work in opera are just very normal people. We have just loved opera since we were young and we have ended up working in this art form.

Now I think the skills are similar to the high level skills that athletes have, swimmers, divers, or sprinters. Athletes have to achieve high level skills and people understand that side of the sporting world. I think opera coud be viewed in the same way.

However, I think we need to get our art form into spaces, into the community, rather than have it tied up in what might be viewed as elite spaces. I also think it is very important that we need to create new works that speak to

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Are there new works in production now?

We have just commissioned a new work by a wonderful playwright called Fionnuala Kennedy and the music is being composed by an amazing composer called Neil Martin.

Fionnuala writes plays about community and around social themes, and what normally happens is she will work with a community group, or an advocacy group, around the themes that she is addressing. In this case the theme is homelessness,,and the opera is designed specifically for 15-19 year olds, particularly youth who have experienced. or who are going through,homelessness.

Then what we will do is to create an opera out of that process, and our presenting partners will be the Ulster Youth Orchestra. The whole production will sound like the people it is for; it will sound like the age group which created it,and they created the work for their peers, and I think that will help opera reach a wider audience as well.

Fionnuala Kennedy

What about the new production of La Boheme?

It was written originally for people to experience in 1893, and while the ideas and the themes are broadly similar to today, the language has changed and so we are shifting the language so that it makes sense to today’s audience. We are hoping that the language used by the singers will reflect the language of those coming to see it.

I think it will go a long way to dispel the idea that “opera isn’t for me” type of feeling that I know is around but if people experience the new production, and they still feel that way, that’s okay, but at least they have had that experience.

I do feel that pulling things out of big grand houses is certainly the way to go. Obviously we will still do work in those spaces but as soon as we are able to, I would like us to tour a lot, to get out of Belfast and go to different counties in Northern Ireland.

We also want to do different types of shows, shows of a different scale, so that people can experience music making and storytelling through opera.

Do you think you can win new people to appreciating opera?

I don’t think the goal is to win people over, instead we want to produce material which is relatable and that people can find themselves in, in a way. Obviously if we do win people over then great and that is a wonderful thing, and that helps opera generally and the company in particular. I think we want to create experiences for people, and we are hoping that the experience will work for anyone attending our productions.

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People have to keep in mind that opera is a very large genre and sitting through a Puccini opera is a very different experience from sitting through a Wagner opera. They are almost completely different beasts and that is something to think through.

I also think that Covid has shifted everything. We now need to think about how we put things on stage and how we shape and create an experience for the audience.

La Boheme will be on during September, 18tth, 20th, 23rd and 25th, and as I said it is in this beautiful old church which has a rich history, quite a sad history in many ways, and one thing which struck me was that the Church was opened in 1875 and the opera was written not long after that, so it feels like there is a connection at some level.

I would like to invite everyone along to see just what kind of event, what kind of experience, that this company is able to create.

See more information, and a booking link, here:

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