Shots of Politics and Loss in New Irish Opera

Soprano Sinéad Campbell Wallace in Andrew Hamilton's 'erth upon erth' – part of Irish National Opera’s ‘20 Shots of Opera’ (Photo: INO)

Shots of Politics and Loss in New Irish Opera

Responding to the circumstances of the pandemic, Irish National Opera recently commissioned twenty new miniature operas from composers in Ireland that were filmed and premiered online as '20 Shots of Opera'. Adrian Smith reviews all twenty works.

If there is one thing that the pandemic has brought home to bear, it is that there is no substitute for live performances. Streamed performances, while a necessary temporary solution, lack the aura of the real thing and after a year of virtually no live music it is difficult to muster the same level of enthusiasm to watch yet another performance on a screen from one’s own living room. However, when it comes to contemporary music, at least some of the excitement is preserved since that music, by its very nature, has that crucial quality ‘newness’ and being ‘current’ that, at least in part, fill in for the impossibility of being there in person. Therefore, it was a mark of real artistic vision on the part of Irish National Opera to embark on this ambitious project of commissioning twenty composers to write miniature operas of between five and ten minutes in length that would be filmed and made available to the public free of charge. In terms of the sheer logistical challenge of the project, which involved the collaboration of over 160 opera professionals, there is no denying the achievement of INO and its artistic director Fergus Sheil in getting this project over the line. Out of the endeavour came operas of every conceivable style touching on a range of themes from our current difficulties to more esoteric concerns. This review looks at each of the works in the running order in which they appear on the INO website. 

Gerald Barry – Mrs Streicher
Mrs Streicher is one of several pieces of Barry’s that may one day find their way into an opera on Beethoven. For tenor (Gavan Ring) and tuba (Stephen Irvine), the piece is a setting of a letter that Beethoven sent to one Nanette Streicher, a composer and piano maker, complaining about the slovenly attitude of his servant to taking care of the laundry duties. For fans of Barry, there is nothing particularly new in this setting. Beethoven is moulded into an archetypal Barry character – a kind of comic despot – following previous male characters such as Sir Joshua Cramer in The Intelligence Park or Lady Bracknell (she is sung by a bass) in The Importance of Being Earnest. The vocal line is beautifully shaped and meanders without being aimless in the way that only Barry can write such melodies, but for a full opera on such a complex personality as Beethoven, a more rounded portrait would be needed. The occasional interjection of the tuba is presumably intended to have some comic value but again, if you know Barry’s work well, you will have heard this joke before.

Éna Brennan – Rupture
Everyday trivialities writ large are also the theme of Éna Brennan’s Rupture which features a woman (soprano Rachel Goode) battling with her alter ego (mezzo-soprano Sarah Richmond) over her ability to accomplish a range of self-esteem boosting goals: passing the driving test first time, home ownership, losing weight, etc. On the surface it seems that the better self manages to overcome its demons as the alter ego voice drops out and we are treated to an elegiac coda with picnics in the park and freshly-baked cinnamon buns. However, the contrived nature of the music – blissfully diatonic and sung in the style of a musical – puts this in doubt.

Irene Buckley – Ghost Apples
The consequences for nature of our materialistic culture is the focus of Irene Buckley’s Ghost Apples in which a female scientist (soprano Kelli-Ann Masterson) ponders the fate of the oceans by studying seabird corpses loaded with plastic debris in a lab. While the subject matter is both tragic and deeply relevant, the text’s mixture of scientific data and well-worn metaphors (‘nothing growing in the poisoned womb’) as well as the flatness of the music mitigate against forming an emotional response. The material is very conventional – short diatonic fragments in canonic loops for the upbeat sections along with non-vibrato string elegies for the adagio reflections – and interest in the vocal writing is limited by the tendency to repeat large chunks of the text on a single note.

