An Interview with Héloïse Bernard

Daïmon Opera have established themselves as the finest young operatic collective in the UK

Hello Héloïse, so where are you from and where are you living today?
I’ve moved to Scotland to do my masters in Vocal Performance at the RCS about 3 years ago, after living and studying in the Netherlands and in Estonia. I am from France, I was born and raised in Paris, until I left to complete my music studies.

Can you tell us about your studies?
I studied French Literature in France and completed a research masters specialising in the 18th century clandestin literature. In France, I have followed a training in Drama at the Conservatoire of Creteil. I started studying singing after that, first in the Netherlands, than Estonia, and ended up for my Masters in Scotland.

As a musician, what inspiration have you drawn from each of the countries you have studied in?
In France, I developed a serious attention to the text, an appreciation of how powerful (or meaningless!) words can be, and a very particular approach to work and research. This is part of French specificity and I am very grateful for this initial background. The couple years when I studied singing in France were also extremely rich in musical discoveries: the class of Alexandra Papadjiakou was a mine for old and new unknown works, and a place of excellency, whatever style was brought to the class. This first year, I mainly listened to other singers but it drew my standards quite high! The Netherlands was a quick stay, maybe not the best place to study for me, as I felt creativity wasn’t always rewarded. But thanks to a few people who trusted me, I was able to perform quite a lot of the baroque repertoire, got more acquainted with the recital exercise, and made a few true friends. Estonia was a life changing experience. Experiencing the North did something to my soul I wouldn’t have expected. The light is magical – even when there is so little in the heart of winter – the atmospheres were completely new for me, as was the way to interact with people. Eclipse took a lot from my experience in the North.

When did you fall in love with opera?
Since I was a little girl. I generally fell in love with music, and opera was a part of it. I would listen to The magic flute and Il Trovatore over and over. For years, I sang other styles of music, the idea that I could train my voice classically didn’t come until quite late in my life. What is fantastic about opera is the omnipresence of drama inherent to the music (nothing new I’m afraid!). And that it is somehow agreed amongst the audience, when you go and watch an opera, that people will express their feeling by singing loudly to each other, repeating over and over the same words, and still somehow, conveying an infinite panel of emotions.

Which are your favorite operas?
Pelleas et Melisande definitely holds a special place in my heart. Dido and Aeneas, because its a pure jewel. Wozzeck. Ask me tomorrow, it might be something else.

What do you like to do when you’re not being musical?
I read, I watch series, I teach, I drink tea and coffee with my friends, and I imagine new projects!

Can you tell us about Daïmon Opera?
The word daïmon itself is a English transcription of the Greek word referring to the little spirit that inhabits Socrates. He’s a kind of spiritual inspiration, which all performers want to have on their side! As a company, we started off as friends enjoying to work together. We wanted to perform in local spaces, not necessarily dedicated to concerts, and bring some varied repertoire to a wide audience, including some more demanding works – we perform quite a lot of contemporary music – and we try to keep English as a dominant language. We aimed to perform opera, but along the way, and building projects together, the idea of semi-staged recitals imposed itself as a way of offering a varied range of styles, keeping a dramatic and thematic unity, and involving the theatrical aspect that we all enjoy in opera.

Can you descibe your use of semi-staged recitals?
It is a way to chose repertoire in terms of thematic, organised around a dramatic idea. There is no point forcing a story into songs that were not written for it, which is one of the reason why we say ‘semi-staged’. There is a story line, but you can’t precisely follow characters or build every one’s psychology. It’s more like different pictures, or very short stories all gathering in one. We include lighting, movement, and in that sense we want the recital to become a theatrical experience.

You’re performing at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe; can you tell us about the show?
Eclipse was our first show as daïmon. It was a collective work based on the event of an solar eclipse. We organised the short hour of music (about 50 minutes) around this theme, which is carried by a beautiful piece by Handel from Solomon, performed by Mathew Oliver. The show is articulated like a poetic wandering around the ideas of light and darkness. The ‘poetic wandering’ I talked about comes, of course, from the beautiful poetry that has been set to music, but it is also created by the visual aspect of our show. All the use of props, the staging, the lighting, have been developed, decided, and handled collectively as we created the show. There is a feel of ‘do it yourself’ that we really cherish: the lack of means made us inventive, audacious and resourceful!

