Artist John O’Brien and his part­ner Éadaoin O’Donoghue have writ­ten a new opera, Deirdre and the Sons of Usna

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - STAGE - MARY LE­LAND

When John O’Brien sug­gests that penury is a kind of op­por­tu­nity for the artist, he’s not ar­gu­ing for an in­ten­tional re­stric­tion of fund­ing re­sources. Al­though oth­ers work­ing with him in Cork might (and do) have a slightly dif­fer­ent at­ti­tude, O’Brien him­self is merely ex­plain­ing how so much of what is re­garded as his in­no­va­tive and imag­i­na­tive style in mu­sic and theatre is some­times among the few ben­e­fits of fi­nite re­sources.

“One of the things about work­ing in Ireland is that there’s not enough money for timely use,” he says. “There’s no dy­namic of proper fi­nan­cial in­fra­struc­ture al­low­ing for for­ward plan­ning. But there are choices where I can place my­self, in de­sign, di­rect­ing, com­pos­ing, con­duct­ing, I can fit into the sep­a­ra­tions be­tween the dif­fer­ent el­e­ments which make up the whole. I can place my­self in a mid­dle ground, work­ing al­most like an editor.”

An im­me­di­ate ex­am­ple of O’Brien’s flu­ent method­ol­ogy will be the pre­sen­ta­tion of the new opera Deirdre and the Sons of Usna at the Ev­ery­man on Jan­uary 28th. It is in­tended that this con­cert co-pro­duc­tion with Ev­ery­man, for which he has writ­ten the score to a li­bretto by Éadaoin O’Donoghue, will be de­vel­oped as a full or­ches­tral pro­duc­tion in 2021. And it’s ob­vi­ous that for O’Brien the mid­dle ground pro­vides a bridge be­tween dis­ci­plines and op­por­tu­ni­ties, from opera to theatre, from or­ches­tras to en­sem­bles, from – as with the Cork Proms com­ing in June – a sym­phonic stretch of Beethoven to The Bea­tles.

Also this year, he and the Ev­ery­man co-pro­duce the Sea Opera Tril­ogy , a tour­ing pro­duc­tion en­abled by an Arts Coun­cil grant of ¤290,000 for the three-act com­bi­na­tion of Ralph Vaughan Wil­liams’s set­ting of Rid­ers to the Sea by JM Synge di­rected by O’Brien, the pre­miere of Irene Buck­ley’s La­ment for Art O’Leary di­rected by So­phie Mot­ley, and the pre­miere of

Cois­céim, the an­cient reflection on ex­ile at­trib­uted some­what ten­ta­tively to Colm­cille and di­rected by chore­og­ra­pher Philip Con­naughton to O’Brien’s score. The tril­ogy is to visit Gal­way, Tal­laght and Wex­ford af­ter its open­ing in Cork in May.

Wider at­ten­tion

What may be prob­lem­atic in this pro­duc­tiv­ity is that it is hap­pen­ing un­der the radar of wider at­ten­tion. Ref­er­ence might be made to O’Brien’s work in Right Here, Right Now at the Cork Opera House next month. The some­what Beck­et­tian ti­tle is a pointer to what is avail­able here and now with this year’s con­certs fea­tur­ing, among oth­ers, Mick Flan­nery and Dó­nal Lunny and the Cork Opera House orches­tra.

“That’s a kind of mad thing, the orches­tra,” says O’Brien of the weighty rep­u­ta­tions un­der his ba­ton. “We’ve never had a pro­fes­sional orches­tra here, al­though we have many pro­fes­sional mu­si­cians. I think the orig­i­nal idea was from Eileen Glee­son, who as CEO of the Opera House was very con­scious that no opera was be­ing pro­duced in the city at all. We also dis­cussed it with Deirdre Long of the Cork Op­er­atic So­ci­ety be­cause we be­lieved that al­though ev­ery­thing to do with pro­fes­sional opera was be­ing cen­tralised again in Dublin, we could try a dif­fer­ent ap­proach with con­certs. No sets or cos­tumes, no weeks of re­hearsals, but able to pro­vide a cho­rus and mu­si­cians and to bring in bril­liant singers who could just turn up.”

They did turn up, and found an orches­tra of in­stru­men­tal­ists liv­ing and work­ing in Cork as teach­ers or free­lance per­form­ers, or liv­ing else­where but will­ing to re­turn when def­i­nite en­gage­ments made it worth­while. That was a start. Now, caught be­fore head­ing off to New York, Philip Con­naughton has no doubts.

“John O’Brien is a very im­por­tant ad­di­tion to theatre-mak­ing in this coun­try. Most of my work in opera has been with him. I’m work­ing more and more in Cork and the sense is that we want to go back again and again; there is that strong feel­ing of con­ti­nu­ity, of work­ing with sev­eral of the same peo­ple over a pe­riod of time, ap­pre­ci­at­ing the ridicu­lous amount of tal­ent, shar­ing the de­ter­mi­na­tion to get things done even though there’s not enough money and not enough time. I ab­so­lutely love it.”

For per­cus­sion­ist Alex Petcu, this could grow a long-de­sired pro­fes­sional orches­tra for the city. “Also, it’s great for grad­u­ates of the CIT Cork School of Mu­sic to know that there will be some­where here where they can work. John seems to be look­ing for peo­ple with a style of their own as op­posed to be­ing con­tent to do what they’re told. But it’s not re­ally in­for­mal, the way we work to­gether, there’s a dis­ci­pline of want­ing to play your best be­cause all the oth­ers are play­ing their best.”

