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

Opera far and wide


Last week’s report from Telemarksforskning emerged as a fierce and thorough piece evaluation of opera funded by Norway’s Culture Ministry, exploring district and regional organisations outside Oslo. Ten companies! – the number in itself is startling and surely confounds the thinking that only the capital cities can be centres of excellence. Norway should be proud – of the music, the singers, the hard work and above all, the variety. And so we are – from Tromsø to Kristiansand, the clear message is one of passion for an art form which sears both eyes and ears, which tells often improbably stories through amazing music and which transports us to worlds of romance, fantasy, hard realism, violence and sometimes magic.

The researchers had been clear about their process. Provided in advance with extensive rafts of material from each opera company, in the course of systematic meetings they met each management and worked through a hefty pile of enquiry. They quizzed groups assembled by the companies themselves: stakeholders, politicians, collaborators, board members, representatives of the respective city´s cultural community.

So in general, it’s good to know that the researchers’ findings are uniformly healthy and the conclusions thoughtful. Unsurprisingly, there is recognition of a collision between the market which wants what it knows and can measure financially: top ten operas, with Carmen unassailable at the very top – and the need for Norway as a country to develop the new, to take risk with the lesser known. No-one, for sure grows from stagnation. And importantly, the report celebrates the diversity of the opera offer available – from the annual historical epic performed each year outside Trondheim, to the introduction of European classics little known in Norway which contribute significantly to Bergen National Opera’s overall vision, to the enthusiastic local participation at Nordfjordeid.

There is much talk about quality – and much valuable discussion about the balance of professional and amateur activity, and how this relates to values and standards. For democratic Norway, this is uneasy territory. We love equal opportunity, all kids having a chance, the trees growing to the same height. There is, though, nothing democratic about art. We cannot all be brilliantly talented as singers or designers, any more that we can all excel as distinguished doctors or flyers on football´s left wing. Leif Øve Andsnes and Martin Ødegaard are stars because of sensational ability and hard work, not because a national ethic.

Thus our approach to opera manifests a considerable split: opera as an ‘activity’ i.e. involving enthusiastic participation from amateurs, often along with chosen professionals, or opera as a fully professionally curated process with highly trained personnel. The report, remarkably, addresses this without flinching. There´s comment from a variety of interlocutors about how being professional would ‘change things’ – as though quality is somehow corrupting. Hints, too, that professionalism is somehow less worthy than the honest joy of the amateur. It’s a curious fact: when an amateur or semi-amateur company puts on an opera, quality is routinely celebrated and applauded; when a professional company creates a fine show, it is assumed to be elitist, and only for an exclusive audience. In truth, almost all professional arts organisations prioritise accessibility and strive to take their work to as wide an audience as possible. Admirably, the report´s conclusions do fairly address the measurement, in terms of quality, of the two strands and are clear that evaluation must be appropriate to the type or organization.

We are, all of us working culture, a little thin-skinned. Talking to researchers is a curious business. They haven’t, generally, seen the work on which they are reporting – although to be fair to our Telemark colleagues, they had been to various productions in Bodø and Halden. It’s famously hard to talk about art and its effect – one is talking about how opera makes people feel, and emotions are impossible to show on a flow chart or PowerPoint. Streams of words like passion or colour or erotic symbolism really don’t do the trick. Each company´s panel, assembled to talk on its behalf, was assumed to present a balanced body of opinion. The researchers also talked to various ‘experts’ and to others whose names were not disclosed to those us being scrutinized – a fact which not unreasonably caused us some raising of eyebrows. Some odd opinions emerged from this overall scan, which ultimately provoked another disturbing overall conclusion: how little we seem to know about each other. Surely the national Opera Norge network should be a forum for common causes and shared experience? We simply don’t have a grasp of the details of each other’s production and we seem, as both management and associated commentators, to talk a great deal of nonsense about the principals by which each of one of us creates. So it is important, in digesting the document, that we separate stated opinions from reported facts.

One can imagine that last weekend all those whose operation have been scrutinised were unified by a very human response – what did “they” get wrong? What sentences have misrepresented the beating heart of what we do, what we fight for, what we so desperately want to communicate to our audiences? In truth, very positive and constructive things were said about Bergen National Opera – and the criticisms are ones which we will do well to consider. The report drew favourable attention to the multiple activities BNO produces outside Grieghallen’s grey walls – the diverse programmes and events which develop new audience, inspire children and develop young voices. But our development work with innumerable emerging singers – nine of whom will be featured at our up-coming Mimi Goes Glamping festival seemed to slip under the radar, and it is endlessly depressing to read that we primarily rent in foreign productions – can we please knock this on the head? BNO has created 11 new productions in 5 years, and in fact has a further five in the up-coming 2016/17 season. How is it that we communicate this so badly? Nor was there any specific mention of BNO´s formidable track record of collaboration at home and abroad.

