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Royal Opera’s Oliver Mears: ‘I used to hold meetings in the car’

Oliver Mears. Photo: Rii Schroeder

Six weeks ago, Oliver Mears took over the post of director of opera at the Royal Opera House – the most important job of its kind in the UK – following the departure of Kasper Holten, whose tenure turned out to be a mixed affair.

Now 38, the Norfolk-born, Oxford-educated Mears has established himself as a vital presence on the opera scene. He has launched and run two successful companies, while possessing a missionary zeal for the art form.

Before studying English and history at Oxford, Mears attended Norwich School, where he sang in a couple of choirs. His father was keen on classical music, and he can vaguely remember listening to opera on disc at an early age – though he did not actually see an opera on stage until his early 20s.

As a student, he remembers being particularly excited by the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, as well as developing an ongoing fascination with Russian culture in general, including Chekhov, Stanislavski and Meyerhold, in addition to musical heroes such as Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich.

Oliver Mears at the Royal Opera House

Initially, he was drawn to writing – perhaps history books or novels. During his first term, however, he was asked to write a 30-minute play and decided to direct it himself. Did he suddenly think, ‘This is me, this is something I can do.’?

“I felt it was something I could take further in my life. The more plays I did, the more interested I became in the process,” he recalls. Various other offers followed, as well as projects he set up himself. “A lot of the time, there was the element of producing. You would have a team and pitch ideas to theatres, whether it was the Oxford Playhouse or the Old Fire Station Theatre, and not only did you have the responsibility of directing and casting the work, but also of making it work financially.”

After his first year as a student, Mears began to write to directors and theatres to see whether he could gain experience either observing or assisting on professional productions.

“One letter brought about a meeting with Howard Barker. I started assisting him while I was still at university,” he says, emphasising his continued admiration for Barker. “What Howard does exceptionally well is to craft dramatic pieces that are subversive of the status quo in terms of how people experience and make theatre. He’s a complete original, who has the capacity to get the best out of his performers by allowing them to contribute to the process.” This mode of working Mears found particularly instructive.


Oliver Mears on…

…discovering opera

The first time I saw an opera, going with all the prejudices of the pre-convert, I was shocked to feel the waves of sound and melody wash over me and amazed at the physical impact unamplified voices could have on the human brain and body. I felt more alive. It was electrifying.

…the cardinal sin of opera

As a producer and director of opera, the only deadly sin for me is being boring.

…the beauty of opera

Pay to see an opera and you are getting an entrance ticket to a whole world. For an evening, you are transported to another place – a place of drama and of extremes.

First encounters

On leaving university, Mears decided to pursue a career in theatre. “Opera was in the back of my mind,” he says. “There were particular operas I loved, and would listen to a lot – Don Giovanni or Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, for instance – but I didn’t start to see productions until I had moved to London.”

During this period, Mears was presenting his work at various smaller London venues, including Strindberg and Ionesco at the King’s Head in Islington, London. “I also started to see operas and concerts as well as theatre. I remember Katya Kabanova at the Royal Opera House. That was an incredible moment for me: this was a musical and dramatic experience that spoke to me in a way I was not expecting. I felt it was something I could relate to and potentially shape in the future.”

Mears went to see Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at English National Opera in David Pountney’s memorable production. He says: “It was thrilling for me to see one of my favourite operas staged. I wrote to Covent Garden and the Coliseum and was offered opportunities to assist at both venues.”

He worked for the first time at ENO on The Marriage of Figaro in 2001. Particularly impressed by the work of Richard Jones, he describes it as “a strange confluence of circumstances” that another production of Shostakovich’s opera – the Royal Opera’s Lady Macbeth – gave him the opportunity of working with the Olivier award-winning show’s director. Mears would go on to work with Jones at ENO on The Trojans, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and the double-bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. He also worked with Christopher Alden and Phelim McDermott, and on the revived Tarkovsky production of Boris Godunov at the Royal Opera.

Mears learned much from these experiences. “Sometimes film directors start at the bottom, which enables you to understand processes,” he says. “It’s the same in opera. Getting to know a building, for example. For me, now, the fact that I worked here 10 or 12 years ago means that I already know a lot of the people. I also learned how companies work, and how to get an opera on to the stage – which is very different from a play. I learned from master craftsmen as well as the best directors out there.”

Hotbed of innovation

By 2004, Mears was ready to launch his own company, Second Movement, with two friends – producer Abigail Toland and conductor Nicholas Chalmers.

“Nick and I had talked at Oxford about working together, so we approached Abigail, who had produced some of the plays I had done and who was also really interested in opera.”

