Award-winning Opera Director Cameron Menzies joined Northern Ireland Opera in November 2020 mid-way through the pandemic. His career encompasses opera, theatre, music theatre, cabaret, and filmmaking and his work has been seen throughout Australia and the rest of the world. He has worked for Shakespeare’s Globe, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Diva Opera UK, and Opera Australia just to name a few. His first production for Northern Ireland’s opera was La Boheme, and our Editor at Large, Raj Gill had the pleasure to interview him and also attend the performance.
How did you get into this line of work?
From an early age, I was in love with film/tv, theatre, and music. I always knew that I wanted to pursue this line of work and I have never really taken another serious pathway. I originally trained as an actor in Sydney Australia and then studied classical singing and operatic repertoire as a countertenor in Melbourne at the Victorian College of the Arts. These two degrees really set me up to then move into the world of directing and producing. Working mostly as a freelance artist across the UK, Europe, USA, and Asia I have been able to forge a career as a director of the opera, music theatre, theatre, cabaret, fashion shows, and film. I feel like my entire life has been very specifically geared to work as an artist.
Are your family also in the creative arts, or are you in the minority? Where did you find support?
My family is creative and has a real appreciation for the arts and music. My mother is exceptionally creative, and she does a lot of amazing things, such as pottery, ceramics, and lots of creations with textiles such as wool and satin and beading, all hand-crafted creations. I think she possesses a real designer’s eye and an ability to create very special pieces from many different types of materials. My father has a huge appreciation of many genres of music and has exposed me to many different artists. He was responsible for taking me to my first opera as a child at the prestigious and iconic Sydney Opera House. He listens to everything from Bach to Elton John and everything in between, so my music ear has been very widely educated.
I have found support in my family of course; they have always been very supportive of my professional pursuits in the artistic field. I also find support in my friends and professional colleagues, and you learn to gather around you a few very trusted and discerning ears and hearts to talk to and to seek advice and also to vent and let some steam off at times.
And what obstacles have you overcome?
There are many obstacles that we all have to overcome in our professional careers. I think coming from Australia one of them is simply put Geography. We are such a long way from the UK and Europe that starting out as an artist travel and distance can be real obstacles to learning and exposure to certain things.
What’s your typical day like?
A typical day as the Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Northern Ireland Opera starts early and ends late. Zoom has obviously become a big part of professional day at the moment. I am always in a lot of meetings be they online or in person. At any one point, I have a number of conflicting projects or responsibilities that are all pulling at me for attention. It’s about getting time (generally early in the morning before 9 am) by yourself to work through lists and emails that need to be answered or reading articles and information that I will need to know in relation to running the opera company. I can be called at any time to be in the rehearsal room for whatever production may be in production at the time, a singer coaching or a design meeting, as well as budget/finance meetings. Keeping across as much as I can in as much detail, as I can retain is important and getting up to date with as much as I can is imperative. I find that I can use the early morning and late evenings to try and get ahead of things when there are fewer immediate needs requiring my attention.
There’s been a lot of talks lately about people wanting work/life balance, how do you manage it?
Hmm, I don’t think I am the one to ask about this… I don’t think I have achieved any work/life balance… if anyone has any tips, I’m happy to hear them.
You overcame many obstacles when putting together La Boheme, and yet you made it look so seamless, what’s the secret?
Obstacles are a normal part of producing anything, however, 2021 has seen us present Puccini’s La Boheme during a most unusual and exceptional time. We produced the critically acclaimed production in Belfast, creating a theatre space with the orchestral pit in a decaying empty church all during strict COVID protocols and within the height of social distancing. With over 30 performers on stage and about 40 freelance instrumentalists in the pit with our Conductor, Rebecca Lang along with our full creative and production team, it was full of daily almost hourly obstacles. I’m not sure what the secret is, but I know that sheer and unwavering determination and fronting up each day to take on whatever came at us, was the only way we were going to produce this extraordinary opera in the most extraordinary of circumstances. Usually, we would have venue partners and orchestral partners shouldering some of the burdens of producing such an epic piece of opera, however sadly this was not the case in 2021 and so when I decided to produce La Boheme alone with Northern Ireland Opera as the sole producer, it meant that we had to hold the reigns tight and make sure that everyone was on the same page and that the end goal was all that truly mattered… and that was to make sure we opened our production to a socially distanced audience and to show Belfast and the wider arts community what we as the national opera company can do. The audience responses and the sold-out season with all the wonderful reviews show what can be achieved when people who believe come together to make something happen. I think a steel-like determination and the need to perform live again was our secret weapon. We also have a small but mighty team at NI Opera and the fact that our team pulled together to create such a special production while keeping everyone as safe as we possibly could is a real credit to the company.
