Irish National Opera 2020-21 Review: 20 Shots Of Opera
20 Innovative Works Made Specifically To StreamBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Hugh O’Conor)
With the closure of the theatres, opera companies have turned to streaming their productions. However, with all the goodwill in the world, they tend to fall into the category of second-hand, second-rate experiences.
In fact, many would argue that watching an opera on the screen in the comfort of your own home does not work at all. After all, the overwhelming majority of operas were never conceived by their creators to be presented via this medium, and by simply transferring it from the stage to the screen much is lost, and little, if anything, is gained.
Forget for the moment the distractions which are almost certain to occur while watching in your own living room, or that opera should be a communal experience, one shared with other audience members, in which there is direct communication between performers and the listeners, or that the presence of a live audience often generates an energetic frisson that is otherwise rarely obtained: the problems run much deeper.
Theatres work because each audience member is able to freely engage with the work; they can train their eye on aspects that interest them, allowing their imaginations to wander over incidents, symbolic references, scenic decisions, and so on. This is something that is severely curtailed in a screened performance, in which it is the film director via the camera who decides for everyone what is important, what to focus on, and what to ignore. The imagination is thereby stifled and a fundamental element of the experience is destroyed.
The problem lies in the fact that staged performances are designed for the theatre and to satisfy a theatre audience, whether or not the audience is actually present. How much more satisfying it would be if streamed performances were written for the medium on which they will be viewed, namely a screen, in which the creation of the video itself becomes part of the art form, allowing it to benefit from all the advantages of video technology while not being hamstrung by the drawbacks of streaming a work made for a different medium?
This is exactly what Irish National Opera has attempted to do with its innovative and imaginative “20 Shots of Opera:” 20 newly commissioned short operas from 20 different composers and librettists, lasting around five to ten minutes, specifically for the purpose of streaming.
Although a diverse range of subjects was chosen for the works, ranging from the loss of a loved one to the setting to music of Beethoven’s letters about his domestic affairs, a strong theme which emerges is a focus on the problems which are currently besetting our world and the atomizing effects they have on the human condition. The ability to connect with ourselves, with each other, and with the planet all come in for examination: the COVID-19 pandemic, new technologies, and environmental destructions are at the forefront, but the resulting psychological problems of living in a dysfunctional society are also included. They are not, however, presented in a uniformly bleak or angst-ridden manner; comedy also plays its part.
With 20 operas on offer, composed in an assortment of styles, using different forms and an equally diverse range of libretti and presented using a variety of video and directorial techniques, it is safe to say that there is something to please, as well as to displease, everyone.
The first of the 20 on the list is Gerald Barry’s “Mrs. Streicher” written for voice and tuba, with Barry himself acting as the director. Nanette Streicher was a surrogate mother figure to Beethoven while he was living in Vienna, to whom he used to write letters. In these missives he would work himself up into rages with complaints about domestic issues, such as his servants and his laundry, even comparing his problems to Christ’s suffering in Gologotha.
The imaginative, even amusing idea of setting Beethoven’s letters to music is certainly a promising one but unfortunately proves to be somewhat disappointing, as the work fails to ignite the interest. Although the sure hand of the composer is clearly evident in the way he captures Beethoven’s irascible character in the vocal line, and the tenor Gavan Ring produces a well-delivered performance, there is little else on offer.
The only instrumental accompaniment was that of the tuba, which occasionally interjects with rude notes to separate the letters, which adds a slight touch of humor.
Barry’s direction is static and unimaginative: Beethoven sits behind a desk, in the dark with the tuba player in the background. The camera remains fixed on Beethoven without any movement.
Dealing with Death
Three works focused on the recent loss or impending death of a loved one: “At a Loss” by Michael Gallen, who was also responsible for the text and direction, conducted by Fergus Sheil; “The Gift” by Evangelia Rigaki to a text by Marina Carr, directed by Jo Mangan and conducted by Fergus Sheil; “Her Name” by Alex Dowling to a text by Mark O’Halloran, directed by Hugh O’Connor and conducted by Elaine Kelly.