How did you select the music for Eclipse?
We started with text (the poetry set to music), which is always my starting point. And then, depending on who is with us for this particular project, we skim down and adapt.
This is the reason why there is more art song than opera, as more often the poetry will offer a wider range of interpretation than a few lines of aria from any libretto (except maybe some contemporary work that won’t always sound so well in a piano reduction)

Who are the musicians & singers?
For this particular show, we are: one pianist (Jose Javier Ucendo Malo), a flautist (Hanna Vigren), and three singers (William Frost, Mathew Oliver and Héloïse Bernard). We are respectively from Spain, Sweden, Scotland, England and France! Most of us are recent graduates of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Do you all spend time together outwith rehearsals?
We do! Will and I were both singing in a Figaro last summer in Spain on a production where Jose was the répétiteur. Hanna and I have quite a program together of flute and soprano pieces. I realise this is all related to music as I write ! Well, we do hang out after rehearsals.

You’ve got 20 seconds to sell your show on the streets of Edinburgh, what do you say?
A mini-opera where three singers, a flute and a piano, lead you on a journey through light and darkness. It’s dream-like, poetic and entertaining. (I think that’s 10, I’m quite bad at selling…) Just come, we’ll cast a spell on you!


Lauriston Halls

Aug 8-24 (12:00)

The Magic Flute

Members of The Magic Flute Cast. Scottish Opera 2019. Credit James Glossop (1).jpg

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
June 11th, 2019

If you are a fan of Comedic Opera, the Scottish Opera’s turn at performing the Magic Flute is sure to please, with a powerful cast and a campy, whimsical set. The English translation was fantastic, especially during the spoken parks of the piece, which were well-moulded to the unique and pun-filled wit that English can offer.

Peter Gijsbertsen (Tamino) and Gemma Summerfield (Pamina) in The Magic Flute. Scottish Opera 2019. Credit James Glossop (3).jpg

The set design places us in a steampunk festival fever dream, with a creative use of lights clearly inspired by the thematic elements of day and night in the story itself. Particularly notable were the dazzling three ladies of the Queen, whose glittering Gothic gowns were bedecked with LED stars and topped with illuminated crowns, including a particularly splendid crescent moon headpiece. In contrast, the three boys were both eerie and endearing in their airy lightness, descending from the rafters with glowing propeller-umbrellas, like a Studio Ghibli interpretation of Victorian-era sky sprites.

Sofia Troncoso (Papagena) and Richard Burkhard (Papageno) in The Magic Flute. Scottish Opera 2019. Credit James Glossop.jpg

Meanwhile, Papageno and his Papagena looked like they could have strolled straight of the circus tent at Boomtown, their vocal number complete with glorious mechanical steampunk robin’s egg prams and explosions of feathers. On the whole, the set pieces and costumes worked well together to emphasise the fairytale, though at points the imposing architecture of the set, for all its clockwork splendour, was confusing, and took the focus away from the characters and story.

Musically, this ensemble delivered a solid performance with some particularly stand-out characters and a flawless accompaniment by the Orchestra, conducted by Tobias Ringborg. Richard Burkhard’s Papageno was a delight to watch, and won the audiences’ hearts with his easy wit and strong voice. The Queen of the Night, played by Julia Sitkovetsky, was convincingly devious and terrifying, and dived into the much awaited “Der Hölle Rache” with all the drama it deserves – delivering all the high-notes but never straying away from the ferocity of the message.

Gemma Summerfield (Pamina) in The Magic Flute. Scottish Opera 2019. Credit James Glossop.jpg

In wonderful contrast to the dark Queen, Gemma Summerfield’s sweet Pamina was lightness incarnate. The true gem of this ensemble, her voice has an effortless purity to it that dances around the high notes with careless ease and grace. Her “Ach, ich fühl’s” was heartrendingly beautiful and had the audience totally invested in Pamina’s plight.

All-in-all, the Scottish Opera and Orchestra’s performance was wonderfully executed, doing credit to Mozart’s masterpiece. The audience laughed and sighed along with the characters, and was wowed by the magnificent spectacles brought to us by the costume and set designers. I’m excited to see what they have in store for us next.

