This Wonderful Little Place … Bosco della Spina, Italy

FERGUS SHEIL, artistic director of the new IRISH NATIONAL OPERA, savours simplicity in RURAL TUSCANY

Sheil in pride of place launching Irish National Opera last month.

There’s a feeling in Ireland that opera is not something that people do. Lots of people go to the cinema or to the theatre, but not the opera. With the new Irish National Opera we are determined to change that.

First of all, opera is going to be there – we’re doing seven different productions with 38 performances between now and December, many of them in venues around the country. Secondly, ticket prices will be reasonable, starting at around €15. And thirdly, we want people to know that although many operas are in foreign languages, there are surtitles that make them very easy to follow.

We’ve never had a national opera company before so a huge number of our singers are internationally famous but not very well-known here. It’s a wonderful opportunity to let Irish audiences see what others have been enjoying.

I’ve travelled a lot in my career and Italy is my favourite place to visit. I love the food, the culture, the beauty of the place, the wine, the language. There’s a very small difference between speech and singing. Unlike English, there’s a great musicality in the way Italians speak; it’s easy to see why opera originated there.

A few years ago, my family did a house swap and we ended up in a tiny village in Tuscany called Murlo. One evening we happened upon a restaurant called Bosco della Spina, bosco meaning wood and spina meaning pine, which turned out to be so exceptional we went back several times over the course of the holiday. What struck me first was the wine list – it was full of grape varieties I didn’t know. When I asked the owner how the selection was so extensive he told me that every wine on the list was made within ten kilometres of the restaurant. The bottle I chose was cheap – about €8 – but it was one of the best wines I’ve ever tasted.

Bosco della Spina, Italy

The dining room and terrace overlook the beautiful Tuscan countryside. It feels incredibly romantic with the scent of the pine trees and the unmistakable Italian air. When I’m in a restaurant in Italy I usually just ask the server what’s good that day because they tend to cook with whatever is fresh. The dish I ordered on that first evening – pasta with mushrooms and truffles – was incredible in its simplicity.

I love to eat out but I also love to cook. The dish I keep returning to is leg of lamb, slow roasted for 24 hours. It really maximises the flavour of the meat which becomes very intense. I’m often home late so I can also rustle something up in ten minutes when I need to.

Socialising after an opera performance is great fun; a performance creates an enormous energy which makes it very hard to wind down, so we inevitably go out for something to drink or to eat. Since we don’t have a dedicated opera house in Dublin, there isn’t a local hangout. In Glasgow, where I worked for a few years, everyone in the industry heads to The Station Bar.

I was chatting to the man who runs the San Francisco Opera which has a 3,000-seat auditorium. He explained that he can’t run anything that won’t sell 3,000 tickets, which rules out small or adventurous productions. So having an opera house in Dublin would be wonderful, but limiting. At the moment we choose the opera and then choose the building accordingly, and it gives us a certain freedom.

Bosco della Spina, Via della Tinaia, Murlo;

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