Australian Cameron Menzies on helming Northern Ireland Opera through pandemic

Big-name operas and intimate staged song cycles are on Australian Cameron Menzies to-do list as he takes the reins at Northern Ireland Opera. He told Jane Hardy about his plans

Australian Cameron Menzies is the new artistic director of Northern Ireland Opera
Jane Hardy

SIR Simon Rattle quitting as director of the London Symphony Orchestra to take up a job in Germany is perhaps among the most high profile examples of the pandemic's cultural fallout.

In Belfast, having worked online since November, newly appointed Northern Ireland Opera artistic director Cameron Menzies is due to fly from Melbourne next month to take up the post in person.

Menzies comments via a late-night Zoom: "Sadly and understandably, I think people's cages have been rattled during the pandemic. There will be a lot of movement and I suppose if you can't see a way through for a company, you should let someone else try. What was it Bette Davis said about old age... 'It ain't no place for sissies!'"

The pandemic, he says, has also made people think about what they want to say artistically. He's bullish, aged "somewhere between 20 and 65", distantly related to the wartime Australian prime minister Sir Robert Menzies, and has a lot to say.

His plans for his first season, which he presented in his series of job interviews, are ambitious.

"I want to do one big opera, something like [La] Traviata and La bohème. I find storytelling fascinating and it's a big part of Irish culture."

Having worked with indigenous Australian musicians with the Short Black Opera company, Menzies knows about roots; when one of the performers was asked whether opera was a suitable genre, "they replied 'We've been singing our culture for around 47,000 years'," he says.

But he also wants to weave more intimate, smaller-scale productions into the NI Opera programme.

"I aim to do The Salon series, staged song cycles very intimately done, little gems intensely staged." These would be put on outside the Grand Opera House's main stage.

Menzies' introduction to opera came early. His father Scott Menzies, a star rugby league player, loved music and took his teenage son to Sydney Opera House.

"I remember seeing Il Trovatore there with Opera Australia, and went to The Magic Flute, [and] Lucia di Lammermoor. I loved it."

His CV reveals a breadth of experience across opera, theatre, music theatre, fashion festivals and the kind of glitzy production he brought in 2018 to London's Globe Theatre with Australian cabaret star Meow Meow.

He has also most recently produced an acclaimed production of Richard Strauss's setting of Oscar Wilde's play Salome. Described by reviewers as "disturbing and unsettling" and "world class", it came with significant attention to design.

Menzies undoubtedly has a distinctive aesthetic. He reveals he received a fan letter from Elijah Moshinsky, the stellar Australian opera director, who died the week we spoke.

Menzies says: "I didn't know Moshinsky but he wrote to me about Salome, which was a high-concept production, saying 'you have a very vivid visual talent. It is tough in Australia to get stimulation in theatre. I think that it took me a long time to understand that courage is difficult. Now that you have gone this far, go further. It's fabulous.'"

It meant a lot. Menzies reveals that he sees opera as a way of getting to the truth about human nature, about authenticity. He refers to STATUS, his award-winning 2014 opera that examined Australians' experience of HIV and prejudice.

"I interviewed 60 people, and put in every 'if' and 'but' into the monologues. For me it's about finding the truth."

He says that the Kurt Weill-Bettolt Brecht repertoire, that tackles edgy subject matter, would work well in Northern Ireland.

Another opera he thinks could resonate here is Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites.

"It's based on a real 12th century story about these nuns who had to renounce their faith or die, Menzies says, adding that in these tough times, we face challenges too.

"I feel that more than ever we're being asked to define where the line is drawn in the sand for us as individuals," he says.

Yet Menzies also says contemporary values shouldn't make us rewrite the canon. There are operas, from Aida to Lulu, which are notoriously hard on their female protagonists who end up throwing themselves off the battlements or otherwise end up in a bad way.

"In the #Me Too era, it's difficult, but we probably shouldn't read them through a modern filter. As human beings, we're capable of great things and also very bad things."

Menzies has worked in other genres. He produced HAIR in 2019, getting his singers to channel their political views on climate change as they hadn't experienced the show's original starting point, Vietnam.

He took Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing to China a few years ago. He says: "It was a straight production as most of the people there had never seen or heard of Shakespeare but they loved it. I sat next to the translator and it was fascinating discussing how she was conveying the language."

The director says working with drama is not that different from putting on opera.

"There's music in language, a rhythm in Tennessee Williams, say, also in Shakespeare."

He reveals he'd had his eye on Northern Ireland Opera as potentially a good place to work.

"It's the right size company, small enough so you can react quickly to things, and has been interesting since Oliver Mears was in charge. I haven't directed a company before, although I have directed sections of companies and been in charge of festivals. I'm looking forward to it."

He says the Northern Ireland Opera Board has been supportive. He's distantly met patron Sean Rafferty ("He hosted a Christmas event for us online and we filmed him in nice locations in Belfast.") and says rarely two days go by without a phone call to board member and opera supporter Fionnuala Jay O'Boyle.

He is happy to promote the company's expansion of its Studio project, now offering professional paid opportunities to workers in the field other than singers and musicians.

And he wants to attract a younger audience: "I'd like to do a young persons' opera aimed at the 13-19 age group."

The pandemic online offerings will continue, in his estimation, giving access to opera for those who can't easily get to the theatre.

Finally, he says, in response to the journalistic standard, which opera would he choose as his number one?

"Oh, that's difficult... But Tosca – 'I have lived for art, I have lived for love'..."

What more can you ask?

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