Gala launch of new opera house achieves romantic heights

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S newest and most northerly opera house, a converted farm building, was opened last night at a gala performance by the distinguished Swedish singer, Elisabeth Soderstrom.

Situated on the windswept coastline of the mainland's most northerly county, Caithness, it remains to be seen whether the opera house at Ackergill Tower can bring a new dimension to cultural life in this remote area of northern Scotland. The nearby towns of Wick and Thurso are more used to a peculiarly celtic brand of country and western crooned by middle-aged men in brushed denim waistcoats.

The setting of the new opera house is undoubtedly inspirational. Ackergill Tower, which dates from the late 15th century, is a romantic edifice built on a rocky outcrop above the sea. Given a baronial facelift in the 19th century by the architect David Bryce, its craggy appearance is typically Scottish.

The new opera house has been ingeniously converted from a ruined 19th-century cart-shed. The inspiration for the venue was sealed by a visit of the chamber group, the Scottish Ensemble, to the castle, whose members discovered the excellent acoustic properties of the building, despite the attentions of pigeons roosting in the eaves. Although it seats only about 100, it is flexibly designed to allow stages at each end of the auditorium.

The new building is the vision of its opera-loving owners, John and Arlette Banister, who want it to provide a new focus for the cultural life of the area. Given Caithness's diminishing population, for which the scaling-down of the nuclear reactor at Dounreay is largely responsible, a small auditorium may not be inappropriate.

Last night's gala opening performance consisted of Mozart's early opera, Bastiem und Bastienne, and the UK premiere of the Swedish composer, Werner Wolf Glaser's, Mozartian Mini Opera. It formed part of this week's Northlands Festival, based in Caithness, which celebrates the region's Scandinavian connections and includes the work of musicians, writers and artists from Norway, the Faroes, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark and Finland.

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