Issue 196
Winter 2016

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Feb 21, 2018
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    Opera - cut down and made viable

    YOU'D EXPECT live opera in Garsington, Glyndebourne, and Covent Garden. But Berwick-upon-Tweed? A town with a population around 12,000, with average income significantly below the national average.

    Surely not? Yet, this summer, I saw a great Don Giovanni at Berwick Maltings. Live, not live-streamed. Sitting at the front of the stalls, practically in the orchestra pit, I was overwhelmed not just by the power, presence and quality, but also the pertinence of this production.

    Set in the brash, corporate world of contemporary New York, a city of power and towers, where some men wear red ties a little too long, professing great respect for women, but actually egocentric psychopaths.

    Timeless, relevant and accessible, great opera is all about us - our hopes, fears, emotions and ambitions. Its origins lie in Renaissance Italy, when wealthy, proud city-states vied with each other for economic and cultural superiority.

    So any self-respecting citta boasted an opera house. Rossini, Bellini, Verdi, Puccini and Donizetti were the celebs of their time. But European opera houses were more than physical symbols of wealth, status and culture.

    All those discreet boxes were ideal places to do business, be seen, flirt, or keep warm. Not just for the rich and powerful, but for all citizens. Germany, boasts some sixty opera houses, many with annual budgets running into millions of euros.

    Walking the ramparts, I understand. Of course Berwick has its own opera. A town with centuries of civic pride and independence behind it, it refuses to kowtow to English, Scottish or even Russian rule.

    No surprise either, that its Elizabethan ramparts were modelled on Verona's, an Italian city-state famous for...opera!

    So the stage is set, but it's the energy, enthusiasm and commitment of one man in particular that is making Berwick Festival Opera happen. Matthew Rooke runs the Maltings Theatre and Cinema. At the age of seventeen Matthew won a Cleo Laine Award, enabling him to attend Sir John Dankworth and Cleo Laine's Wavendon Jazz courses and introducing him to many of the UK's leading jazz performers, composers and arrangers.

    After graduating from St Andrews, he crossed the pond to Berklee College of Music, Boston, Massachusetts, to study jazz harmony and film scores.

    He learnt about reduction, a compositional technique used in jazz to mix and match instruments, to sound as though there are a lot more players. He applied this to re-writing opera scores, for ten players rather than sixty.

    This skill has been key to staging opera in Berwick, making it financially viable. Production costs for Don Giovanni were less than £1,000 (and no, there aren't any missing noughts!). That means more funds where they really matter, for singers, conductors and musicians.

    Matthew works closely with Rocket Opera, the North East's professional opera ensemble, as well as Scottish ensembles Sax Ecosse, the Hebrides Ensemble, Opera dei Lumi and the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland.

    Established in 1990, The Maltings, like all cultural centres, relies on civic and county support, running a lively programme of professional cinema, theatre, comedy, music, and amateur performances.

    It attracts a wide audience, essential for Arts Council accessibility criteria as a National Portfolio Organisation. But there is a challenge.

    The building needs new heating and essential maintenance, meaning it will be closed for a year or so. Matthew is upbeat about this, seeing it opening up great opportunities.

    The first is to take productions out into other venues and spaces in the town, maybe even onto the ramparts? Exciting artistically, this will also engage new audiences. The second is political. The Conservatives, have seats on both sides of the border: Northumberland in England and Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk in Scotland. They hope to fend off any prospect of an independent Scotland.

    Then, if or when Brexit happens, it may release extra funds for the Borders. So, a good moment to look at significant investment in a re-vamped Maltings, with extra screens and improved auditoria. Plus a restaurant with stunning views across the Tweed, a conference space, and training facilities for new creative talent working in the cultural sector.

    There's a third factor. Berwick is a centre of cultural vitality and excellence. Its architectural character and rich programme of festivals, exhibitions and events make it a favourite with artists and those who love the arts.

    It's an exciting place to visit or live, with culture and heritage very much at its heart. Just like those former Italian Renaissance cittas.

    Future productions include 'Cox and Box', a comic opera with music by Arthur Sullivan, and the premiere of Matthew's bitter sweet one-act musical "....And Sullivan", on November 17 and 18.

    Next Opera dei Lumi presents Handel's 'Messiah' at Paxton House near Berwick on December 9. Then comes Donizetti's 'Rita', on February 23 and 24, 2018, fittingly staged in the Maltings Bar.

    Footnote: "Passion, Power and Politics", explores opera's story. At V&A London until February 25, Let's hope it transfers to V&A Dundee!

    More details at


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