Farmers & Fiddles


Planning for Norway’s quirkiest festival – Mimì Goes Glamping 2016

We are standing amidst chintz and gleaming crystal in the exquisite downstairs dining room at Åmot Operagard talking about slaughtering sheep. The evening sun is catching climbing strands of honeysuckle outside the window, we are drinking champagne and the group of Austrailan farmers currently visiting on a Grand Tour are not in the least concerned with ambience. Not for them any lyrical chat about fish leaping in fjords or limpid azure skies. No, they want to know about fencing and grain quotas. Fresh from days in Iceland, a landscape from which they have emerged a little bewildered – more different from Queensland one cannot imagine –  they are off at dawn to Oslo, then Stockholm. Then, bizarrely, Bejiing.

So talk about opera doesn’t quite hit the mark. We’re visiting our partners Steinar and Yngve to make final plans for Mimì Goes Glamping, our boutique and somewhat quirky festival of opera, drama, food, nature and all kinds of fun. The Australians listen politely as we explain about Sir Thomas Allen as artist-in-residence, young Norwegian stars in the making who will sing arias on boats on the water, and bonfires with fiddles and folk music. They escape, possibly with some sense of relief, to dinner upstairs. We hear them chattering happily – the beef is delicious – and no doubt discussing its butchery.

Next morning to Førde, to talk to the hotel about festival guests, free passes to the spa and a possible opera brunch. Norway’s hotel workers are on strike and are sitting playing cards in a jolly yellow tent outside. Sunnfjord Hotel’s management, currently running a family chain gang, look tired but seem immensely cheerful. The spa, it turns out, is enormous and designed for suitably sybaritic lounging – we look with some longing at marble-lined pools where the water steams gently, and huge windows give on to meadow. No chance – we are due at the Farmers’ Market where a chill wind is scudding round the stalls and the temperature is close to zero.

The region’s producers, busy setting out fish, cheese, home-cured meats, artisan chocolate and juices, are critical to Mimì’s success; while they will bring a fabulous market to the event and their produce will feed our guests and artists, we want to celebrate them more. In Førde centre, this morning’s range is astounding – salami from young goats, dark, rich berry syrups in glinting bottles, salmon cured in local herbs. Grills spit and spark with roasting lamb threaded on sticks with wild asparagus, the scented warmth curling fingers into the air. It is now threatening to snow. Harald is slicing home-dried lamb and singing lustily. Hurrah. We hire him straight away to entertain late-night at the bonfire.

We talk to Sunniva who makes cakes and has just bought a beautiful vintage red van from some obscure part of Poland which she will turn into a mobile shop. We order a Mimi chocolate from Janne and discuss a possible festival cocktail made from blackcurrant liqueur. I begin to jitter from large mugs of tar-like coffee.

At the Kulturskule we plan a new opera involving local singers in which Sir Tom will star as a troll, and discuss fanfares with Angedalen-Brunns Brass sextet, a group who play on vintage instruments and dress -for reasons a little unclear- as though they are resident in pre-war Yorkshire.

And, we devise our own distinctly eccentric version of Blind Date for the festival. By August we will have assembled a gleaming new Volvo estate (the local dealer is a sponsor), a large shiny blue tractor, and a wonderful ancient Buick, along with three very cheerful young singers. Pay 100 NOK, blind-pick a ticket and you have a 15 minute date with one of these fine vehicles and your very own diva. Just think: a gently stylish drive around glorious countryside with the wind in your hair, and music in your ears!

More meetings, more decisions and a long drive home. On the ferry we eat appalling sausages while discussing the day’s gourmet offerings, the music, the weather and the way forward. Arriving home in Bergen close to midnight, small boats plough out of the harbour. The light is still grey-pale and blue clouds rush north.

Sleep. Dreams of redcurrants and vintage trombones. And possibly a date with a tractor. Mimì’s going glamping. I can feel the joyful madness settle into my summer.

Mary Miller

Sir Thomas Allen to Mimì Goes Glamping


It’s such a pleasure and privilege that one of the opera world’s great treasures Sir Thomas Allen will bring a unique late-night show to Mimì Goes Glamping. Lucky us, lucky Norway!

But pity the poor journalist who tries to interview Sir Thomas Allen, our artist-in-residence at Bergen National Opera’s sparky summer festival Mimì Goes Glamping. Sir Tom, Britain’s most distinguished baritone, knighted by the Queen, awardee of practically every musical and vocal honour in Europe, star of everywhere from the Met to La Scala, now turned director is not prone to taking himself too seriously.

