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Annilese Miskimmon: ‘It’s a male problem that women are underrepresented in opera’

Annilese Miskimmon. Photo: Lars Eivind Bones Annilese Miskimmon. Photo: Lars Eivind Bones

One of the most successful women in opera management, Annilese Miskimmon has held the high-profile post of Danish National Opera’s artistic director and general manager since 2012. Almost uniquely, she is also one of opera’s most in-demand freelance directors, best known in the UK for her work with Opera Holland Park, Scottish Opera and Welsh National Opera.

We catch up in a rare moment of respite during final rehearsals for I Puritani, which opens the following week at DNO’s base in Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city. First staged last year by WNO in Cardiff, Miskimmon’s Puritani is set amid the sectarian divisions of Northern Ireland in the 1970s – the very time and place in which she grew up.

Bellini located his 1834 opera during the English Civil War, so the parallel provided recognisable immediacy for British audiences – but what will the Danes make of it?

“They are quite au fait with the Troubles, but have limited knowledge of the Civil War. So we haven’t had to change anything here or for Barcelona [where the production will be staged in 2018] except we’re projecting a text at the start that ties the two periods together, explaining Cromwell’s legacy in Ireland.”

There seems to be a healthy appetite for bel canto in Denmark: “Puritani is not known here at all – I think this might be its Danish premiere – so the interest level is incredibly high.”

After four years at the helm of DNO, Miskimmon leaves in December to take up the reins at Norwegian National Opera in Oslo – just when Aarhus becomes a 2017 European City of Culture. Is she disappointed to be heading off as the city falls under the international spotlight?

“I get to just turn up and see the fruits of my labours,” she laughs. Plans include an adaptation of Danish author Janne Teller’s Nothing, first staged by Glyndebourne Youth Opera earlier this year. Concerning a boy who gives up on “meaningless” life, with children cutting off fingers and sacrificing virginities, the story, though ultimately uplifting, is steeped in grimness. But Miskimmon is excited about bringing it to Aarhus: “The Danes don’t shield their children from the realities of life as much as we do, on a knee-jerk reactive basis, in the UK.”

Oslo’s new opera house, opened in 2008. Photo: Erik Berg
Oslo’s new opera house, opened in 2008. Photo: Erik Berg

Her own productions have their share of darkness too, eschewing superficial beauty for plain-speaking reality. So it is a surprise when, asked about formative influences, she is quick to respond with “Mary Poppins and Star Wars”.

Both films, she says, channel a lot of the same things as opera: “There’s a kind of magic realism or meta-theatricality, and a use of music that is more than accompaniment, it’s a driver. We’re so used to them now, but they did really risky things to portray all-embracing worlds.”

In one tangible way, at least, her love of Star Wars is manifesting itself in her current work: “The text at the start of I Puritani is exactly like Star Wars”, she jokes. Will it ‘crawl’ up the screen? “The hilarious thing is I’m going into a rehearsal this afternoon to see what that looks like. It might be too much of a homage, but for my own satisfaction we’re going to have a look.”

Another youthful inspiration was Gilbert and Sullivan, which she did a lot of at school. “I absolutely love it,” says Miskimmon, now aged 42. “It’s so beautiful, musically.” Tantalisingly, she reveals she’s keen to direct a professional production at some point – an intriguing prospect.

Her first contact with opera came when she saw her father sing Papageno in an amateur production of The Magic Flute in a Belfast church hall: “It made such an impression with so little glitz or glamour.” She started out on the directing path with obscure operas unearthed by music fellows while an English literature student at Cambridge, and did her time at Edinburgh Fringe. “But I didn’t know anyone in the business, and I didn’t realise that someone like me could get a job being an opera director. I studied arts administration management in London, and met someone who worked at Glyndebourne who brought me in as an assistant director. So I was very lucky. The universe conspired to put me in the right job.”


Q&A: Annilese Miskimmon

What was your first job? Apart from being a terribly insecure and clumsy schoolgirl waitress, my first job was working during university holidays for a solicitor’s office. I had to type up the handwritten diaries of the female clients who were collecting evidence of domestic abuse in preparation for divorce proceedings – eye-opening to say the least.

What’s your next job? Directing: Madama Butterfly for Glyndebourne; managerial: new head of Den Norske Opera from next season.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? There is nothing I wish I had known that I didn’t find out myself when the time was right for me to do so.

Who or what was your biggest influence? Probably being Northern Irish. I can’t deny that, as a teenager, opera provided a means of intellectual and emotional escapism from the Troubles. And I still think the power of opera is in its alchemical ability to express things that are too transcendent or difficult or complex or ambiguous to be pinned down by words.

What’s your best advice for auditions? There is only one person who wants you to do well more than you – and that’s me.