Ac­com­plished and ex­pe­ri­enced

These are ac­com­plished and ex­pe­ri­enced per­form­ers: Con­naughton with his in­ter­na­tional scope; Alan Smale, re­tired leader of the NSO as leader of the Opera House Con­cert Orches­tra; and a core group in­clud­ing Petcu, Marja Gaynor, Ma­jella Cul­lagh, Ciara Moroney, Kim Shee­han and Ju­lian Tovey to name only a few.

Speak­ing from the buzz of a good year at Ev­ery­man, artis­tic di­rec­tor Julie Kelle­her be­lieves that the de­ci­sion to put re­sources into stag­ing con­cert per­for­mances of new op­er­atic work in­tended for fur­ther de­vel­op­ment is be­gin­ning to show re­sults. It’s still a long haul, made no eas­ier by hav­ing to ap­ply for fund­ing year by year rather than be­ing able to make long-term plans.

“All the same, we’re mak­ing them be­cause Ev­ery­man is look­ing at how it can grow as a pro­moter of new work by Ir­ish com­posers, es­pe­cially af­ter last year’s suc­cess­ful pro­duc­tion of The Nightin­gale and the Rose, with O’Brien di­rect­ing his own score to Éadaoin O’Donoghue’s li­bretto.”

Part­ners in per­sonal as well as pro­fes­sional life, O’Brien and O’Donoghue col­lab­o­rate again on Deirdre. Such an im­mer­sion in Ir­ish leg­end was surely some­thing of a leap for O’Donoghue, a grad­u­ate of the Jacques


We be­lieved that al­though ev­ery­thing to do with pro­fes­sional opera was be­ing cen­tralised again in Dublin, we could try a dif­fer­ent ap­proach . . no sets or cos­tumes, no weeks of re­hearsals


Le­coq In­ter­na­tional School in Paris?

“It’s cer­tainly a leap from there to Ir­ish myth in mu­sic, but it gave me a vo­cab­u­lary of cre­ativ­ity and of con­struc­tion for the theatre,” she says. “What I can bring to opera is a sense of ex­cite­ment in mixing the­atri­cal­ity with mu­sic. It’s im­por­tant to take those leaps, to have an ap­petite for ad­ven­ture.”

Cur­rently artist-in-res­i­dence with Cor­cadorca, she adds that Deirdre is a story which has been part of Ireland’s cul­tural DNA al­most since the Iron Age. “We wanted to go into that Ir­ish mytho­log­i­cal prove­nance and pro­duce some­thing bold and dar­ing, to write an Ir­ish op­er­atic epic.”

Its epic fu­ture may de­pend on Ev­ery­man’s sup­port of an Opera Friends or­gan­i­sa­tion charged ini­tially with find­ing a com­mis­sion fee for a large-scale pre­sen­ta­tion of Deirdre. As with so much else, O’Brien is philo­soph­i­cal.

“We don’t have a re­cent his­tory of mu­si­cal phi­lan­thropy in Cork, so we’re build­ing that. We have a beau­ti­ful ca­ma­raderie among the play­ers now and I think there’s a pride in mak­ing some­thing which will be sus­tain­able into the fu­ture, rather than on a gig-to-gig ba­sis.”

The gigs, how­ever, are be­com­ing pro­grammes for O’Brien, with three opera con­certs for the Opera House from Fe­bru­ary to Novem­ber, the Sea Opera Tril­ogy in May, the Proms for the Mid­sum­mer Fes­ti­val in June, work as pi­ano ac­com­pa­nist for Karen Un­der­wood and as mu­si­cal di­rec­tor for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Opera House from July to Septem­ber. There’s a hint of life’s rich ta­pes­try in this sched­ule, but mu­sic in all its vari­a­tions from the clas­sics to the con­tem­po­rary is the mo­ti­va­tor for O’Brien.

“My job is my life. I’m a mu­si­cal the­atremaker, I’ve al­ways been about mak­ing things that move peo­ple.”

Re­flect­ing on the forth­com­ing Sea Tril­ogy and on Cois­céim, O’Brien be­lieves that the ex­pe­ri­ences of peo­ple who live on this is­land are ex­pressed in terms of the land or the sea. He’s in­ter­ested too in hear­ing how Vaughan Wil­liams’s ar­range­ment of Synge’s play will sound in Ir­ish voices. As for Beethoven, “I’m ex­cited about that. The big clas­sics are big for a rea­son and those sym­phonies sound re­ally op­er­atic to me; they’re not in­ti­mate, they’re huge dra­matic state­ments. I feel con­nected to that world.”

Kelle­her de­scribes O’Brien’s in­flu­ence on both the Ev­ery­man and the Opera House as “pretty sin­gu­lar”, al­though “there’s noth­ing of the tor­tured au­teur about him. He’s deeply pas­sion­ate about the work and his em­pha­sis is al­ways on col­lab­o­ra­tion rather than hi­er­ar­chi­cal struc­tures. But ba­si­cally it’s about the mu­sic. Peo­ple come to the theatre to be moved, and time and again he de­liv­ers on that ex­pec­ta­tion. That’s his pri­or­ity. All the time.”

Deirdre and the Sons of Usna is at the Ev­ery­man Theatre, Cork, on Jan­uary 28th

Éadaoin O’Donoghue and John O’Brien: ‘We wanted to go into that Ir­ish mytho­log­i­cal prove­nance and pro­duce some­thing bold and dar­ing, to write an Ir­ish op­er­atic epic,’ says O’Donoghue

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