'From the moment I understood what a director was, that's what I was going to be’: An Interview with Opera Director Orpha Phelan

Orpha Phelan in rehearsals for Cinderella (Photo: Ste Murray)

'From the moment I understood what a director was, that's what I was going to be’: An Interview with Opera Director Orpha Phelan

This Sunday, Irish National Opera’s new production of Rossini's Cinderella/La Cenerentola will open in Dublin, featuring Tara Erraught in the title role. The Journal of Music spoke to director Orpha Phelan about her path to directing and why Cinderella is 'a very modern piece'.

When Orpha Phelan first moved from Ireland to London in the mid-90s, her ambition was to be a writer about the arts rather than someone involved in performances. Phelan was undertaking a master’s degree in arts criticism and regularly attending operas at Covent Garden. Gradually, her eyes opened to the role of the director.

I was going to see a lot of opera [and] … I was going to it with that sort of critical eye and the desire to see why decisions were made. And when you start asking those questions, you wonder, well, would I have made different decisions? Or might I be able to do this? Or might I be able to do it better? Often the answer was no. But occasionally I thought maybe I would actually.

The work of directors appealed because they were ‘responsible for having a vision’ and ‘enthusing people in order for them to execute that vision.’ She started to explore the possibility of this new kind of work and began with a small bit of assisting work at Wexford Festival Opera and Castleward Opera in Northern Ireland, before being offered work with Opera North in Leeds, eventually leading to an opportunity to direct her first opera. In the meantime, she worked with the De Wolfe music publishing company in London and was in charge of their classical music catalogue.

Reumert Award
Phelan has since gone on to work with many international companies and productions, including Malmö Opera and Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Last year, her production of Leonard Bernstein’s 1983 opera A Quiet Place with Opera Zuid in Maastricht won the Place de l’Opera prize of Best Opera 2018 in the Netherlands. She has also won, for two years running, Denmark’s most prestigious arts prize, the Reumert Award, for Thomas AdèsPowder Her Face at the Royal Danish Opera and US composer Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, also for the Royal Danish Opera.

Cinderella/La Cenerentola will be Phelan’s debut with Irish National Opera. It’s seven years since she worked in Ireland and Phelan, who is from Kilkenny, is enjoying being back for a number of reasons.

I’ve been in London for over 20 years. And I’m very happy there. But it’s very different working in Ireland – it’s remarkably different … actually. I suppose on a basic level there’s the Irish mentality and the Irish hospitality. People are welcoming, open. I know it sounds like a cliché. …. but really the difference is remarkable. The open attitude and the ability to just speak frankly with people and they’ll endeavour to do what I’m asking them.

She is also impressed by the range of musical talent.

The other thing that I find really powerful  and very reassuring is that the standard of work in Ireland is seriously high … I’ve worked in other national companies before … … there’s a standard [in Ireland] amongst the singers which is tremendous…

Let the fairytale be
Rossini wrote Cinderella in less than a month when he was 25 – it was premiered in January 1817 in Rome. The work came directly after his most famous opera, The Barber of Seville, and contains the well known aria ‘Non più mesta’, which Tara Erraught will sing. Phelan read deeply into the historical story of Cinderella but ultimately decided to explore the fairytale on its own terms. ‘I kept trying to get away from the fact that it was a fairytale. But I couldn’t and at some point you have to say, well, why am I battling with this? Why don’t I just allow it to be?’ There is a deeper element to the popular story however.

It’s a blast. It’s a romp. It’s hysterical, but ultimately it’s actually about forgiveness and kindness. It feels to me like it’s a very modern piece as well as being terribly entertaining. When you get to the crux of the matter it’s not actually about the boy saving the girl, it’s about a girl saving a boy and she ends up saving everybody else.

It is Phelan’s first time working with Erraught, who has already performed the main role in Cinderella almost thirty times, including at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich and with Welsh National Opera on a US tour. The Dundalk mezzo will perform the role at the Met next spring also. ‘Tara Erraught is a seriously consummate performer… it seems that every moment she’s on stage it’s like her first time. She brings an immediacy to the role … that’s her magic … she’s always in the moment.’

Fiendishly difficult
INO’s production will also feature British bass Graeme Danby as Don Magnifico, Cinderella’s stepfather – ‘[he] has some fiendishly difficult arias… and we sit back and marvel at those…’ – and American tenor Andrew Owens as Prince Ramiro – ‘people talk about Rossini tenors… it’s quite a thing to have someone who is able to hit those notes and [Owens] does it effortlessly…’. Fergus Sheil will conduct and the production also features Italian baritone Riccardo Novaro as Dandini, Croatian bass-baritone David Oštrek as Alidoro, and Irish soprano Rachel Croash and mezzo Niamh O’Sullivan as the two sisters.

Phelan has spent some time in Japan studying Noh theatre and its disciplined approach (‘it’s mentally a very difficult genre… you can spend hours [on stage] doing very little’) has partly influenced her directorial approach: ‘It is has made me less patient with people who are not prepared to push themselves … [it] has made me a bit more demanding because I see how people in the tradition of Noh theatre push themselves…’. But for Phelan, the narrative is still always central:

I think that I really try to tell a story. I don’t go for gimmicks. I don’t particularly want people to think that the director is the most clever person involved. If you go to see one of my operas and you think that was a great piece, a great work, I’ll be happy.

Irish National Opera’s Cinderella/La Cenerentola opens at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre on Sunday 10 November at 6pm and is followed by performances on the 12th, 14th and 16th. For booking, visit www.irishnationalopera.ie.  

This preview is supported by Irish National Opera.

Published on 6 November 2019

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