“I’m a bit of a late convert,” Oliver Mears tells me. “But as we know, late converts can be the most fanatical.” The Royal Opera’s appointment of Mears as Director of Opera (he joined in March 2017) came as a surprise: rather than the expected long-standing big-company insider, here was a theatre director whose opera management experience had been in start-ups. I was happy to have the chance both to learn what makes Mears tick and to understand how The Royal Opera sees its future, both in the hoped-for exit from the pandemic and in the longer term.

Oliver Mears
© ROH | Sim Canetty-Clarke

Mears came to opera in his late teens, impelled by a fascination with Russian culture: the first opera recording he bought was Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. “That was what really got me excited about the possibilities in the art form and the way it could grip you – there are all these lurid colours and contrasts and sensationalist characters.” The first opera he saw live (at The Royal Opera) was Katya Kabanova: “I remember being completely bowled over by it. Even though Katya Kabanova is not a Russian opera, it’s based on a Russian play and it very much seemed of a piece with that very unique atmosphere that Russian literature has produced.”

I observe that Katya is wrist-slittingly sad. “It is challenging, but I always find that kind of tragedy very cathartic, in the way that Aristotle would have been proud of, so I don’t get depressed when I go and see that kind of piece. And the great thing about Janáček is that it’s so direct and conversational. He had a natural feel for drama and pace and none of his operas outstay their welcome.”

Mears always wanted to be a theatre director, directing many plays at university and then becoming assistant to playwright Howard Barker. “There aren't so many auteur directors, who have a vision for a play or an opera, who are interested in potentially doing something radical with whatever they're tackling. That was the kind of work that I wanted to do, and I tended to see it more in opera than I did in the theatre. In the early 2000s, the people I was most excited by seeing were Richard Jones, the Aldens, Katie Mitchell, who had very strong ideas for what they thought the art form could be. And I was excited by the way in which opera combines all the different art forms.”

Allan Clayton in Frankenstein, part of "4/4" in October 2020
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Gradually (“it kind of happened by accident”), Mears became sucked into directing opera himself, co-founding the opera company Second Movement. In 2010, he became Artistic Director of the newly launched Northern Ireland Opera. “We were starting from scratch: we didn’t have a building or an office or a programme. To put all that together was thrilling, an enormous opportunity and one that doesn't come around very often, so I was very privileged to be in that situation.” The position gave Mears a huge degree of freedom to define what the company was going to do, which included a focus on acting, a directness of directorial approach and a desire to create a sense of place – creating work in a way that could only be done in Northern Ireland.

Moving to Covent Garden has put him in artistic charge of a completely different beast: as one friend put it, moving from a speedboat to an aircraft carrier. “As a speedboat, you can be very quick, very agile and mobile, but in some ways more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the economy, the government and so on. At the Royal Opera House, suddenly you have something which is more opulent, but slower to change. And because our history goes back nearly 300 years, you are effectively a custodian for world class art. That sense of responsibility is very profound.”

Peter Brathwaite in The Knife of Dawn, part of "A New Dark Age", October 2020
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

The Royal Opera’s output through the summer and autumn has felt limited to me compared to its European peers, so I ask Mears to describe how things feel at The Royal Opera right now and to explain some of the constraints he’s under. The most obvious is the set of regulations for Covid safety. “We are not able to have fully staged productions of our core repertoire because we cannot have a chorus on stage. There are some pieces where you can have the chorus offstage, you can even cut the chorus, but there aren't so many of those. We also have to think about how big the orchestra is – we don't want to go down the route of having 25 people playing Parsifal: that would just be grotesque. 40% capacity is a massive financial constraint given that we normally operate on sales of 95% of capacity, and we've had a dramatic diminishment in our income streams: it's been calculated that we've lost three out of every five pounds that we would normally earn.”

Mears gives short shrift to my hints that The Royal Opera’s output has been thin, pointing out that their funding model is highly unusual in being so reliant on their box office (their ratio of ticket sales to grants and philanthropic donations is considerably higher than their European peers). The Covid-19 financial sledgehammer has prompted a painful restructuring process, with the termination in July of all casual contracts, a voluntary redundancy scheme and extensive use of staff furloughing. “This is not for any frivolous purpose, it’s to keep the organisation afloat. We've had to go through this very painful restructure, which is incredibly time consuming, resource consuming, manpower consuming. We're only just going to be at the other end of it at the beginning of next month. And it’s been especially tough for all the freelancers out there: the singers and directors and designers, the actors, the extra chorus. They’re the ones who are really struggling, they’ve got no work. Of course, we would like to have done even more than we have, but we're pretty proud of what we have done under the circumstances.”

