One tiny town in Norway is coming together by staging operas. Britten would have roared his approval
Imagine a world in which a tiny town of less than 6000 inhabitants decides that in order to bond its populace – to further its own collective sense of community and wellbeing – its people should get together and stage an opera once a year. Not necessarily sing or direct an opera, but have a stake in a community-based organisation that can manage the execution of such things, by both professionals and amateurs, on a modest budget.
Then imagine this home-grown operatic project starts to get a name for itself – garnering a following among locals and attracting fulsome praise from operatic bigwigs. So much so that those nosey officials in the regional and national government decide to stick their oar in. But instead of wresting control of the company, enforcing regulation upon it and attaching bureaucratic strings, they do something rather wonderful. They offer to build the troupe a state-of-the-art opera house in the heart of their town: partly a ‘thank-you’ for all these curious opera-folk have done, and partly a challenge to them to achieve even more.
Well, dear reader, imagine no more. Because this town exists. It’s on the west coast of Norway, and it goes by the name of Nordfjordeid. It’s here in Nordfjordeid, amidst some of the most beautiful natural scenery on the planet, that this equally beautiful artistic pursuit has played out since 1998 when an ambitious husband and wife team founded Opera Nordfjord.
Fifteen years on, Opera Nordfjord found itself in Oslo last week, performing at the second auditorium of what is fast becoming the most iconic opera house in the world. ‘We got an invitation from The Norwegian Opera to come to Oslo with a guest production,’ says Kari Standal Pavelich, the company boss who also plays second violin in its orchestra and is married to its music director. ‘We decided to go for it, even though it’s very expensive, but we do believe it’s a good investment in building the organisation and in marketing ourselves.’
That organisation consists pretty much of a 50/50 amateur/professional split. Nordfjordeid townspeople build the sets, make the costumes, drive the vans, apply the make-up, shift the scenery, manage the stage and perform in the chorus and in non-vocal roles. ‘They are using their own vacation days – paid or unpaid – to be a part of this, and most of us are staying with family or friends in Oslo,’ Kari says. ‘We do three shows, and then we take it all down on Sunday night and get the night-bus back to Nordfjordeid.’ That’s a nine-hour journey, by the way, but the prospect is not dimming anyone’s spirits. ‘We have been taken good care of at the opera house and the staff have been great. To be honest, everyone involved is having the time of their lives.’
Even, you might fairly assume watching Opera Nordfjord’s The Magic Flute as I did on its opening night in Oslo, the professional directors, designers, principals and orchestral players who are paid to bring their own focussed skills to the table. I can say now that I’ve never seen a more canny, effective or fundamentally relevant Magic Flute in any opera house. But then, there’s something very community-orientated about this particular opera – written for a non-aristocratic audience in suburban Vienna and delivering straightforward allegorical truths via its often simplified musical language.
You can cite multiple qualities in Opera Nordfjord’s production (consistently outstanding acting, generally fine singing, strong direction, impressive technical work and the sort of nuanced theatrical detail you might expect from Richard Jones or Dmitri Tcherniakov), and you could quibble about things that didn’t go so well, too (some troubled tuning in the chorus, certain ensembles and arias that could have slowed and ‘glowed’ with more flexible tempi). What Opera Nordfjord nailed was the hard bit: delivering an original production that told the story through the prism of contemporary (and, to an extent, local) relevance, advancing the art form as much as the stuff on the Opera House’s main stage.
I did circle some names in my programme – if you can, keep an eye out for striking soprano Vibeke Kristensen (First Lady), listen out for the Villazón-like streak of vulnerability in Marius Roth Christensen’s tenor (Tamino), try to catch the wonderfully rounded comic-theatrical talents of Jan Erik Fillan and Carl Ackerfeldt (Monostatos and Papageno respectively). But there comes a time when the opera critic in all of us has to play second fiddle to the human being.
In that sense, I came away from this production with the sight of the Opera Nordfjord chorus etched on my mind; residents of one tiny town aged from 11 to 75, doing their thing on stage without the slightest hint of over-acting or under-preparation. They let their guard down at one of the final curtain calls, when, together with the entire company including the orchestra, they seemed to collectively look around at one another, wondering just how it was they’d got onto the stage of this incredible building – in front of the capital’s great and good and the clicking cameras and scribbling pens of the Oslo press. Kari was pulled up onto the stage from the orchestra pit by her conductor husband, which seemed a fitting metaphor for the dedication both have showed and the extraordinary journey that dedication has taken them on.
So what next? There’s so much you’d want to see this company do, not least those Britten operas based on small-town North Sea communities (if the composer were alive, I don’t doubt he’d make a beeline for this company). In the meantime we can all learn from Opera Nordfjord’s dedication, inclusion, teamwork and ambition – those of us involved in the arts, in social policy and even in town planning. As long as its opera troupe exists, Nordfjordeid is a blessed town, and one whose uncompromising vision proves what a powerful force for cohesion the arts can be.