In Gallen’s “At a Loss” a woman reflects upon the force which gives life to the body as she waits for her mother to die. Soprano Orla Boylan produces a sensitive performance in the role, presenting a multi-layered portrayal in which she captures the aching pain of her forthcoming loss, mixed with reflections on how the forces of life and electricity share similar characteristics. Gallen allows the voice to dominate, with the largely understated orchestral accompaniment used to build the atmospheric context, alongside the darkly constructed set, lit by lone standing electric light bulbs. It is a powerful piece in which all the creative elements successfully combine.
“The Gift” is an exceptional work, but painful to watch: it is possibly too close to reality. An estranged daughter played by mezzo-soprano Doreen Curran is returning home to see her dying father, played by the actor Sean McGinley. We are privy to their innermost thoughts, we hear of the deep resentments she holds towards him, and his pain at being rejected. There is a lot of anger present on both sides, and Carrs’ text pulls no punches.
Likewise, Rigaki is uncompromising with her disturbing musical accompaniment of violin and cello. Now the daughter will return for one last meeting; the father desperate to say goodbye to the daughter he loves. But she arrives too late, although alive he has lost consciousness. The music calms as she reflects upon her father, and the funeral bell tolls. Curran’s performance in the role is superb, portraying the daughter as a hard, self-righteous woman, secure in her Roman Catholic faith. Looking upon her dying father’s body she can only see him in terms of a saint, a religious symbol, yet there is a subtle softening in the face which suggests there is real pain concealed below the surface.
The video has been beautifully constructed, full of poignant moments that capture the depth and complexity of the feelings they have towards each other, as well as the physical and emotional distance that separated them. The father appealing to the violin and cello players is a particularly telling moment, as is the constant reference to religious imagery. It is a work that demands to be watched again and again.
The most delicately drawn of the three is “Her Name,” which focuses on a child, on the verge of adolescence, mourning the loss of his mother. Sent away to boarding school, he is left alone to deal with his grief as best he can. Unable to speak about her, he finds solace in the chapel and in listening to his mother’s voice on voicemail.
The boy soprano Sean Hayden produces a beautiful performance in which he intones the words clearly, in a matter-of-fact manner, but tinged with a hollow, inner sadness. Dowling’s score is sensitively wrought, catching the child’s desperate situation, the music mournful yet equally unsettling.
Two works took the forthcoming environmental apocalypse as its theme: “Ghost Apples” by Irene Buckley to a text by Jessica Traynor, directed by Conor Hanratty and conducted by Elaine Kelly; “Dust” by Benedict Sclepper-Connolly, directed by Stephanie Dufresne, and conducted by Elaine Kelly.
In “Ghost Apples” soprano Kelli-Ann Masterson, essaying the role of a scientist, living in the not too distant future, takes us on a short tour of what we have destroyed. On a walk through her laboratory, we view skeletons of Gannets and Albatrosses, piles of fishing twine found in their stomaches, which caused them to starve to death. She tells us of the plastic, of the bottles and boxes which killed the oceans, of the forest which were burnt to the ground, and reflects upon the time when apples used to ripen on the branch, and she searches desperately for evidence of beauty in the mounds of plastic.
Masterson’s clear, monochromatic voice gives her words the disinterested honesty of a scientist, but it is her phrasing, rendered with sufficient emotional force, and her piercingly bright top notes which expose her underlying despair and anguish of what this truth means. Buckley’s music is thinly scored, unsettling and changeable, including oases of relative calm, but the momentum is always forward, driving us towards an inevitable and disastrous conclusion.
Mezzo-soprano Michelle O’Rourke sings a beautiful folk ballad called “Dust” about the destructions of species, while two men in Hazmat suits remove all the plants from a stage and reclothe her in one. It certainly pushes at the limits of what constitutes an opera, as do many of the other works in this collection.
However, whereas they tend to innovate and experiment, this is really little more than a video of a folk song, notwithstanding its interesting musical introduction, like so many others produced in the past. The song and the video are, nevertheless, very enjoyable.
Modern Communication Technology
Two works looked at the uses and abuses of modern communication devices: “Glaoch” by Linda Buckley to a text by Doireann Ni Ghriofa, directed by Hugh O’Connor and conducted by Elaine Kelly; “A Message for Matty (The Ring)” by Conor Mitchell, directed by Davey Kelleher and conducted by Fergus Sheil
These days there are so many technologies through which we can communicate, yet we are finding it more difficult to stay connected. Buckley and Ni Ghriofa’s “Glaoch” is their take on this modern phenomenon. We watch as soprano Sarah Shine and mezzo-soprano Gemma Ni Bhriain try to hold onto their connection via FaceTime, selfies, computers, video messages, and so on, but it all turns into a lament; they cannot touch or feel each other’s words, even the telephone cord which connected them has gone. The relationship weakens until it finally breaks.