Linda Buckley – Glaoch
On the surface, Linda Buckley’s Glaoch is about something we all have been experiencing recently: the inability to meet in person and our reliance on communication technology. The accompanying video features images of two women – soprano Sarah Shine and mezzo-soprano Gemma Ní Bhriain – trying to communicate on various platforms. Hampered by a series of weak connections, the line eventually breaks off leading to an extended scene of tears and sad faces. While it is not the case that this doesn’t have some potential for reflection on our current predicament, the problem is that the text and the video inflate what has become an annoying everyday experience for most people into an apocalyptic scenario with music that would not seem out of place in the final scene of Gladiator. My point is: it is complete overkill for such a humdrum situation. In many respects, this is a shame because the music, detached from the video and text, is very moving and expressive and could have worked well in a more thought-through scenario.

Robert Coleman – The Colour Green
Continuing the environmental theme is Robert Coleman’s The Colour Green, which reflects on the wisdom of Mark Boyle, an Irish writer who has forsaken modern-day materialism for a life closer to nature in rural Galway. Set to an animated video, the piece utilises recordings of Boyle’s own spoken voice in which he discusses writing a book in longhand while a bass-baritone (David Howes) sings about his sleep patterns which are in sync with the light of day. Boyle’s reflections are interesting in themselves but whether or not Coleman’s music adds anything to them is another question. The circularity of the music does have a certain meditative quality which certainly complements the text although the dizzying glissandi towards the end of the piece – just when Boyle is talking about the reviving properties of the herbs that his girlfriend has been picking – suggest something else entirely and seem out of step with the calm tranquility that had gone before.

David Coonan – Verballing
David Coonan’s Verballing dramatises a training session in which a young female member of the Gardaí (soprano Amy Ní Fhearraigh) is coached about how to respond to awkward questions. The session is in the form of a dialogue between a soprano representing the female guard who only answers ‘Yes’, ‘No’, ‘Ok’ or ‘Ah, Yes’ and her coach/interrogator whose part is projected as text with each new line synced to a staccato chord played by trumpet and trombone. As the questioning becomes more intense the projections speed up making them a challenge to read, mirroring the mental confusion of the guard undergoing the ordeal. In one sense this is a novel solution to the challenge of traversing a large amount of text in such a short space of time, on another level, it makes the experience a little bit tedious for the viewer. Nevertheless, the music is well paced and builds up over the duration with a slow, unfaltering momentum that makes the soaring vocal line sound increasingly desperate reflecting the overwhelming institutional power that the piece intended to portray.

Alex Dowling – Her Name
Alex Dowling’s Her Name captures the emotional fragility of a young schoolboy (acted by Matthew Hayden) sent away to boarding school after having suffered the loss of his mother. Mark O’Halloran’s delicate text in a first-person narrative and Hayden’s refined performance as the young boy, leave it to the music to fill out the emotional subtext. Although the scene is painted with the same tonal colour, Dowling’s music is not static and the movement of the music skillfully follows the emotional counters of the text producing a rounded portrait of the boy’s repressed feelings of loss. The melodic writing for the boy soprano (sung by Seán Hayden) is excellent and while it comes close to a pop song at times it doesn’t come off as corny or sentimental. The piece was one of the best musical depictions of a single character’s emotional state in the project. 

Peter Fahey – Through and Through
Fahey’s opera short Through and Through is based on the traditional ballad ‘Young Hunting’ which tells the story of a woman who kills her lover after he professes his love for another woman. Naturally, she murders him and is burnt at the stake for doing so, but in the middle of the ballad, she is tormented by a magical bird who witnesses the crime. Despite the short duration, Fahey manages to portray a range of emotional states from the unhinged opening of whistling and scratching noises where the woman (soprano Daire Halpin) tries to coax the bird to come down from the tree, to the pulsing, deranged eroticism of the central section were she compares her sexual prowess to her rival. The impact of this very convincing piece was greatly helped by some nifty camerawork and a great performance from Halpin.

