Cork librettist Éadaoin O’Donoghue.

Opera to banish those ‘old fashioned ghosts’

Michael Olney

A delicate balance must be struck when building a contemporary opera from the ground up, and it seems that balance lies somewhere between calm and coffee.

That’s according to Cork librettist Éadaoin O’Donoghue whose new opera ‘Morrígan’, created with composer John O’Brien, will debut this evening, Thursday, at Cork Opera House.

Already billed as Cork’s biggest stage production of the summer (and possible ever), ‘Morrígan’ represents the 1st time in several years that a large-scale operatic production will originate on the Opera House stage.

‘Morrígan’, who is the Irish Goddess of death and fate, is the 3rd major collaboration between O’Brien and O’Donoghue and tells the story of Deirdre and the Sons of Usna, and of a king corrupted by lust and revenge who drags his kingdom to its doom. It is based on the Irish mythological story known to many as ‘Deirdre of the Sorrows’.

The show is less than 2 hours long and full of colour and action, a deliberate and important effort by Éadaoin and John to dissolve the “cultural mirage” that opera is a somewhat exclusive form of entertainment.

“It is an old fashioned ghost that haunts opera,” explains Éadaoin. “The number 1 myth from people in my life when I tell them I'm writing opera, they go, 'Oh, I wouldn't be cultured enough to understand that'. I immediately counter with, 'Well, if the story is boring or if it doesn't touch you or move you, that doesn't mean you're not cultured, it just means that maybe the show wasn't good’.

“Often older stories and older operas were written for a different time and a different cultural sensitivity. John, as a composer and opera freak, is always trying to put movement and colour and very strict storytelling plot points in so that at no point people are going 'What's going on?'.

“People have come to us and said 'Wow, I never knew opera could be like that'. It's just telling a story through music and singing and the stakes are high because the drama needs to be integrated with the music, with the setting, with the acting. When opera comes together, it's the most amazing collaboration and it should move you.

“I think it's very important to remember that it's just a show, you know? If you like operas, then you like operas. It doesn't mean you're some sort of elitist. It is for everyone. It's an artform for the people and we want everybody to come and get lost in the magic of it.”

If their past 2 collaborations, ‘The Nightingale & the Rose’ and ‘Lilith’ are anything to go by, Éadaoin and John are making massive strides towards their goal of bringing opera to all audiences, but Éadaoin says there are some core elements of opera that have been in place since the 17th century that can’t be messed with.

“Opera singers don't have mics, their voices are trained to fill a theatre. They can hit the back wall but they can't do that if they're not facing the audience, but that doesn’t mean they have to be static for the whole thing. There’s an awful lot to enjoy visually. We can have movement around them, we can add all kinds of things to support. We have actors who might be dancers, we have actor-musicians such as percussionists, basically every possible drum you can imagine on stage in full view. The percussionists are like the storytellers because the percussion kind of frames everything.

“I think with old-style opera, it would have been, you know, an opera singer would walk on stage, da da da da da, and then sing the hit that everybody wants to hear, maybe Nessun Dorma. Now, I’ve seen productions like that which have been wonderful as well and they know what they are, but my background is in theatre and I will always be focusing on moment to moment. What is happening in this moment? What is everybody feeling? What is the audience feeling? Is it clear? Do they understand what this person is going through?"

Overall, this production requires an orchestra of 24 people, a principle cast of 21 and a chorus of 23 and Éadaoin says the only way to make it all work is to remain calm and to have plenty of coffee close to hand. She also said that, in terms of nerves, she is most affected on the first night and on the last night.

“We're in the trenches at the moment, it’s very intense. You're kind of like a general going into battle. On the last day (of preparation) it's handed over to the crew and there's nothing more you can do. You need to be very calm and have access to lots of coffee.”

Before finishing the interview and returning to “the trenches” of the last few days of preparation, Éadaoin has 1 last message to the people of Cork who are still uncertain whether opera is something they might enjoy: “People might be afraid of being bored or feeling not part of it, that it's not for them, that it's for somebody with a PHD in opera. No, it's for anybody who wants to go into a theatre and be moved and laugh and certainly cry.

“It's a pretty epic love story. I'm a hopeless romantic and I went all-in on this, so there's big emotions, big love. There's also a massive battle scene. There will be 45 people on the stage hammering the s**t out of each other. We have also found all kinds of humorous moments of lightness and joy.”

‘Morrígan’ runs from tonight, Thursday, until Sunday 31 June at Cork Opera House. Those wishing to get tickets are advised to book immediately as seats are in short supply.