The orchestral sounds are initially strained, but following a period of relative calm, it moves into the final section which is loud and overpowering, so that the communication between the two women becomes increasingly difficult to understand, capturing not just their path towards disconnection, but also their emotional journey. It is a nicely crafted piece, in which Kelleher’s direction convinced.
Conor Mitchell’s “A Message to Marty (or The Ring)” was an amusing take on the current fashion of trying to shame people on social media. Seen through the lens of a mobile phone camera we watch how two girls work themselves up into a self-righteous frenzy after one of them has been dumped by her partner.
The girls played by soprano Emma Nash and mezzo-soprano Carolyn Dobbin screech and rage to the point of hysteria, producing a truly believable reaction to their perceived insult. Katie Davenport’s costume designs were suitably brash and over the top, but not at all unrealistic, and added to the humor. Kelleher’s direction again impresses and captures the emotions and energy perfectly.
Two operas were animated presentations: “The Colour Green” by Robert Coleman to a text by Mark Boyle, directed by Hugh O’Connor, animated by Holly Keating and conducted by Fergus Sheil; “Verballing” by David Coonan to a text by Dylan Coburn Gray, directed by Caitriona McLaughlin, animated by Patrick Moynihan and conducted by Fergus Sheil.
Both composers took an experimental approach to many aspects of their works. In “The Colour Green” spoken phrases are repeated again and again over disembodied notes or short musical phrases. The bass-baritone David Howes added occasional sung phrases about sleep, as well as a humming sound which is overlaid on to the spoken words. It is an interesting piece, which has a slightly hypnotic effect after repeated listenings.
“Troubling” is a well-constructed and imaginative work, in which Coonan and Coburn explore the difference between reporting the truth and answering without lying. Against a disturbing dissonant musical background, a Garda is questioned about a murder investigation and coached in how to present her answers. Soprano Amy Ni Fhearraigh provides the voice of the Garda, which comprises of monosyllabic utterances, normally “Yeah,” and a continuous nonverbal moaning sound, which she intones with different levels of stress to reflect her level of anxiety.
The major part of the dialogue is in the form of a text which deliberately speeds up to create further confusion and ambiguity. It is a fine example of how video can be used to alter the form of opera in order to make it more accessible when viewed via a screen.
“The Wait” by Emma O’Halloran and Mark O’Halloran is a real gem. It is a provocative work that grips the imagination; it is mysterious, it is frightening, it is atmospheric, everything is clearly told, yet we know so little.
A black horse is tied up in a neighbor’s yard as the floodwaters rise. A woman watches from an upstairs window as the horse thrashes around in the foaming waters before it drowns. Now she must wait as the water keeps rising to see if she will survive.
Mark O’Halloran’s dark text is concise and expertly crafted, for which Emma O’Halloran’s wonderfully evocative score, with its contrasting densities and textures, dark coloring, silences, repetitive rhythms which become more incessant as the water rises, complements so well. The woman who waits by the window is played by mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O’Connell. A splendid singing actress, she captures the essence of the character perfectly, her fear, her apprehension and her anxiety; every word, every phrase is given its full weight, every facial feature and body movement reflects her innermost feeling.
The director Michael Barker-Caven opted for a minimalist setting so that only camera angles, dark-colored lighting, water, and a strap to bind the woman’s arms are used to support O’Connell’s performance. With her exceptional ability to carry a role, it proved to be the right decision.
Having watched it a number of times, the thought that came to mind was that this piece would make an excellent part of a song cycle.
Three works dealt with psychological states of the human condition: “Rupture” by Éna Brennan, directed by Jo Mangan and conducted by Elaine Kelly; “Touch” by Karen Power to a text by Ione, directed by Jo Mangan and conducted by Fergus Sheil; “La Corbière” by Grainne Mulvey to a text by Anne Le Marquand Hartigan, directed by Jo Mangan and conducted by Fergus Sheil.