What’s the craziest/most unexpected thing that’s ever happened to you while on the job?
I couldn’t possibly put that into print!! It’s more for a podcast!!!
What makes for a really good day on the job?
A really good day on the job is when you feel like you have either achieved a lot or you have somehow worked out or worked through something either in the score or the staging that now makes sense to you or you discovered the way through. It is also a great day, when you have managed to keep everyone in the room moving along with you and when you can see the kernel of great work starting to happen between the cast and creative team.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
I feel like there are a few big achievements that are pretty much equal… Having a successful international freelance career in the arts for nearly 20 years counts as a huge achievement and then being chosen to lead this amazing company into its next decade and also navigate COVID has been a really big achievement. I have wanted to head up a company for a long time and Northern Ireland Opera has been such a joy to lead in my first 12 months. We have already made some major achievements, with things like producing and being able to lead live operatic performances out of lockdown and back to Belfast with our production of La Boheme in the stunning Carlisle Memorial Church. To be the first major live performance in Belfast was a real feather in our cap as a company. We also produced a film during lockdown called Old Friends and Other Days which is a musical cinematic experience showcasing some of the stunning compositions of Irish Composer Willian Vincent Wallace. This film has already been premiered at the Belfast Film Festival, Prague International Film Festival, and British Film Awards and is winning awards all over the world, the latest one being Winner of Best Short Feature at the prestigious London International Short Film Festival.
Have directing styles seen any dramatic changes or development from the 18th Century to the modern day?
Directing styles have certainly changed over the years and especially from the 19th century to now. Originally operas were put onto the stage with more of a stage manager type role. It was more like directing traffic than what we know as directing nowadays. Opera had been widely criticized as “park and bark” where a singer just stands and sings at the audience and then at the end of the aria, they leave the stage, or someone enters. This type of opera directing, and staging is not really in fashion anymore and opera singers are expected to be as skilled in their acting as they are with their singing. The conceptualization has also changed from the more traditional productions being realized through the 19th century, there is a lot more scope now to introduce technology into opera such as projections, and digital screens, and there is also now moving in the VR (virtual reality) world. For me as long as you can get a singer on stage in an opera, the magic happens when the air in the room is changed by the presence of the exquisite sound of the human voice.
What might be your greatest fear when directing an opera (e.g., is it failed to do justice to the piece?)
I guess you face these fears each day as they come and with a great team those fears are more easily dealt with. I don’t really have the greatest fear, as I think what we all do as artists are pretty fearless. I am always concerned with the needs and desires of the composer when looking at an opera and what the score can tell me about those intentions. With new compositions, it’s great as you can generally sit with the composer and talk things through but with works such as La Boheme or La Traviata, it becomes more a historic/research task in what Puccini and Verdi may have been thinking and then to look through source documents and then the score.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I draw my inspiration from so many places and different genres or disciplines. Visual Art and the Fashion worlds are hugely inspiring, as the natural world, reading, and conversations with other artists and people. I find you see inspiration in things and moments when you need it to come forward. I am a very big believer in that. I am probably very lucky that so far in my career I have not lacked an abundance of ideas and that inspiration has struck at the right time. But I do think that this comes from being prepared, at the moment and as well as listening out for the inspiration to come to you.
In your opinion, who is the greatest director of all time?
AHHHH now this is a hard question to answer as the list is long… I won’t be able to narrow it down to one name. George Cukor, Franco Zeffirelli, Julie Taymor, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Patrice Chéreau, Cecil B. DeMille, Robert Wilson, Penny Marshall… there really is way too many. I do admire a director who had managed to define their unique voice through whatever medium they work in, be that film or theatre/opera.
What is next for you?
I am directing a brand-new production of the late Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. This new production is being conceived by myself and an exceptionally talented young Northern Irish designer Niall McKeever. This will be a huge show for us as a company and there is a huge amount of responsibility in producing it as it is so well loved and adored. We have been working on a less than a literal concept for the production, however, I think we have found a real dynamism with the set and the storytelling and how we are visually representing the world in which these Grimm Bros fairytale characters interact within their world and with each other. We will also be returning to the Grand Opera House in September 2022 to present a brand-new production of Verdi’s masterpiece and classic La Traviata. This opera is based on the real-life courtesan Marie Duplessis who was the inspiration for the Alexandre Dumas novel La Dame aux Camélias. Verdi took this novel and created one of his most loved operas.
The Next Northern Ireland Opera offering will be La Traviata at The Grand Opera House from the 10th of September until 17 September. Link here