If you hadn’t been a director/manager, what would you have been? I’d have happily spent my life in academic contemplation of William Shakespeare.

Miskimmon is candid about the uniqueness of her achievements as a woman in the still male-dominated opera world, and forthright about why things have to change. “The reason I have had the success I’ve had is because I’ve been supported by men, and I’m grateful to those men. But it’s not a female problem, it’s a male problem that women are underrepresented.”

She finds it “absolutely bizarre” that the issue is not at the top of opera management concerns. “Unless we reflect our audience we can’t serve them. According to every statistic I have seen, it’s women who buy opera tickets. So it doesn’t matter what people’s own feelings are – it’s sensible economics to consider what would happen if women decided we weren’t there for them any more.”

She is one of a growing, but still small, number of female opera directors – she cites “fabulous” Deborah Warner, Katie Mitchell and Fiona Shaw – “but they all made their name in theatre and then opera management stole them. I learnt my craft as an opera director, and that’s rare. Unlike theatre, which identifies talents of both sexes and supports that talent as they develop, opera management would rather see that someone has had success in the theatre first. Directing opera is not something you can just intuit your way through – it’s a craft.”

Reminded about English National Opera’s recent trend for engaging film directors, she exclaims: “I would love someone to say: ‘Annilese, we want you to direct a film.’ But I would then spend the next two years learning how to make a film. Opera is such a complex, difficult team sport, and leadership demands multiple understandings.”

It is clear that directing opera is an all-consuming passion. Surely, though, she can’t find the daily admin of running a company as fulfilling? “My staff always laugh because I genuinely get as much of a thrill from balancing a budget as I do from putting on a show. I could have a much easier life if I was just directing, but I feel a responsibility to the art form and to my industry. A lot of the problems I see in opera are because there are very few people who can do both roles equally generously. I’m able to speak the same language both to artists and finance people, and that brings them closer together.”

Should more directors aspire to run opera companies? “I’ve got to be honest: no,” she laughs, aware of the contradiction. “Because you have to have the right personality. You have to grow your own artistic ambition, plus have the insight and courage to produce the best art using other artists.”

Miskimmon’s production of I Puritani, which premiered at Welsh National Opera in 2015, before transferring to Danish National Opera last month. Photo: Bill Cooper
Miskimmon’s production of I Puritani, which premiered at Welsh National Opera in 2015, before transferring to Danish National Opera last month. Photo: Bill Cooper

This autumn Miskimmon is back in the UK to direct Glyndebourne’s first ever production of Madama Butterfly – “a really exciting honour” – a touring production which comes to the main summer season in 2018. She says she has turned down approaches by other companies to direct Butterfly: “I didn’t want to do it until I felt it would be somewhere special. I’ll never forget Glyndebourne’s Tristan Und Isolde [directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, first staged in 2003], the intimacy of the piece in that auditorium was amazing, and I wanted an intimacy with Butterfly that is often lost.”

Puccini’s lushly romantic 1904 tragedy about a Geisha who marries an American serviceman who then leaves her is one of the best-known operas in the canon. Is there anything new to say about it? “Western obsession with the exoticism of Japanese women has robbed Butterfly of her humanity. We’ve tried to make her less like a doll.” Miskimmon wants to avoid “that really distasteful thing when you’re sitting there waiting for Butterfly to kill herself because the music is so beautiful. So we’re going to give it a context”. Her production will be updated to the 1950s, a period when “this buy-your-bride mentality was echoed throughout American society”.

For a recent Cosi Fan Tutte in Aarhus, Miskimmon invited the audience to vote for one of two endings, but doesn’t seem to have similar plans here. “Cosi is about choice, so that idea worked well. But the key thing about Butterfly is that there is only the illusion of choice. Butterfly thinks she is in control of her fate, but she isn’t. Pinkerton sells her the American dream, but when she falls in love with it he takes it away from her. That’s the cruellest kind of tragedy.”

Hopefully it won’t be long before we see more of Miskimmon’s work in the UK, but the immediate future is all about Oslo. “The whole of Norway is in love with the opera house [opened in 2008]. It’s become such an architectural symbol, but I want the audience to be as in love with the opera itself.”

She ends with a typically frank pledge. “Artistically, I don’t want them to tell me what to do – but I promise them I will really listen to what they think they want from me.”

CV: Annilese Miskimmon

Born: 1974, Belfast
Training: Christ’s College, Cambridge; City University, London
Landmark productions: The Diary of Anne Frank, Opera Theatre Company, Dublin (2010), L’Amico Fritz, Opera Holland Park (2011), Mignon, Buxton Festival (2011), Jenufa, Scottish Opera (2015), I Puritani, Welsh National Opera (2015)
Agent: Tracey Ellison at Judy Daish Associates

Danish National OperaDen Norske Opera