As Northern Ireland Opera gears up for its September production of Tosca at Belfast’s Grand Opera House, Artistic Director Cameron Menzies reflects upon the challenges and rewards of staging one of opera’s great works.

War, political strife, love tested to the limits, Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca has it all—wrapped of course in a ravishing score. Little wonder that it has endured as one of the world’s most popular operas since its premiere in 1900.

Tosca is Cameron Menzies’ third marquee opera since taking the helm as Artistic Director of Northern Ireland Opera in 2020. It is also the third Italian opera, following the critical and popular success that greeted NI Opera’s productions of La Bohème and La Traviata.

It seems that Menzies has a soft spot for Italian opera. Or is he simply trying to seduce the Northern Ireland public as the crow flies?

“It is really just a fluke that all of them have been in Italian,” Menzies laughs. “They are beautiful works The stories are so wonderful.”

They are also, Menzies acknowledges, highly accessible operas. “I make no bones about it; I am going to be quite populist on our main stage for a while until we gather really strong audiences who will trust us enough to turn to something maybe slightly more left field.”

Accessible and, importantly, still relevant. “I think Tosca very much speaks to today,” affirms Menzies. “It looks at huge changes in politics and very fast changes in politics.”

Rome in 1800, where Tosca is originally set, was a time of great political turbulence. “There were about sixteen changes of government in two years or so in Italy,” Menzies explains. “It was a time of huge unrest, which I think is very much of today, especially in Northern Ireland where we are a country with no sitting executive.”

A fractious country, an occupying army, state oppression and torture, Tosca’s drama—which unfolds during a single traumatic day—has modern echoes in the heart of Europe and elsewhere.

“I think there are a lot of things that it correlates to in 2023,” Menzies expands. “Power struggles, the imbalance in relationships—I think that is very much in the zeitgeist at the moment. Also, the struggle of a woman who fights and in the end takes her own destiny in her hands.”

Floria Tosca, one of Puccini’s strongest female leads, is interpreted by Svetlana Kasyan, an award-winning soprano. Kasyan has played the role twice before. Experience is undoubtedly an ally for Menzies.

“We have such short lead times because Northern Ireland Opera is funded annually. Normally an opera lead-time is about five years out, so it does help if we have singers who have already premiered roles like that. Svetlana has done nearly a hundred different productions. She sings so beautifully, and she comes with such openness about the role.”

Playing Mario Cavaradossi, Tosca’s lover, is tenor Peter Auty, while Irish baritone Brendan Collins has the task of incarnating Baron Scarpia, a truly nasty piece of work for whom the violent possession of women is a norm. “He’s the master manipulator,” says Menzies.

“They are all very flawed, fragile characters in Tosca. You wouldn’t love to meet any of them, I don’t think, “ Menzies laughs. “They are complex, but you don’t have to scratch the surface too much to find their structure is not as strong as maybe you think it is.”

Whilst some directors might move the historical frame of Tosca to suit their own agendas, Menzies is reluctant to tinker too much.

“I do feel with a lot of Puccini’s works that if you try to beat him you’ll always lose. Tosca is set in three very real, distinct locations in Rome, so I think to fight that is virtually impossible. The way Puccini composes—it’s just divine—he creates the sounds of where you are. The sound structure and the sonic world of each act is very different because they are in very different locations. It is very hard to take out of Rome.”

Careful thought has gone into the set design, which, without giving too much away, promises to be striking and provocative.

“Conceptually the production looks at the old and the new worlds kind of crashing into each other,” says Menzies. “For me, the image has to be strong and real and truthful. I actually think that’s probably why a lot of my work gets called quite filmic, because of that intensity and that detail.”

In striving for authenticity, Puccini sought out a real shepherd’s song for Act 3. Nothing but the actual plainsong melody of the Te Deum sung in Rome’s churches would do for the finale of Act 1. Famously, Puccini went to the top of Castel Sant’ Angelo at dawn to hear the matins bells. His attention to detail, his perfectionism, is something that Menzies can relate to.

“Yes, in lots of ways, actually,” he concurs. Menzies recalls an article he once read while working with Deutsch Oper, Berlin, which put the boot into an artistic director who shall remain nameless.

“I don’t remember who wrote it now, but the last line was ‘these young directors have to remember that the genius in the room is Puccini or Wagner or Mozart, not them.’ I kind of clung to that, because what I do is as an interpretative artist, it is not putting composition on a page. It’s me pulling it off that page and trying to make life of it. I take that seriously, as does Niall McKeever, our set designer, as does Gillian Lennox, our costume designer—to pull up that kind of world.”

Menzies and his creative team are pulling out all the stops for this production of Tosca. The principals will be buoyed by the fifty-four-piece Ulster Orchestra in the pit, fifty-two choristers, fourteen children in the children’s chorus, plus the creative team and all the backstage hands.

Eleven bells backstage will replicate the dawn matins—a touch of realism that would no doubt have tickled Puccini. It all adds up to NI Opera’s biggest production yet.

“It’s a huge undertaking for us,” admits Menzies. “To head that, create that and pull it all together, while it is terrifying, it is also such a thrill.”

Leading the Ulster Orchestra through the emotional rollercoaster of Puccini’s outstanding score will be conductor Eduardo Strausser, no stranger himself to Tosca.

“Eduardo knows the score inside and out which is such a wonderful asset to have,” Menzies confides. “Employing a conductor that values the theatre-making as much as the music was important. It has been really interesting playing around with that sense of storytelling and music.”

It is a collaborative effort by the whole NI Opera team in the deepest sense. “Everyone’s life and experiences have been very different so they can bring a different idea to a situation,” Menzies explains.

“As we know, you can read these scenes so many different ways and it is about navigating our way and finding our truth, finding the reasons why people do the things they do in this opera.”

NI Opera may be a small company, but it a special one, as Menzies fully appreciates.

“I am very lucky because in opera, as a director, you are generally given your conductor and you are given your cast and you have to make them work, whereas I’m in the rarefied and privileged position where I put the cast together, I put the creatives together, so I’m working with colleagues that interest and inspire me. That is a joy.”

Why stage opera in a place as small as Northern Irland? It is a question Menzies often fields. His answer is simple. “People come to it.”

They come, they are seduced, and they return for the next one. “I really feel that we are building a loyal and interested opera goer,” Menzies enthuses. “People are really starting to feel that they own our company, which is a really lovely thing to have.”

Tosca opens at Belfast’s Grand Opera House on September 9, with further performances on 12, 14 & 16.