Michael Gallen – At a Loss
Not surprisingly given the current state of the world, the theme of loss was touched on by several composers. In Michael Gallen’s At a Losswe are presented with the reflections of a woman (soprano Orla Boylan) as she awaits news of her mother’s imminent death. Surrounded by electronic devices and equipment, her thoughts drift into an extended philosophical reflection on the connection between electric currents and life itself which seems to imply that her mother is on life support. While the music is colourful and accomplished, these reflections come across as very contrived and rather distant for such a scenario making it difficult to form any emotional response to the piece.

Andrew Hamilton – erth upon erth
In terms of sheer impact, Andrew Hamilton’s erth upon erth stood out as one of the more convincing engagements with current issues. Although it uses the text of a medieval poem, the words are largely irrelevant as they are stretched out by soprano Sinéad Campbell Wallace whose soaring voice is intertwined with a truly terrifying texture of string glissandi between unisons. The video shows a close up of a woman’s petrified expression as her grip on life becomes ever more tenuous. Adding to the feverish atmosphere is a background of rumbling percussion and the strangely disturbing sound of a referee’s whistle, which is blown relentlessly signifying the complete submission to fate. The terror subsides towards the end as the music adopts a slightly more elegiac tone as it becomes apparent that the woman is leaving this world for the next. A short hymn-like coda on the brass accompanies the women as she is wheeled out of the hospital in a bodybag. This piece is an utterly compelling portrayal of the destruction wrought by the pandemic. 

Jenn Kirby – Dichotomies of Lockdown
Taking a diametrically opposite approach to Covid-19 is Jenn Kirby’s Dichotomies of Lockdown is a series of witty vignettes based on the contrasting response of two people – mezzo-soprano Aebh Kelly and tenor Andrew Gavin – to living with the pandemic. Musically, the piece is pretty basic stuff indeed with transparently tonal harmonies and the repetitive patterns in no short supplyHowever the amusing text, written by Kirby herself, is well constructed and many people, especially those inclined towards ‘light’ humour, will be able to relate to the various character ‘traits’ that have appeared in those around us, and indeed in ourselves, during the course of the pandemic.

Conor Linehan – The Patient Woman
In contrast, viewers may be left scratching their heads wondering what Conor Linehan’s The Patient Woman is all about. Ostensibly, the text by Louis Lovett is a tragicomedy where an elderly female patient ‘finds the strength to embrace her doctor’s failing’ presumably after a misdiagnosis, although this is far from clear. In any case, the complex emotional journey that this would seem to entail is not even attempted and both characters are utterly rigid and unsympathetic despite the piece being divided into three acts. The woman (mezzo-soprano Imelda Drumm) adopts a haughty, matronly tone; while the doctor (tenor Brenton Ryan) appears entirely uninterested and can only muster the strength to rattle off a few sayings in Latin. The intent of all of this is very unclear and Linehan’s music, which is accomplished pastiche, is wasted in this scenario.

Conor Mitchell – A Message for Marty (Or the ‘Ring’)
Most composers have probably entertained the prospect of juxtaposing trashy pop culture and operatic singing at some point but most think better of the idea. For those who go through with it, it is generally best to throw subtly out the window. Thankfully, this is exactly the approach taken by Conor Mitchell whose scenario, written by himself, consists of a video message taken by the older sister of a girl who has just been dumped by text message from ‘Marty’. The girls – Emma Nash as ‘big sister’ and Carolyn Dobbin as the younger sister Jackie – are naturally still in their pyjamas and launch into a series of hysterical tirades between the bedroom and an ensuite bathroom strewn with cosmetics, toilet roll and empty pizza boxes. If Mitchell’s scenario leaves no proletarian stereotype untouched, the music, on the other hand, is quite sophisticated and has the required dexterity to follow the peaks and troughs of the big sister’s rant. Both singers manage the difficult task of combining a Belfast accent with an operatic style and additional credit must also go to Nash, who double-jobbed as the smartphone camerawoman for the video.