Words: Signe Miller
Images: James Glossop

Shirin Majd: Kooch

2018-1 foroogh.jpg

The Edinburgh Fringe is all about talented performers, & there can be few in the city this August as talented as Shirin Majd & her ensemble

Hello Shirin, where are you from & where are you at, geographically speaking?
My background is Iranian but I’ve been living in Australia for the last 8 years.

Why the big move?
One of the reasons that I moved to Australia with my family is to become a solo singer, which I couldn’t be in Iran to perform publicly as a soloist. But I started my musical training and pursued my singing career in Iran.

Can you tell us about your training in the arts?
At age 10, I began learning classical guitar and then at age 17, I began studying classical singing and joined the choir of Tehran Symphony Orchestra. I went to Armenia to participate in Hasmik Hasagorchian classes and later attended summer courses at the prestigious Universitat Mozarteum Salzburg, studying with Professor Alessandra Althoff and Barbara Bonney. In 2010 I went on to study Opera and music at the Johann-Joseph Fux Konservatorium and at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz, Austria for one year. Since I moved to Australia, I continued my education in classical singing with Margaret Schindler and Lisa Gasteen. I graduated in Master of Music Performance (Classical Singing / Opera) and Master of Vocal Pedagogy at the Queensland Conservatorium. I’ve also completed Diploma of Sound Production.

Where did your appreciation of Jazz come from?
14 years ago in Iran my teacher gave me a new song called “Summertime” by George Gershwin from Porgy and Bess Opera. This is a popular song between classical and Jazz singers. I really loved it and I started listening to different version of the song. While digging, I came to Ella Fitzgerald’s version and then my appreciation of Jazz got stronger and continued till now.

What does your perfect Sunday afternoon look like?
In Australia, with the sunny and nice weather, I would like to be on the beach with my family, friends or alone; listening to lovely music and reading my book.

You’re performing at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe; what are you bringing to the table?
I am really excited about my performances in the Edinburgh Fringe. I will perform my new project called “Kooch”, a multi-art performance based on Folk songs (we chose these songs in different languages such as Farsi, Turkish, Spanish & English) which Mastaneh (composer and one of the creators) and I gathered them. I will sing in western classical style on jazz arrangements of folk music along with a dancer, videos and visual art. This will accompany us to interpret the meaning of the songs.


Can you describe some of the musical styles from Iran?
We have traditional style music (Dastgah and Magham), and singing folk music as well. However, these days like other countries the pop and fusion music have become more popular. Personally I like fusion music based on Folk or traditional Dastgah.

What is the cultural landscape of Iran in 2019 – are women more readily accepted there as performers there?
In my last visit 5 years ago, I noticed that women are more involved in the music industry compared to the time I left Iran but since the government rules are still against women’s freedom to sing solo or play instruments, the government can ban musicians from performing. Iranian women are always active and they are fighting against the rules, which restrict their freedom as a human being.

Who are you collaborating with & what are their roles?
Sydney Cabioc is my Show Manager for these performances, and Mastaneh Nazarian is the composer of Kooch project. Iraya Noble (dancer) and Douglas Kemp (guitar bass) are our Edinburgh-based guest performers joining Sweet Sound Ensemble, along with Saxophone, Guitar Electric and Percussion. I will also introduce my next project and music in this performance which are composed by Mahyar Alizadeh and Basir Faghih Nasiri.

What is, would you say, the quintessence of Nazarian’s creativity?
I have been working with her for more than 3 years now. I think she is really creative and she has this ability to explore her feelings in her compositions and arrangements. She captures a unique and personal narrative style.


You know a good show when it happens, what are the special ingredients?
I think the special ingredient for a good show is a good artistic idea, which can have a perfect impact on the audience and engage different art forms to achieve a better result. Then, I’d develop that idea by working with a professional crew whom have similar contemplations. As an Artistic Director/Singer, I am always looking for opportunities to collaborate across cultures with exceptional artists from Australia and abroad. I believe in the energy of teamwork.