“Tell me, Sir Tom” said TV interviewer recently, wriggling a little in his chair “when you… er … re-embrace a role like Don Alfonso, is it hard to bring something fresh to the stage?”

“Oh no” grins Sir Tom “not when you’ve got a brain as small as mine…. Lucky to be singing anything at all at my age, actually….”

And so on. Ask about an opera, he’ll tell you a story about something hilarious that happened backstage. Ask about backstage, and you’ll get a ribald tale about the composer. But ask about making opera the art form more popular and expect an explosion.

Sir Tom is passionate about opera for everyone – in a speech at the prestigious Royal Philharmonic Awards he raged about ‘wet T-shirt string quartets’ and the promotion of ‘cutie’ opera stars as opposed to the development of the genuinely gifted through painstaking study. “I just want people to see opera for what it is” he says ” it doesn’t need to be popularised. It needs to be available!”.

Born in a Northern fishing village where almost every male family member worked at the local coal mine, he became a grammar school boy who sang but avoided school plays as being for ‘sissies’. Choirs were fine – part of the male voice choral tradition. The first member of his family to go away to college, he struggled with homesickness, rattled by the noisy swagger of his peers. But his voice pulled him forward. He became the college star, and the first of the important prizes followed. He sang in his first opera – Escamillio in Carmen- more by accident than design. The Queen was visiting the college, and the opera school was short of a baritone.

An extraordinary career has followed, paced by his own mix of outrageous talent and common sense. He turned down the mighty Herbert von Karajan in 1970’s because he “had a family and a mortgage and didn’t want to blow my voice on Verdi” – not reasons, one suspects, that von Karajan would begin to comprehend. But by the end of the decade he had left a regular job at London’s Royal Opera to embrace international stardom.

These days, in his early 70s, he is singing – still on glittering stages – teaching, painting and drawing, golfing, and a vital, vigorous champion for excellent performance. At Mimì Goes Glamping (and wow, we are so excited that the concept of our opera/activities in nature/great food festival tickled his imagination) he’ll treat us to an amazing late-night show where he’ll reminisce, sing and no doubt tell enchanting stories, and teach masterclasses to our young voices. And, true to his inner democracy, he’ll take part in our unique write-an-opera project with young singers and local choir members as….. Troll Murmartinstein, a beasty tyrant who eats small boys.

How good is that? No to von Karajan; yes to rural Norway! And some lucky journalist may even get a serious story.

Masterclasses from Mrs Slater


None of us have ever been in doubt about the great young British Wagnerian soprano, Rachel Nicholls’ ability to sing. From Bergen to Longborough to Tokyo she has rocked the halls with thrilling sound – rich, silvered, skin-prickling. Some of us knew that she also loves to teach. Here at Bergen National Opera we had taken that on board in principal – but confronted for the first time by the reality, we were (there is no other word) awestruck.

This summer, our Unge Stemmer, young artists from the Hordaland region who have left to study overseas and are mentored by BNO throughout their degrees’ duration, came with a couple of Edvard Grieg Kor’s younger voices to be runners, performers and general assistants at our Mimi goes Glamping Festival at Åmot Operagard. Their reward was a class with Rachel, who with her bass-baritone husband Andrew, was artist-in-residence. The young singers assembled in Åmot’s charming barn, jittery, smiley and variously clutching scores, strong coffee and sheets of music.

They began – each had a 20 minute slot – and we sat in the audience listening to phrases stretch from strained to serene, breathing slow, sounds beautify, barking bass notes change to bronze and nerves vanish. Marvellous, everyone said, watching the young faces grow thoughtful, and notebooks fill with essential exercises and advice. ”Do not” said Rachel, observing ”change anything because of me. Your teachers know you and have a plan. It’s all very well for me to come in and make suggestions……” So no ego here. No diva sweeping in to bestow tiny fixes before flying off with a queenly wave and a phrase from Tosca.

Then Andrew came to Bergen to sing in Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, our wonderful production from Robert Carsen, which finished in a blaze of glory last week, in part thanks to Andrew’s brilliant portrayal of Peter Quince. Happily, Mrs Slater aka Rachel came to visit him. And because of the generosity of Unge Stemmer’s sponsor, the Kavli Foundation, we were able to bring home to Bergen seven Unge Stemmer to sing to Rachel, with Andrew as additional mentor.