Toland started fundraising and they managed to get the support of a patron to enable them to perform Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri in the Grosvenor Chapel in London, beginning the company’s specialisation in obscure, one-act operas played in offbeat venues.

“At that time there weren’t many companies doing that. We were interested in what happened when we performed opera in unusual places – a music hall, a banana warehouse, or a chapel. We found that intriguing dynamics emerged. I guess we saw ourselves as challenging people’s preconceptions about the art form.”

Particularly memorable was a triple bill of Veniamin Fleishman’s Rothschild’s Violin, Martinu’s The Knife’s Tears (both UK stage premieres) and Offenbach’s The Two Blind Men. “The triple bill was a big undertaking – we eventually called it the triple heart bypass because of the levels of stress involved.”

How had he come up with these pieces? “Fleishman was a pupil of Shostakovich who died in the Siege of Leningrad. Shostakovich felt that his work deserved to be heard, and he completed his unfinished score. I thought it was fantastic. We knew that Martinu had written many short operas, so we investigated that repertoire, and along with Nick and Abigail I fell in love with that piece. Offenbach has always interested me as someone whose engaging and accessible music appeals to a broad range of people.”

The show was one of several by Second Movement that made a definite splash. With Mears’ profile steadily increasing, he was by now being approached with offers to direct for other companies.

“One of the projects I was most happy with was a production of Hansel and Gretel for Opera North’s education department,” he says. “It was the first opera to be shown in the Howard Assembly Room at the Grand in Leeds. I had such a great time doing it and it was something that audiences seemed to like. I did Walton’s The Bear at the Nationale Reisopera in Holland and worked with Christian Curnyn and his Early Opera Company on La Calisto at Iford.”


Q&A: Oliver Mears

What was your first professional theatre job? Assistant director to Howard Barker. A great playwright and great director, not least for his tragic aesthetic, musicality and visual style.

What is your next job? Aida for Theater Magdeburg. Surely one of the greatest Verdi operas – not simply for its moments of spectacle, which everyone knows about, but even more for its incredible intimacies.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? There is no single path.

Who or what was your biggest influence? Apart from Shakespeare, probably Russian culture: the rich psychology and humanity of the great writers; the emotion of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich; the energy, invention and social conscience of the 20th-century avant-garde visual artists and theatre practitioners.

What’s your best advice for auditions? Prepare the text as much as the music – success is not only about the notes but also about communication.

If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? Probably a writer – but who knows what kind?

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I’m not a very superstitious person.

Founding Northern Ireland Opera

Then, one day, his attention was drawn to an advertisement for a job running a new opera company in Northern Ireland. His application was successful.

“There’s a misconception that we had a relationship with previous companies in Northern Ireland. In fact, ours was set up as a completely new organisation. Opera has had a chequered history in Northern Ireland. There’s plenty of talent, a strong tradition of singing and a fantastic choral tradition, but it hasn’t always been reliably funded or invested in.”

He continues: “The Arts Council of Northern Ireland made the decision – what a credit to them to set up a brand new opera company in the worst recession.”

That was back in 2010. “We really didn’t have very much money. At the beginning we didn’t even have an office. We were literally having meetings in cars. We didn’t have a name, a website or a mission statement.

“At the beginning it was just me and a general manager. But the fact that we didn’t have much money helped to define the kind of company it was. We had to be very light on our feet. We were forced to be imaginative with our two big partners – the Ulster Orchestra and the Grand Opera House, Belfast – and to keep our overheads down. We spent the great majority of our money on productions, which is quite rare.”

The show to put NI Opera on the map was Tosca, Mears explains: “When we started, everyone assumed we’d do La Boheme or La Traviata in the Grand Opera House – maybe one a year. I wanted to do something different. We had a national remit, so I thought it was important to do our first show outside Belfast.”

Mears felt that he was putting a marker down for the company if he did something in an unusual way. He thought about Derry/Londonderry and the kind of operas that would work in that city in a site-specific production.

He says: “I was very interested in how history, culture and even the fabric of the buildings could inform our repertoire. Tosca is about politics, about a young couple caught up in political turbulence, violence and torture. It seemed like the right piece to do in Derry which, like the rest of Northern Ireland, has itself had a history of political turbulence.”

Mears wanted to perform each act in a different place. “There was the beautiful 17th-century Protestant cathedral; the Guildhall – the politically charged building which had housed part of the Saville Inquiry; and the rather strange but atmospheric St Columb’s Hall, which had been a public space for the Catholic community. The idea of using these buildings and their resonances became very important.

“The members of the board thought we were mad. They said, ‘Maybe you could just do it in two venues?’ They were worried about the rain, how the orchestra would feel and what would happen on Saturday night with lots of people out enjoying themselves. But we just kept going.”

