Aria on a shoestring budget

Lateral thinking and democratic ways of working have helped Matthew Rooke bring opera to Berwick-Upon-Tweed
Matthew Rooke, formerly of the Scottish Arts Council, runs the Maltings in Berwick-Upon-Tweed. Picture: ContributedMatthew Rooke, formerly of the Scottish Arts Council, runs the Maltings in Berwick-Upon-Tweed. Picture: Contributed
Matthew Rooke, formerly of the Scottish Arts Council, runs the Maltings in Berwick-Upon-Tweed. Picture: Contributed

Just over the English border in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Berwick Festival Opera is part way through its second annual summer season with a new production, opening tonight, of Rossini’s The Silken Ladder. It’s an enterprising project by The Maltings Theatre in collaboration with Rocket Opera, which was preceded in June by a new production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, and will be followed next week with a one-off performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro by York-based Opera dei Lumi and in September by Jonathan Dove’s scaled-down version of Wagner’s Die Walküre featuring the Scots-based Hebrides Ensemble.

Actually, everything is scaled down for performances that alternate between the town’s 120-seater Guildhall and 300-capacity Maltings, a former malt house built into a hill that has now been redesigned as a theatre and principal centre of arts activity for Borders folk living on either side of Hadrian’s Wall.

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“It’s like the Tardis, extending to four storeys inside”, says Matthew Rooke, the composer and arts administrator who runs the centre, though probably better-known to Scots as a past music director of the former Scottish Arts Council.

He took over the reins at The Maltings three years ago. “Classical music had virtually disappeared from the programme,” he recalls. “There used to be a good relationship with the [Royal] Northern Sinfonia, and there were occasional visits by other companies. But we were essentially starting from scratch. There was clearly an audience that hadn’t been looked after. I wanted to make sure we could do something really worthwhile.”

It was the broader realisation that operatic provision in the UK, especially in Scotland, was becoming far worse that led him to consider ways of presenting the genre in Berwick. “A town like Berwick and a theatre like The Maltings would never ever be able to sustain a visit by a major touring company, but I reckoned we could do something like the tiny Irish town of Wexford,” he argues.

He’s referring to the long running Wexford Festival which, despite its geographical isolation, is a well-established opera project with international kudos. It was there in the 1970s, for instance, that David Pountney resurrected Janácek operas from oblivion, creating them in collaboration with Welsh National Opera (which he now runs), and consequently setting a trend that saw them re-established in the repertory of the major companies, including Scottish Opera.

But does Rooke actually believe that Berwick could become another Wexford? “If you look at Wexford, there was no reason at all for having opera there, other than the fact there was a group of people who really wanted it to happen,” he argues. “What then arose has had a unique role in the operatic world, a festival aimed at reviving and refreshing little known full scale works from the opera canon. Its immense value is that it provides the R&D that large scale houses just cannot do these days in terms of revisiting repertoire”.

Here in Berwick, he says, we can do something like Wexford in providing the right platform and environment for opera singers to gain the grassroots experience that is not so accessible with the bigger companies. “I do have a chuckle when I realise that we are presenting more new productions and work in Berwick than are in Glasgow at Scottish Opera this year,” says the man who once held the public purse strings for Scotland’s national companies.

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Inevitably, these are reduced-scale productions, but what Rooke’s democratic concept does is to provide the musicians with a bigger say in how a production evolves, from the cast itself to the musical director. “Look around and you’ll see that very few music directors get control of opera companies these days, therefore important artistic decisions are made by people who have no real technical understanding or grasp of the art form. As a result you get things that are often hugely expensive and not very good artistically.”

“If you give the singers much more control, they come up with much better solutions. After all, they’re the ones who have prepared their respective roles and know them intimately. They and the musical director are the real motivating forces in our productions. It’s better that we have a stage director who is not intrusive musically.”

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So it is with this weekend’s The Silken Ladder, Rossini’s whimsical one-act farce, in which the director is none other than Rooke himself, whose role, he says, besides re-orchestrating the score for eight-part instrumental ensemble, is more facilitator than autocrat to music director Stephen Higgins and the Tyne and Wear-based Rocket Opera singers, among them experienced tenor Austin Gunn, who is also that company’s artistic and casting director.

What relevance does this have to readers in Scotland, you might ask? The answer lies in Rooke’s audience figures, which reveal that between 25 and 30 per cent of its regular audiences travel over the Border from Scotland. “We are, in effect, the principal entertainment centre for people in the Eastern Scottish Borders,” he claims, adding that it’s not impossible to take the train down from Edinburgh and make it home again that night.

Straddling both countries can have its frustrations. “There are practical political and administrative barriers that need to be resolved. For instance, we put ourselves forward to host a Scottish apprentice and someone from Duns, who had just finished college, came forward as the perfect recruit. Sadly the apologetic answer from Creative Scotland was: ‘we are very sorry, but because you aren’t based in Scotland you cannot host this’. Nowhere else in Scotland was offering him that opportunity.”

Nonetheless, Rooke – as part of his push to take BFO’s productions out into the wider world – will take BFO’s concert version of Die Walküre, combining instrumentalists from the Hebrides Ensemble and the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland Camerata, to Perth Concert Hall on 6 September, after its opening in Berwick. “I’d just like to get the same recognition as the giant-killing Berwick Rangers football club,” he says.

Rossini’s The Silken Ladder is at the Guildhall, Berwick-upon-Tweed today and tomorrow. The Marriage of Figaro is on 8 August. Die Walkürie is at The Maltings on 4 September and Perth Concert Hall on 6 September.