Other findings: for sure, our leadership of Norway’s AdOpera collective (companies outside Oslo who have established collaborations with their local symphony orchestras) must further drive development amongst new Norwegian composers and librettists. We need to be sure, nationwide, that young Norwegian singers get appropriate chances and support: I´d underline the word appropriate as huge municipal venues are no place for a fragile young voice. We need to work more together – across international borders as well as within our own national networks. I´d also add a personal plea that we need to be more outward-looking, and routinely to put our work into the widest European context to ensure continuous learning.

It’s all possible, and nearly all of it is good news. The message is clear – variety really does spice our lives. So hurrah for risk. And thanks to a government with the guts to encourages its proliferation.

Foto: Magnus Skrede. Mimi Goes Glamping 2016 – Singers from Unge Stemmer.

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.

A dog’s life in Larvik


“You´ll have time to have coffee at the station” someone said. I´d just come off an early flight from Bergen. Torp station, bathed in sunlight, boasts three teenage girls sniggering into i-phones, a bench and two rusting bicycles. Ripening crops glow in surrounding fields, and a cat is washing in a leisurely way, draped across a red-tiled roof. Who needs coffee. You can drink the fresh air.

Larvik Barokk begins this evening – it’s the festival´s and Bjarte Eike´s Barokksolistene´s 10th anniversary. At Bergen National Opera we are thrilled to have begun a long-term collaboration with the ensemble (which began its highly inventive days in Larvik) and I have the privilege of introducing the opening concert in the picture gallery of the Treschow family mansion. It´s a first in Mille-Marie´s grand interior. At rehearsal we twitch nervously at lines of chairs to ensure neat rows and gaze in awe at the formidable painting. Her dog, a round and toothy bull terrier looks benignly interested in the assembled instruments, as though accustomed to behaving as a gracious host.

In the evening the room fills. For an evening of high art, the audience is democratised by the wearing of blue plastic shoe covers (’a little like condoms for the feet’, some wag comments). The carpets ripple with reds and soft pattern. The music, The Image of Melancholy, celebrates Barokksolistene´s eponymous recording, already much awarded and acclaimed. The magical sounds soar, dance, weep, flirt, seduce. From the walls, great landscapes seem to glow, and solemn ancestors soften their dark gaze. At the back, the house´s employees creep in to listen. As does the dog, who performs his own curious incident in this particular night by cosying up to the viola player as though about to request a tune. He is ushered briskly through a side-door.

Berit Nordbakken Solset´s sweet clear voice blends with the fine-grained string sound, the lute´s plucking nudges new rhythms, and we sigh to Dowland and cry for Neil Gunn´s lost wife in his dreamy lament. But everything in its intriguing way is dance, slow and swaying, or finger-flicking fast.

“Irresistible” – The Times on Alehouse

At the micro brewery, its time for an Eike speciality, the Alehouse. Bjarte explains the concept – how 18th century unemployed artists used to meet to play, sing, dance – but the audience is already so excited that history is put aside. We laugh, gasp and sigh. The virtuosity is amazing – fingers and feet fly, songs are sung in sonorous harmony, joyful disarray swerves into cool precision. They´ll perform it all – no doubt in a totally different invention – at our Mimi Goes Glamping festival next weekend to astound and delight another audience.

A crowd of delighted children gather next day for Gulliver´s Travels: just two violins, a map and a journey full of tricks from London across the seas and back. We meet seals, sirens, dangerous natives, pirates and folk fiddlers. Gulliver gets led astray in Paris (well, who doesn´t…?) but all, a squillion scampering semiquavers later, ends well.


Dinner at 18/19th century Scots-born boat builder Colin Archer´s beautifully restored historic house with yet more music. We dance through the house´s elegantly painted rooms led by Steve Player´s nimble pointing toes, and tap our fingers to sizzling reels.

At midnight under an opaque moon, a small red boat is putt-putting across the water to a harbour unknown. The start of a lullaby is winding through my head. Next weekend, by Sognefjorden, we´ll hear Baroque opera under the stars, another Alehouse, young singers and great voices. Mimi glamps and celebrates this suddenly arrived Norwegian summer. Light. Music. A bonfire of scented birch branches. Paradise, maybe.

Mary Miller


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