In the end, it proved worth the effort. “It was something audiences could relate to very strongly,” Mears says. “The reaction was incredible. Even when we had the schools matinee, I remember the audience leapt to their feet. A big part of that was Puccini’s amazing music, but there was also a statement of taking ownership over opera because of the way we were using spaces that were theirs.”

It is no exaggeration to say that, during his seven-year stewardship of NI Opera, Mears gave the company not just a national but an international profile. Are there any other productions he looks back on with particular pride?

“Britten’s Noye’s Fludde – a piece that naturally engages with family audiences and children of all ages,” he says. “Again, we did it in an unusual space – in Belfast Zoo. The production went to Beijing and Shanghai, and I hope it said a lot about the company that we were prioritising work for everyone, and especially for children.”

Mears feels that the design-led production (set and costume by Simon Holdsworth) – with animal lanterns carried by the children, and a Noah’s Ark influenced by Chinese art – made a statement about the importance of visual elements in opera.

He also mentions a production of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman at the Grand Opera House in Belfast – important because Wagner had never been performed on stage in Northern Ireland before.

“It showed the kind of level we wanted to be at,” he says. “In many obvious ways, Wagner is particularly challenging – you need a very large chorus, for example. It really demonstrated the young talent there is in Northern Ireland: the average age of the chorus was 25. The sheer passion and power they brought showed what was possible.”

Mears saw it as a big part of his responsibility not only to showcase talent from Northern Ireland but also to create an operatic culture – “something not just for audience members, but something you could participate in. We were also very proud of doing big shows with Belfast-born singing actress Giselle Allen – an inspirational artist. Then, what designer Antony McDonald did with Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest was so witty, colourful and smart. It gave us confidence to think we could tackle contemporary work.”

Renewed sense of mission

Having made a distinct success of Second Movement and NI Opera, Mears has now moved to the company that receives by far the largest public subsidy of any performing body in the UK. How would he justify that to the sceptical?

“There’s no doubt that the level of subsidy we receive entails enormous responsibilities,” he says. “One has to start with the sheer cost of putting on opera, which potentially involves more than 100 people in the orchestra pit, up to 100 in the chorus, up to a dozen principals, with a backstage team and the collective creative input of hundreds more. People rightly have high expectations of the design they’re going to see. And the sheer operating cost of this building is no small thing.

“But Covent Garden is somewhere that showcases the finest British artists and craftspeople – the level of craftsmanship here can be a huge source of national pride. Because opera requires all sorts of disciplines to come together, when it does work, it’s thrilling. If people can feel that this is their opera company, then that is extraordinary.

“We have to argue that case – and also why culture is important. Opera has the capacity to change people, to make people feel shocked and troubled, inspired and elated. These experiences are hard to quantify in monetary terms. Nowadays, when we are all glued to our screens, and so much communication is surrogate, opera can offer something that is real and transcendent and, above all, collective – not just involving the hundreds of people putting it on but also the thousands of people experiencing it the same room.”

Mears continues: “Equally, we have an obligation to ensure that everyone can experience it and enjoy it. We have to work very intently at that: I don’t think that can wait. I feel strongly that opera is for everybody, and that informs not only the important work we do in our learning and participation programmes but also the type of work we want to do on stage.”

As for his own plans for Covent Garden, Mears – perhaps unsurprisingly given his background in theatre – insists on the importance of opera as drama.

“We sit in Theatreland, in a city with an extraordinary history of theatre going back to Shakespeare,” he says. “His theatre is both highly complex and highly accessible, and that is the core of our theatrical tradition. What is important is brilliant acting and stories that are exceptionally told, and that have the level of coherence and clarity our audiences demand. People want stories that hang together. I would love to bring to the theatrical standards here a consistency and rigour that will have people on the edge of their seats.”

CV: Oliver Mears

Born: 1979, Norwich
Training: Lincoln College, Oxford
Landmark productions: Triple Bill, Second Movement (2007), Hansel and Gretel, Opera North (2008), Tosca, Northern Ireland Opera (2011), Albert Herring, Aldeburgh (2011), Noye’s Fludde, Northern Ireland Opera, Beijing and Shanghai Festivals (2012), Salome, Northern Ireland Opera (2015), Don Giovanni, Bergen National Opera (2015), Rigoletto, Nevill Holt Opera (2016)
Awards: Irish Times Theatre Awards – best opera production for Tosca (2012), Tiger Dublin Fringe award for best production for Agrippina (2015)
Agent: Simon Ash at Loesje Sand

This interview is part of The Stage special on opera. Read more stories here

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