Gráinne Mulvey – La Corbière
Gráinne Mulvey’s La Corbière is based on Anne Le Marquand Hartigan’s play of the same name which tells the true story of a shipwreck carrying Nazi soldiers and captive French sex workers. The piece is clearly part of a full-length operatic project that Mulvey has envisaged and this excerpt is devoted to the moment when the ship is going down. It concentrates on the fate of two of the women – played by soprano Mairéad Buicke and mezzo-soprano Anne Marie Gibbons – whose desperate state of panic is brutally depicted through a music that is dense, abstract and utterly dehumanizing, featuring a menacing undercurrent of double basses, alarming repeated notes on the higher woodwinds and snarling trombones and string glissandi in the middle register. The vocal lines do tend to repeat on the same note but in this claustrophobic atmosphere it is highly effective as the women are not in control of their own destiny. In the finish, a deathly cold coda closes out the scene as the water subsumes and drowns the women. If 20 Shots of Opera was a competition for the commissioning of a full-scale opera, then this piece would be a serious contender. 

Emma O’Halloran – The Wait
Panic at rising waters is also the theme of Emma O’Halloran’s The Wait which depicts a woman (mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O’Connell) stranded during a flood.  She has just witnessed a horse being drowned and fears she might be next. The music builds up from a drone on the double bass, icy string harmonics in the high registers and repeated figures and tremolandi on strings accompanying the rising floodwaters. While the music is effective, the text, again by Mark O’Halloran, does not work so well in this case. It seems that when the protagonist, operatic or otherwise, is in a tight spot and is actually describing the situation to you in a blow-by-blow manner (‘And the waters keep rising’, ‘I hear it lapping on the stairs’, I am still here’, etc.) it inevitably tends to lessen the dramatic impact of the scene. While the piece might be an allegory for our current climate change predicament, this might have come across more powerfully if the text had not been so literal.

Hannah Peel – Close
The problem of dating in the midst of the pandemic is the topic of Hannah Peel’s Close which features two women – soprano Rachel Croash and mezzo-soprano Raphaela Mangan – who have met on an online dating site and are navigating the perils of a first date. The first-date scene is a classic theatrical set piece and Stella Feehily’s text of humorous banalities would work well as the opening scene in a full-length play. However, Peel’s gushingly bright, major key score completely levels out any of the interesting dramatic potential of such a scenario. The music is one-dimensional, breezing through each line of the text and maintaining the same tempo for the entire scene. Both characters’ music is undifferentiated and their lines could potentially be swapped without it making any great difference. All of this means that the nudging humour tends to grate rather than charm.

Karen Power – TOUCH
Karen Power’s TOUCH takes Beckettian abstraction to a new level creating a world in which two people – mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O’Connell and baritone Gyula Nagy – occupy separate dimensions and attempt to communicate through a severely limited language of only five words. The dimensions are delineated using a split screen with the man on the left illuminated with yellow lighting and the woman to the right with green lighting. Various imagery of remote natural landscapes are projected onto the wall behind each singer and a soundscape of natural sounds is blended with the music of the ensemble. The singers initial attempts to form whole words from the limited text are highly fragmented but they eventually come together at the end leaving it up to the viewer to guess what all of this might mean.

Evangelia Rigaki – The Gift
The most convincing portrayal of loss is The Gift by Evangelia Rigaki which explores the relationship between a terminally ill father (Seán McGinley) and his estranged daughter (mezzo-soprano Doreen Curran). Dramatically, the juxtaposition between the angry but deeply pained spoken lines of the father and the sung lines of the daughter creates an intense confrontation. Although some of the text by Marina Carr contains direct accusations against each other, the majority of the lines are indirect, pointing to a complex backstory that is implied but never fully elucidated. It is into this interpretive space that Rigaki’s wonderfully crafted music works wonders, pulling at the emotional scars that lurk below the surface of the text. Like many of the composers that feature in this project, Rigaki’s writing for the string orchestra oscillates between repetitive patterns and minimalist plaintive sections but it is infinitely more sophisticated; constantly changing, responding to nuances in the text and never settling on a single pattern for more than a few seconds. There is even a sense of place – Sicily, where the daughter has lived estranged from her father – which is hinted at through Baroque sounding passagework and the imprint of Irish Catholicism is suggested by the periodic tolling of church bells. Terrific performances by McGinley and Curran and an expertly produced video directed by Jo Mangan greatly contribute to the overall impact of this deeply moving piece.  