An unhealthy way of thinking can cause serious anxiety and/or behavioral problems, and all three operas consider this problem, but from very different angles. Brennan’s “Rupture” explores how a personality can become fractured by societal pressures.
A woman, played by soprano Rachel Goode, muses on the good things in her life but is subjected to negative thoughts and doubts, which are given a voice by mezzo-soprano Sarah Richmond. We watch the woman’s image start to fragment into two distinct images as the negative self starts to take form. It is a powerful metaphor which a video can present in a way that is beyond the means of a staged production. Goode’s voice is nicely suited to the bright fresh positive side of the self. Richmond’s voice being lower and darker creates an excellent contrast, especially when the two voice combine.
Brennan’s music begins serenely, gently cradling the voice, but becomes more distant, less supportive as the personality fragments. At the end, order is restored, but although the woman has returned to a balanced state, we are still able to see the second face. This is a work that successfully marries video with opera in an innovative, effective way.
In Power’s work, “Touch,” a man and a woman, played by baritone Gyula Nagy and mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O’Connell, are trapped in a mental prison of their own making; they are isolated, alone, unable to connect with the world and people about them. The pair are enclosed in two separate spaces, and we see them interacting with the images and sounds around them, to which they react with mainly non-verbal animal-like sounds. There are five words, however, which show them a pathway out of the nightmare, but they must listen.
Power’s music comprises isolated distinct sounds overlaid with noises from the natural world. The effect, when combined with the vocal sounds is to create an evocative and interesting sound-world, one which is surprisingly accessible and easy to engage with, one which is suggestive of primordial or prehistoric communication, and breaks through the artifice of the modern world.
“La Corbière” is a tense and disturbing work. It focuses on fear, specifically the fear of the other and of the unknown and the paralyzing effects which it can exert. Two sex workers, played by soprano Mairead Buicke and mezzo-soprano Anne Marie Gibbons, search for each other on board a ship that is enveloped in fog. The boat is careering towards the rocks and panic sets in; they can’t find each other, one cannot swim and the panic increases; they cannot find the lifeboats and the panic rises further. Men’s voices are heard among the fog. They cannot find safety. They are desperate.
Mulvey’s score is unrelenting, the tension and sense of anxiety are continually ramped up, the sound is discordant, angular, and anxious, playing to the sense of claustrophobia captured in the video. Buicke and Gibbons sing at the edge, their voices full of fear, desperation, and stress. It is not an easy piece to listen to, but it is dramatically effective.
Three works tackled the current pandemic: “Erthe Upon Erthe” by Andrew Hamilton using the text of a mediaeval English poem, directed by Jo Mangan and conducted by Fergus Sheil; “Dichotomies of Lockdown” by Jenn Kirby, directed by Aoife Spillane-Hinks and conducted by Elaine Kelly; “Close” by Hannah Peel to a text by Stella Feehily, directed by Sarah Baxter and conducted by Elaine Kelly. Each took very different approaches.
“Erthe Upon Erthe” was a truly harrowing piece set in the COVID ward of a hospital. The unrelenting pain and suffering were perfectly expressed in Hamilton’s uncompromising and disturbing score. Soprano Sinéad Campbell-Wallace produced an equally unsettling and painful vocal picture, with the camera lens constantly focused on her face, highlighting clearly the fear, anguish, and incomprehension in her eyes. Only towards the end does the music calm as death releases her from her suffering.
Despite having a truly off-putting title, “Dichotomies of Lockdown” is an expertly crafted work, which manages to successfully cram so much into seven short scenes. A window is opened onto the lives of two ordinary people, played by mezzo-soprano Aebh kelly and tenor Andrew Gavin, during the lockdown. We follow their obsessive, banal, and strange behavior as they react to the pressures of lockdown. It is at times funny, sometimes depressing, occasionally bizarre, all the more so for the fact that we can recognize in them aspects of our own behavior.
It was well-presented by Spillane-Hinks who, aided by designer Katie Davenport, had the couple act out the scenes in a simple set comprising a white table and two chairs in a bright white room, hinting at the confines of a cell in a mental institution. Kirby’s music changes with the scenes, sometimes calm, sometimes repetitive and obsessive, occasionally playful, but always accessible. Kelly and Gavin both give commendable performances, endowing the two characters with strong personalities.