It was an extraordinary day. The Åmot sessions, it turned out, had caused a minor revolution. Voices had doubled, confidence had tripled, and music poured from singer after singer. Each young artist had a full lesson. Some were encountering the Nicholls treatment – a fierce mix of common sense and magic – for the first time. Andrew and Rachel squabbled happily over methods, everyone giggled. They encouraged all manner of noises, from gorgeous to grotesque. Shoulders dropped, diaphrams swelled, mouths which had been semi-opened yawned to form perfect figures of eight. We heard Mozart, Bach, Wolf, Schumann. And a series of small miracles.

Leaving, close to tears, I began to drive home, then pulled into the roadside to think. We forget the role of the teacher, the life-changer, the force that delivers what Seamus Heaney described as “the jolt that sets steady the fibrillating heart”. I had one such old lady who taught me not only to play the violin but that the instrument was my life-connection to music, to art and to love.

Lucky Unge Stemmer. Mrs Slater will be back.

Mary Miller, November 2015

Unge Stemmer: Martina Starr-Lassen, Ingvild Schultze-Florey, Susanna Yttri Solsrud, Kristin Frivold, Marita Lervik, Sondre Landvik and Elizaveta Agrafenina



Mimì Goes Glamping – a whole new way of enjoying opera!


It all started, as many off-the-wall projects are wont to do, with an evening in the pub. The conversation veered to festivals – Coachella, Wilderness, Latitude – and how they increasingly blend high-end rock with other unashamedly high-end lifestyle activities. Just as we were rolling our eyes about yoga at dawn and inflatable camping furniture, the idea struck. Why is no-one doing a festival like this with opera?

So Mimì Goes Glamping was born – a festival in beautiful nature with opera, cabaret, speakers, yoga to Puccini (but not at dawn), fly-fishing, boating with troubadours … as we chewed our pens, the ideas surfed on a tide of Hansa. This was something new, a venture unique to Norway, which could celebrate the local, national, international, bring together tourism and culture, support rural development – my, we became suffused with our idealism and invention.

Soberly next morning we called our good brave friends Steinar and Yngve who run the stunning farm and venue at Åmot Operagård in Sunnfjord, a few hours North of Bergen, and whose reputation for beautifully run and generously hosted events is second to none. Yes, we could make this work together – we could share our skills and build a programme which would involve international artists along with local participants, would provide a fabulous mix of music with all kinds of activities in nature along with wonderful food.

The title, of course, should be explained. Deep in a meeting about the programme and the logistics, in the thick of explaining glamping to the hardy one-man-tent-an-ice-axe-and spare-socks aficionados around Grieghallen while the communications department, mildly bored, discussed an upcoming Puccini production, none of us noticed Alice, our stage-manager, standing in the doorway. ”I see” she said ”so Mimì Goes Glamping?”

It is, however, never easy to create a first, unless, of course you have endorsement from Sting or possibly Donald Trump. Media interest tends to be as thin as the over-comb on the latter´s skull. Opera, it seems to the press, is opera. It should be on a stage, with the audience – this a special breed – sitting politely in orderly rows. Then, simultaneously, we are pressed to be ’folkelig’, to develop a new audience, to be ’out there’ and away from urban stages. But Åmot´s local participants, who are involved in leading countryside runs, presenting a fantastic food and craft market and everything from fly-fishing masterclasses to yoga, have manifested an enthusiasm which is catching. Rachel Nicholls, currently one of the UK´s top divas and a Mimì Goes Glamping resident artist, is so excited that she and her husband are bringing bikes, and planning extra hiking. The Financial Times will devote its ’A Postcard from…’ column to the festival. Tickets are selling fast, and BNO staff are scanning, a little jumpily, the long-range weather forecast.

Not for sunshine you understand. For what on earth would a festival be without mud and wellies?

But looking at the programme, my heart flames. Baroque arias with the smell of woodsmoke drifting into lifting lines? Lilting rhythms at midnight from Bjarte Eike´s dancing fiddle? Steinar´s wonderful smile as he hands out a glass of champagne? Young singers’ sea shanties, as Ove Losnegård´s old sloop Bakkejekta glides along the fjord?

Baking along with tea songs? Eli Kristin singing Ella Fitzgerald, and Rachel performing Wagner?

I couldn´t miss it. And neither should you!

Mary Miller

12th August