<< -- 6 -- Roderic Dunnett OPERATIC CONNECTIONS
Tom Hawkes's Castleward connection originally arose because of his longstanding operatic connections with Ireland. 'That first production I did back in 1969 -- Macbeth -- was just before "the troubles" -- thirty years of violent political unrest -- began. In those days I used to have to conceal it from my mother whenever I was working in Northern Ireland, because she would get so anxious.' Hawkes was directing opera then for Belfast Grand Opera, and later worked with Havelock Nelson's Studio Opera Group, which was, he explains, 'the predecessor of Castleward, with which both Nelson and Jack were involved.'
Castleward has a valuable, additional aim, in addition to bringing good opera to Northern Ireland : like Clonter Opera, Bampton Classical Opera and Halsemere's Opera Omnibus, all hard-working and thriving UK companies, it aspires to create a valuable platform for young and talented singers, not least Irish-born singers, giving them an ideal opportunity to launch their careers with early experience of creating opera within a company of fully professional lead roles.
What's more, Castleward's auditorium has not stood still. The theatre is now equipped with full lighting banks, there is a false proscenium and trapdoors in the stage, the audience seating has been much improved and better access has been arranged. Adjacent in the courtyard, former army tents, erected at festival time during the early days in case of bad weather, have been supplanted by a glittering, heated, flower-bedecked supper marquee, directly connected to the auditorium.
There are benefits for the cast too : 'Last year for Lucia and La Belle Helene,' says Hawkes, 'we extended the stage by about a metre over the orchestra, which gives us more playing area and works very well. Castleward's compact stage focuses everything down like TV or film. There aren't such large numbers you can't motivate everyone on stage. It's a very favourable acoustic, you can sing very quietly there and be heard, and with some of the orchestra now tucked under the stage, even more effectively.'
'I love working in and around Belfast, I like the people and the place. But there's something unique about Castleward, the administration do a great job, people keep coming back every year. I'm sitting in my flat just beyond the farmyard, looking across the Lough, I can see Portaferry on the other side, it's just five minutes walk up to the house, the door's always open, the trees are wonderful, the birds are twittering, there's a swan sailing by : what fabulous surroundings in which to create an opera!