Peel and Freehily’s “Close” may prove to be of interest to those with a sentimental outlook. A simple tale of a couple who overcome the COVID restrictions to find love, set against a lilac-pink colored sky, with autumn leaves littering the stage.
Peel’s music is suitably slushy, although not unattractive, while Freehily’s text is littered with clichés and right-on views. Soprano Rachel Croash and mezzo Raphaela Mangan play the starry-eyed couple, putting in good performances.
Two of the works set stories to music: “Through and Through” by Peter Fahey, directed by Anabelle Comyn and conducted by Fergus Sheil; “The Patient Woman” by Conor Linehan to a text by Louis Lovett, directed by Muireann Ahern and Louis Lovett, and conducted by Fergus Sheil
“Through and Through” is constructed in three scenes. It tells the tale of a woman who murders her lover, is taunted by a bird for what she has done and is then hanged, although it is not presented in a neat linear order.
Soprano Daire Halpin produces a strong and energetic performance as the woman, as she whispers, speaks, employs sprechstimme, makes heavy breathing sounds and whistles her way through the role, although using little in the way of what you would call traditional singing. She also utters the words of the bird and of her lover in the first person. The orchestra produces a disjointed collection of sounds to reflect the woman’s mental and emotional state. It is, in other words, an experimental work in which the viewer is expected to do a fair amount of work if they wish to gain a full understanding.
Linehan and Lovett’s “The Patient Woman” is tragicomedy in three acts. Set in the mid-20th century, it tells the story of a woman who is just too much trouble for her doctor to care about, and she knows it.
Although only short, it is such a well-constructed and well-presented work that by the end of the film, one can feel real sympathy for the patient who is about to die. Shot in black and white, the directors Ahern and Lovett play up the comedy in the piece for all it is worth, in particular using the nurse, played by Amelie Metcalfe, as a prop on which to hang the visual gags, which are actually quite amusing.
Mezzo-soprano Imelda Drumm produces a marvelous performance as the patient, taking a philosophical approach to the casual attitude of the doctor and even to her own death, in which her ability to inflect her voice with wonderful degrees of irony impresses. The doctor played by tenor Brenton Ryan was a suitable ne’er-do-well, and sang with the necessary disregard to convince. Linehan’s music was lively, accessible, caught the spirit of the age and is dramatically in line with the drama.
The final opera was “Libris Solar” by Jennifer Walsh. This is an intriguing and baffling work, the meaning of which is difficult to fathom. A video is playing of a man walking around deserted city streets dressed in a wet suit. In front of it sits a woman scientist dressed in a protective mask and suit. She explains he always wears the wet suit, needs doughnuts when his legs are restless and has algae living inside his body which he must feed. He is in fact part human, part non-human and part neoprene, and apparently he made a choice, but cannot make any more.
A speculative guess at what is going on could be that the scientist has experimented on the man, who willingly agreed to take part. He is transformed into a new life form, which is only part human, and in order to survive, he must feed the algae that live in his body. He took the decision to be a guinea pig, but now there is no way back. Both he and the scientist have a passion for doughnuts. Then again, this could be wrong.
The scientist is played by soprano Claudia Boyle. She has a pleasing voice and her performance appears to be a good one, although without knowing exactly what she was trying to achieve it is difficult to be certain about this. Walsh’s music is easy on the ear, calm and inoffensive, but easily fades into the background. There are also spoken inaudible voices repeating phrases periodically throughout the performance.
Unfortunately, this is a difficult work to appreciate as it is too obscure. Why, for example, is the scientist eating a pink doughnut?
Overall, the Irish National Opera’s strategy to embark on such a large-scale creative program of works has proven itself to be a good one. In engaging with the medium of streaming, rather than simply using it, they have created an experience for the viewer which far surpasses a streamed event created for the theatre.
The idea of creating “shots,” rather than longer works, was also an excellent decision. People can always find five to ten minutes during the day to watch one of the works on offer; finding two hours, however, can be problematic. Moreover, the quality of the works was excellent indeed; for sure, everyone has their own tastes, and it is unlikely anyone is going to enjoy everything on offer, but there will certainly be something to please everyone.