Setting the stage - Issue 170 - Magazine | Monocle

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Only the top of the iceberg that is the Oslo Opera House can be captured in a photograph: much of it is subterranean. Designed by architecture firm Snøhetta and completed in 2008, this is the workplace of more than 600 permanent staff members, who keep busy rehearsing Petipa pas de deux, belting out Verdi arias, stitching silk-and-sequin dresses and ensuring that the Norwegian National Opera & Ballet’s 300 or so yearly shows run smoothly. The people milling about the building’s public roof terrace, sun-tanning, taking photos and even (when conditions allow) downhill skiing are also important pieces of the puzzle.

“To an extreme degree, it has helped us to build pride,” says Ingrid Lorentzen, former ballerina and one of the artistic directors who lead the institution’s programme. “We’re a young nation when it comes to culture.” The Norwegian Opera was founded in 1959 and was long housed in a modest theatre in the city centre. But everything changed when Snøhetta was commissioned to design a new building and shipped 36,000 pieces of white marble from Carrara to Oslo’s industrial harbour. Since moving in 16 years ago, the company has grown into a world-class institution renowned for a daring repertoire and inclusive attitude.

By welcoming everyone into the building (and on top of it), Oslo Opera House flipped the idea of what such a stereotypically elitist institution can be. That said, even more thought was put into the interior: the oak-panelled main stage has some of the world’s most advanced acoustics and scenography. “All of the artists we get here think big,” says Lorentzen, noting that their workshops build sets that few theatres can match. “We have huge productions that can’t go anywhere else.”

Asked how it feels to stage shows inside one of Norway’s top tourist attractions, Lorentzen recounts a conversation with Kjetil Taedal Thorsen, co-founder of Snøhetta. “He said that the building is nothing without its content,” she says. “Without the theatre, it would be a monument. Monuments are dead. This is a living house.” 


The institution’s three leaders
The Norwegian National Opera & Ballet is led by a trio who oversee its opera, ballet and orchestral departments. Former prima ballerina Ingrid Lorentzen and mezzo soprano Randi Stene will be joined in August by Edward Gardner, a conductor extraordinaire from London who is currently serving as musical advisor. With creative remit over their respective fields of expertise, they work with a 600-strong team to put a show onstage nearly every night of the week.

From the back row to the front, left to right:

01. Stella Johanna Rømcke
Front-of-house manager
The marble foyer is Stella’s domain. Her high heels make her easy to spot.

02. Magnus Staveland
Soloist, Norwegian National Opera
The tenor grew a moustache for ‘La Traviata’. He’s thinking about keeping it. 

03. Edle Stray-Pedersen
Conductor, Children’s Chorus
Her secret to making a choir of five- year-olds sing in tune? “Never give up.”

04. Edward Gardner
Musical director
The conductor whisks between the London Philharmonic and the Operaen.

05. Knut Breder
Manager, Ballet School
Decides which talented toddler should go to the country’s best ballet school.

06. Ingrid Lorentzen
Artistic director, Norwegian National Ballet
Started out at the Operaen as a dancer.

07. Helle Sørbye Larsen
Chief producer, Norwegian National Ballet
The ballet teacher-turned-economist has  productions for 2029 now on her desk.

08. Meliha Beglerovic
Head of workshops
Trained as an engineer, her job is to find a way to realise directors’ wildest visions.

09. Lars Kolstad
Stage manager, producer
Has three decades’ experience giving performers the cue to take their places.

10. Kari Ulfsnes Kleiven
Chorist, Norwegian National Opera Chorus
Don’t stand too close when the soprano warms up her higher octaves.

11. Catharina Chen
First concertmaster, Opera Orchestra
Catharina plays aVuillaume and a Stradivarius.

12. Yolanda Correa
Principal dancer, Norwegian National Ballet
The Cuban prima ballerina pirouetted her way from Havana to Oslo.

13. Jahn Magnus Johansen
Leader of the Norwegian National Ballet
2 Just got back from a tour of Norway scouting for ballet talent.

14. Randi Stene
Opera director
Sometimes still takes the stage herself.

15. Jane-Eve Straughton
Administrative leader, the Norwegian National Opera
The organisational whizz cut her teeth at the English National Opera.

16. Kristina Bell
Head of sewing workshops
The Operaen’s petites mains makes fairy tales come to life.

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