You’ve got 20 seconds to sell your show on the streets of Edinburgh, what do you say?
What is “home” for you? Come to the show, Kooch, and hear Shirin Majd and her ensemble perform a special and beautiful arrangement of folk songs from around the world. Enjoy a fusion of opera, dance, jazz, and visual arts presented in traditional and new songs from the Farsi, Turkish, Spanish and English languages. Enjoy an evening of travelling the world without leaving the excitement and comfort of the Edinburgh Fringe!

What does the rest of 2019 hold in store for Shirin Majd?
I will have a tour around Australia in October and November of the Kooch project, which is really exciting. I will publish my new Album, “Secret,” by the end of 2019 which is in two languages, Farsi and English.


Paradise in Augustines

Aug 19-20 (19:20)

kooch fringe

Verdi’s Macbeth


English Touring Opera
Perth Concert Hall
16 May 2019

A spectacular opener for the Perth Festival of Arts, English Touring Opera’s colourful and action-filled opera places Verdi’s Shakespearean masterpiece in a civil war-torn Scotland that feels like a former Soviet-block Balkan state, complete with camouflage-attired mercenary militia, a brutalist bare-concrete Macbeth’s castle lit with industrial lighting and, of course, a deliciously tyrannical Leader and First Lady.

sendimage.php-4.jpegAt the opening an almost comically grotesque chorus of witches make their appearance, in a cross between druids’ robes and Crimean nurses uniforms, tending to the injured of the bloody battlefield, from which the good king Duncan has emerged victorious. Of course, the crown will not sit for long on Duncan’s head, as the witches’ prophecies set in motion a cataclysm of events that will see Macbeth, emboldened by a power-hungry wife, first commit regicide, then seek to secure his power by assassinating his rival, the noble Banquo, sung by bass Amar Muchhala, and his sons, whom the witches’ chorus has augured will be king after Macbeth. It’s more bloody than an episode of Game of Thrones.

Grant Doyle sings a powerful Macbeth, faltering at first at the prospect of killing king Duncan, but stiffened in his resolve by the power-lusting Lady Macbeth, we watch as he slides headlong past guilt and right into despotism. Tanya Hurst as Lady Macbeth sings some of the finest arias of any of Verdi’s operas with sublime poise and clarity. She is a perfect choice for a Lady Macbeth, equally forceful and regal at first, and then steadily descending into guilty despair. “There’s a stain, and here’s another” she sings, frantically scrubbing at her hands in the great sleepwalking scene. “So much blood inside his veins. Who would have thought the old man had so much blood inside his veins?” There’s a solipsistic, faltering quality to Hurst’s Lady here that almost catches the observer pitying her, she who at the banquet hall merrily performed the drinking song “Come charge your glasses,” as if completely innocent, even ignorant, of the regicide she partook in only moments before.

English Touring Opera’s production preserves the musical colour and dramatic flow of one of Verdi’s greatest operas. Considering it was written in 1847, it  is as action-packed and fast-paced as much modern drama. The orchestra, led by Gerry Cornelius, give an exuberant performance, especially rousing in the choruses of the witches and in the magnificent Finale, yet light and joyful in the drinking song, poignant and full of foreboding in Banquo’s aria “Black is the night.”

A magnificently entertaining Macbeth, full of colour, drama and beauty, and a very popular addition to what is becoming a rather worthy little annual festival in the Fair City.

Words: Mark Mackenzie
Images: Richard Hubert Smith

Katya Kabanova


Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Mar 12,14,16
Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Mar 21-23

You wait years for one Janacek operatic masterpiece to be revived on the British Islands, then three come along at once. When I say three, I actually mean the same one being performed more or less at the same time by three different companies. The opera in question is Katya Kabanova by Leoš Janáček, & the companies are Opera North, the Royal Opera House & for my personal delectation, Scottish Opera.

Janáček was a prolific Czech composer, who lived in a halyconic period for opera between the years of 1854 & 1928. The reputation for his syrupy, swirling time signatures has grown consistently over the past century, with the British affection being formerly ordained via the Prague National Theatre’s visit to the Edinburgh festival in 1964.

