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The risk and reward challenges facing Irish National Opera and Wexford

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Have you been following Joyce Flaherty lately? I have. The New York Times carried an interview with her earlier this month, under the title “Opera’s Miss Congeniality takes on a rare Cinderella”. The article’s mention of rare opera and the singer’s penchant for offbeat repertoire started me thinking about the international world of opera into which the new Irish National Opera company has been born.

Joyce Flaherty, of course, is not known to the world by that name. The Kansas-born Irish-American mezzo soprano is famous as Joyce DiDonato, though she has drawn attention to her Irish heritage when performing at the National Concert Hall. DiDonato has been described in the Guardian as “the most critically acclaimed and popular mezzo soprano of our day”.

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I’ve had a niggling question in my head for years about Ireland’s musical diaspora. It’s a really simple one. Why don’t we connect with them more?

The question first came to me in that way in relation to the American experimental composer Henry Cowell (1897-1965), the man who is credited with having invented the tone cluster, a technique which involves playing groups of adjacent notes simultaneously, which on the piano you can do with your fists, palms, elbows or arms. The New Grove Dictionary of Music traces the technique back to Cowell’s The Tides of Manaunaun which it dates to 1912, although the piece did not reach its final form until 1917.

The most current reference point for tone clusters in 2018 is probably György Ligeti’s orchestral work, Atmosphères, which was used half a century ago in the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

One of Cowell’s most celebrated piano compositions of the 1920s is The Banshee, a piece full of eerie sounds generated by sweeping the flesh of the fingers along the strings of the piano. It’s one of a large number of pieces in which Cowell connected his avant-garde musical explorations with his Irish heritage. His father Harry, who emigrated to the US in the late 19th century, was the son of George Cowell, who served as dean of Kildare Cathedral from 1890 to 1913.

Irish connection

The Irish connection with the New York Times Joyce DiDonato piece extends beyond the singer herself. The Cinderella opera of the article’s title is not the best known of operatic Cinderellas, Rossini’s La Cenerentola, but the much less well-known one in French, Massenet’s Cendrillon, which opened its first-ever run at the Met last Thursday.

Cendrillon actually made it to Ireland before it made it to the Met. It was presented by Wexford Festival Opera in 1987, and its arrival at the Met is indicative of an issue that challenges both Wexford and INO.

Wexford specialises in rare opera. But operas that not so long ago seemed rare are now being taken up more and more by non-specialist opera houses.

The very name Irish National Opera sets out a stall that suggests the new company wants to present the same kind of work that you’ll find in opera houses from London to Los Angeles, Tallinn to Toronto, or Vienna to Vancouver.

But there’s no denying that since the Arts Council facilitated the demise of Opera Ireland in 2010 momentum has been lost in the world of Irish opera. The nexus that Opera Ireland had built up of audiences and supporters has dissipated, and it’s likely to take years for INO to establish anything comparable.

The company’s current production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro at the Gaiety Theatre is on the way to selling out. But, although the Met is one of the most conservative opera houses on the planet, it’s hard to see INO being in a position to risk productions of Verdi’s Luisa Miller, Rossini’s Semiramide, or Massenet’s Thaïs, works which feature in the Met’s current season.

The same questions arise if you look at the repertoire of the Royal Opera in Covent Garden. Could INO undertake Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes, Semiramide (again, with Joyce DiDonato) or Janacek’s From the House of the Dead, let alone the string of new works that feature in the current season?

Viable proposition

It’s an interesting question whether the presence of someone like Joyce DiDonato would make, say, Semiramide, or even Cendrillon a viable proposition for INO. On paper, at least, it’s easier to think about whether INO’s budget would make the company a viable proposition for the singer.

The repertoire gambits of well-established opera companies around the world have put pressure on the uniqueness of what is presented in Wexford. One strand of artistic director David Agler’s response has been to embrace the once-unthinkable by programming new work: Peter Ash’s The Golden Ticket in 2010, Kevin Puts’s Silent Night in 2014 and, on a smaller scale, courtesy of Opera Theatre Company, Andrew Synnott’s Dubliners in 2017. William Bolcom’s Dinner at Eight will continue this strand in October.

Irish composers, however, continue to be absent from the festival’s main stage, and just two Irish singers feature in the cast lists for the main operas of the 2018 festival: Sharon Carty as Lucy Talbot in Dinner at Eight, and Jennifer Davis as Violetta in Mercadante’s Il Bravo. In this regard INO and Wexford could hardly be more different.

Wexford has announced that Agler will vacate his post in 2019. It’s going to be interesting to see what changes of direction his successor will bring when he or she takes up the role in an Irish operatic environment that’s radically different to the one Agler encountered on his appointment back in 2005.