Antonio Pappano and Oliver Mears
© ROH | Rii Schroeder

The company would prefer not to perform at all than to compromise on quality. “People have high expectations of the Royal Opera House and that's as it should be. We need to be extremely aware and conscientious that whatever we produce has to be of an exceptional standard. As soon as it drops below a certain level, then that's not really the kind of thing we want to be doing.” But Mears wants to be more ambitious than limiting the programme to Handel and Mozart operas which work readily at a small scale, so they’ve looked at playing Puccini with their maximum allowed orchestra of 45 and they’ve looked at operas where the chorus can be piped in from an outside location (as has been done in Zurich). That said, music director Antonio Pappano thinks that Zurich’s approach of piping in the orchestra (as they did in their Boris Godunov) would be a step too far. “Another model which people have gone for is greatly reduced orchestrations, so string quartets for Bellini, and that doesn't seem the right approach for us. I think one can reach a point where the experience is so compromised and so distant from what it ought to be that it just becomes depressing.”

Mears is proud of the house’s video capabilities, albeit with reservations that “digital isn’t necessarily the answer to everything, and it's a very different experience to being in a theatre with a live audience, orchestra and chorus and amazing singers on stage. But it can generate a unique kind of electricity. The Ariodante, for example, was a really magical experience, despite the fact that it was a live stream only.” (Most critics, including ours, agreed.)

Ariodante in November 2020: Iestyn Davies, Sophie Bevan and orchestra
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

The ROH is unusual in the degree of its reliance on international artists. Looking forward to a future in which the climate crisis becomes ever more prominent, I point out that the company’s present model, whereby many artists fly in for short runs of performances, seems problematic. Without making specific commitments, Mears accepts that things will have to change. “The pandemic has made all of us rethink man's relationship with nature. For example, in the way in which pollution has affected health outcomes for Covid. And the way in which mankind has encroached on natural resources and natural environments has made these pandemics more likely, we hear. We have to look at ourselves and our reliance on mass air travel. But it’s not only that: there’s also the way in which we use resource to build sets and make costumes. We need to look at how we can measure our carbon footprint in a way that's useful to make decisions in the future. I'm a huge advocate of getting solar panels on the roof of the Royal Opera House and going off-grid: maybe that's a dream too far, but I think it'll be an amazing statement for an organisation like the Royal Opera House to make.” In any case, he wonders whether singers will want to go back to their former frenetic schedules, aware that these were damaging their health.

Mears has now been at Covent Garden for three years. Because of opera’s famously long planning horizons, 2020 should have been the year in which he truly made his mark as the architect of the season: clearly, Covid-19 has put a serious spanner into those particular works. So I ask about his views on future direction: is The Royal Opera risk averse? “It shouldn’t be. The greatest opera composers were subversives, and the great operas were written in a way that was fundamentally transgressive of whatever social norms happened to be at that time. Many of the composers had very turbulent personal lives, which they often reflected in the operas they wrote. I think that if you are serving these great masterpieces, then you can't just take them at face value. You can't just read the libretto and say ‘Well, this is what a composer wants and I'm going to present it in the same old way.’ Because that is not illuminating, particularly for a modern audience, which is looking at the work and hearing it in a very different way to when it was first performed. So the challenge is to ask yourself ‘how do you make these pieces live again, for now?’”

Oliver Mears
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

His answer is to spend a great deal of time getting to know the work of the directors he engages, to the point of having complete trust in their artistic ability – “believe it or not, there are colleagues in my situation who employ directors never having seen their work. I would never do that.” Then, the director should be trusted: “if something's really coherently put together and it's done with flair and imagination, and it's not done with cynicism, then I think audiences can appreciate and enjoy a lot more than they're often given credit for.” Amazing imagination can mean anything from exquisite period costumes and designs or a complete deconstruction of the opera, “if there is intelligence behind it”. 

So what do the months ahead hold? “We have an ever greater confidence in our plan B now. If we stay in Tier 2 for the next few weeks, that is a really solid ground on which we can plan beyond the beginning of December. And if all goes well with the rollout of the vaccines, we hope we will be back to some kind of normality by perhaps the summer of next year.”

The ROH hopes to open in December with a Nutcracker, to 40% audiences. The first opera should be in January, and Mears hopes that by February, they will be able to offer “an exciting and balanced programme”: an announcement should be forthcoming within a couple of weeks. The time for having multiple contingency plans is now drawing to a close: “it’s more about having a really solid plan for that journey from now to full normality.” Amen to that.