Benedict Schlepper-Connolly – Dust
Again touching on environmental concerns, Benedict Schlepper-Connolly’s Dust is a ‘ballad of extinction, biodiversity loss and ecological collapse’, a theme which it approaches elliptically through a poem set to an attractive melody with the lilt of an Irish traditional lament. Sung by mezzo-soprano Michelle O’Rourke, the ballade is accompanied by a tenderly soft string accompaniment with ripples of percussion. Pleasant as it is, there is nothing in the way of opera here in terms of drama or plot and the piece is really just a song with a music video showing a woman transitioning from being dressed in a wedding outfit and surrounded by plants, to a hazmat suit and a bare stage as the lights go out. The symbolism is not too difficult to work out.

Jennifer Walshe – Libris Solar
Walshe’s piece is a meditation by a marine biologist (soprano Claudia Boyle) on that strange mix of ‘human, non-human and neoprene’ that is the wetsuit-wearing and doughnut-obsessed ‘Libris Solar’. The video shows a scientist looking at samples of something while images of a man (Patrick Martins) wandering around the street of Dublin in a wetsuit are projected behind on a screen. While the piece does not have anything remotely operatic about it, the attraction is the wonderfully shaped vocal line that haunted me for several days after first listening to it. A delicate accompaniment of strings and harp gives the piece a unique harmonic and timbral colour that is maintained throughout. In the background, excerpts of a text by philosopher Alphonso Lingis are whispered throughout but the words which the soprano sings – ‘Libris Solar… wears only wetsuits…runs for doughnuts when his legs are restless’ – are clearly by Walshe herself. While this might seem like a load of mumbo jumbo, Libris Solar may not be such an abstract phenomenon to anyone who swims at one of Dublin’s many bathing spots where wetsuits, pastries, and narcissism are all on regular display.

A golden opportunity
While the commissioning of twenty works in any genre will naturally produce material that varies in quality, the best pieces in the project were those that stuck to the traditional operatic principles of musical characterisation and drama. The idea that contemporary opera should do away with these principles is only a convincing one if a composer can come up with something to replace them rather than simply side-stepping, wittingly or unwittingly, into another genre such as music video, soundtrack or music theatre. The other noticeable trend was that an engagement with contemporary political issues such as climate change and the pandemic really only works in opera if the scenario plays out on a human emotional level rather than on an abstract conceptual one. 

The thing that was consistent throughout the project, however, was the standard of singing which was of a very high level indeed and there seems to be no shortage of talent coming through. The standard of musical performance by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra was also excellent and again, Sheil must be given a lot of credit for taking a hands-on approach, splitting the conducting duties between himself and Elaine Kelly. Indeed, the project as a whole can boast of very slick production values in everything from the filming of the series overseen by director Hugh O’Conor to the online presentation that set standards rarely seen in large-scale presentations of contemporary music in Ireland.

There has been something of a boom in Irish opera in the last few years and, given their central role in guiding the performance of opera in the country, INO have an obligation to bring the best of it to fruition. The question now turns to whether Sheil and the INO can cultivate their production of contemporary opera into large-scale live productions over the coming years. Assuming that opera punters will be drooling into their champagne at the prospect of live opera returning in the not too distant future, programming a healthy dose of new work next season may be a golden opportunity to introduce contemporary work to new audiences. 

Visit www.irishnationalopera.ie.

Published on 14 January 2021

Adrian Smith is Lecturer in Musicology at TU Dublin Conservatory of Music and Drama.

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