In the last decade of his life, the one in which Katya Kabanova was produced, Janacek had found love & musedom with the much younger Kamila Stösslová. The passion they generated seems to penetrate Katya, with Janáček declaring that the composition had flowed like “the beautiful river Volga”. Indeed, at all times the music seems very personal, drawn from real experience, or at least interpretations of those experiences, rather than abstract artistic ideals.

Ric Furman (Boris Grigoyevich) and Laura Wilde (Kátya Kabanová) in Kátya Kabanová. Scottish Opera 2019. Credit James Glossop.JPG

Katya Kabanova is a solemn, but ultimately satisfying piece. A tale of illicit activity between a love-starved stay-at-home, caged bird wife who becomes possessed by the magnetism of a gregarious young buck – with a suitable suicide to finish. A simple tale, but enriched a thousandfold by Janacek’s music. For the SO version, in her debut for the company Laura Wilde was stunning, flawless even, & dramatic, o yes, so watchable, so powerfully pathetic.

‘Look at the precious bird, see how she gets her feathers ruffl’d.’

Beside Katya, the other women are all strong forces, & perhaps all were merely avatars of Kamila Stösslová. Each are interesting, profound even, & on the night were sung beautifully. The men, of course, sang equally as well, but the male characterizations are noticeably shallow in the shadows of the goddesses. This is no fault of the singers, of course, but this is a heroine opera.

The setting is the river Volga & a small bourgeois town beside it. Aesthetically the stage was incredibly pleasing; from riverbank reeds to giant bridge-girders taken from South Queensferry. For those who know the opera the bridge was an ever present Sword of Damocles hanging over the denoument. I also loved the communist factory vibe, with the costumes seemingly taken from a 1970’s episode of Coronation Street – they were very cool!

‘Because you love theatre,’ is the SO’s mantra, ‘because you love opera,’ & to experience this particular opera on this particular occasion felt like experiencing the true meaning of art on all its many wonderful levels. A precise & extremely pleasurable production, of whom all involved should be proud to played a part.

Damian Beeson Bullen

Opera Highlights

Image result for scottish opera opera highlights 2019


Volunteer Hall

Opera is one of the most Universal creations of Humanity, the Esparanto of the arts. Sung in various languages to various language groups, the emotions which transpire between singers & audience is always understood. Such universality aids Scottish Opera to whisk itself upon the wings of appreciative applause about the entire Caledonian Wood. Venues on the Outer Hebrides & at Durness, near Cape Wrath, show the far-reaching remit of the tour. For my encounter I thought I would head to the tour’s most easterly visit – Duns in the Scottish Borders, a delightful drive over the Lammermuirs, dimly lit by the passing of the day, dozens of rabbits scattering before me quite albino in the full beam of the headlights. On reaching delightful Duns I found myself at the cavernous Volunteer Hall – purchased recently by the ‘A Heart for Duns’ group – alongside a healthy assemblage of local opera-lovers all wondering what ‘highlights’ we were actually to witness, & how would they be done!

Obviously a full cast, orchestra & wardrobe would be impractical for such an effort – therefore only two male singers, two female singers, & a pianist are sent out to do the good work. These are Lucy Anderson – the Robertson Trust Scottish Opera Emerging Artist for 2018-19; Scottish mezzo-soprano Heather Ireson; & making their S.O. debuts were tenor Tom Smith & Baritone Harry Thatcher. Accompanying their comblended & unwavering, streamlined voices was galloping pianist & musical director, Elizabeth Rowe; together the ensemble provided a frivolously fun cocktail of talent, quirky characterizations & ‘picaresque delight.’

Image result for lucy anderson scottish opera

Heather Ireson (l) & Lucy Anderson (r)

Opera Highlights is a most entertaining, multi-lingual jaunt, threaded loosely together by a narrative, & examples, of what a good opera should include. Of the concept, director Sara Brodie told The Mumble that the journey is, ‘an episodic adventure through many realms.’ It was all that, yes, & was more than wonderfully sung, if a little hamly acted at times. We heard 21 pieces by the end; Che faro senza Euridice from Orfe ed Euridice, Csardas from Die Fledermaus & Faery Song from the Immortal Hour were my favorites. It really was a successfully wrought dream sequence, a true chocolate box of delights when at no point did I find myself chewing one of those tough toffee ones from a Quality Street collection.

Damian Beeson Bullen