How to move mountains: a story of Irish opera

Fergus Sheil

Opera is one of the costliest art forms in the world - but, as Wide Open Opera artistic director FERGUS SHIEL has learned, collaboration can get you places you’d never dreamed possible, and having an expensive imagination is an asset, not a liability. Here he discusses the processes that brought Nixon in China to the Irish stage in 2014, the rich early education he got from creating community-centred work, and how to remain patient and forward-moving when playing the long game  

Over the past three years, opera has become an ever-larger part of my professional work, and in this period I’ve produced and/or conducted 16 different operas: nine contemporary works by Irish composers, one contemporary American work (Nixon in China), and six standard repertoire works by the likes of Mozart, Puccini, Verdi and Wagner. I’m also involved in planning another four new works, including Gas by Donnacha Dennehy (music) and Enda Walsh (text), which has received funding for 2015 and will be performed in Edinburgh, Dublin and London, later touring to New York in 2016.

These opportunities have given me the chance to reflect on many aspects of the production of new operas. This article will share some of the issues that I have faced over this period from the point of view of an opera producer, outlining how different productions have come into being.

One of the first things to note is that there are many different models for opera creation. These depend to some extent on artistic motivation, but also to a degree on practical considerations. Who will perform it? Where will it be performed? Who will fund it? What size budget is available…? It seems anti-artistic almost to immediately bring these practical considerations into the equation, but these factors have a big effect on determining if an opera will ever move from the printed page into production.

Community opera and the usefulness of thinking big

The first opera I produced was Shelter Me From the Rain by Brian Irvine (music) and John McIlduff (text), a public art commission for Carlow Local Authorities in May 2011. This involved 100 locally-based singers who were specially trained over a full year and a 12-member ensemble from the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, with performances in the newly-built GB Shaw Theatre in Carlow. The opera took stories from people in Carlow and reflected them in a series of non-narrative scenes. The project represented the first-ever opera commission through the Per Cent for Art scheme. It was first suggested by myself in January of 2008, coming to fruition over three years later. The opera subsequently won the 2011 Allianz Business to Arts award for Best Use of Creativity in the Community. The budget for this opera was in the region of €250,000, with approximately half of this contributed through the commission fund.

I learned a number of important things from this. At the time, Carlow Local Authorities were looking for some commissioning ideas; however, nobody was thinking of anything this ambitious in scale or budget. I presented a document with a menu of four options, the opera being the most extravagant and ambitious. I immediately saw that this sparked interest among local stakeholders and it became clear to me that something that was that audacious would make people sit up and pay attention. Once Carlow Local Authorities agreed to the project, it was then easy to attract other supporters. Carlow VEC, the Arts Council, The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, local businesses, RTÉ Lyric FM, etc. The implausibility of the project became the very thing that ensured its viability. It was this thinking that helped me choose Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde as the first project for the new company I founded a year later – Wide Open Opera.

Wide Open Opera: the meeting of old and new forms

When I founded Wide Open Opera in 2012, I was clear that I wanted to present both newly written opera as well as works from the existing repertoire. This was a very conscious decision that new opera should not be restricted to a company with a remit just to do new work, but needs to be experienced in the context of the broad spectrum of operatic endeavour.

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde was an exciting starting point, but at around the same time I spoke to composers Gerald Barry, Raymond Deane, Donnacha Dennehy and Brian Irvine: and I’m pleased that works by all four composers will have been featured in the first three years of our operation. Also in this period we will have presented John Adams’ Nixon in China and we are making plans for more Wagner and some Rossini in the years ahead.

For the audience, performances of operas may just pop up in certain theatres and they can buy a ticket and come along. For the opera producer, it doesn’t happen quite so easily.

The Importance of Being Earnest and the power of collaboration

Gerald Barry’s entertaining new opera The Importance of Being Earnest (see YouTube clip below) was, from my perspective, the easiest new Irish opera to bring to production. The opera had already been jointly commissioned by the LA Philharmonic and the Barbican in London, and had been performed in concert in both Los Angeles and London. During 2013 there were three different staged productions of the opera: one in the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; one in Nancy in France; and our one in Ireland, which was a co-production between Wide Open Opera and NI Opera.

The co-production brought an element of financial security to the project: it allowed us access to public funding from Northern Ireland as well as the Republic, and it gave us the opportunity to show the production in Derry, Belfast, Cork and Dublin. Without the collaboration of NI Opera, it is questionable if Wide Open Opera could have produced this opera on its own, and certainly not to the same high production standard. We had a cast of top international singers, a wonderful production team led by Antony McDonald (director and designer), and the 21-member Crash Ensemble conducted by Pierre-André Valade.

Managing the budget for this opera was a complex matter – and at the time of writing, about a year after the performances, not all matters are finalised. The total budget was close to €600,000, with 85% coming from public sector grants on both sides of the border, 5% from sponsorship and partnerships and 10% from box office earnings. This final 10% may seem small in the overall context, but this is the bit that keeps you awake at night. Not only does the producer rely on the response of the public to balance the books, but having a strong attendance validates the decision to undertake this production in the first place.

Gerald is a highly regarded composer in Ireland and The Importance of Being Earnest is a well-known and much-loved title, so this should have been easy. Yet, one week before the Dublin performances, booking for the Gaiety was in the region of 10%. At the last minute it rose so that we had over 80% occupancy for both shows. But this was a nail-biting time…

The lessons I learned here were about the benefits of co-production, sharing responsibilities and sharing risk. The fact that we worked with NI Opera allowed us to mount a very high-quality production. Although the production gained high visibility in the national media, I still came away with a sense of caution at the speed of audience response to this.

The Alma Fetish: long journeys

Unlike The Importance of Being Earnest, this was an opera in which I had some involvement in its development. It was a process that pre-dated Wide Open Opera by a long time: and the story of how The Alma Fetish (see YouTube clip below) developed, and whether it will go further in the future, is an example of how protracted and complex the process of developing new opera can be.

The original idea for this opera came from artist Pauline Bewick, who suggested the scenario to Ethna Tinney, then producer of opera in RTÉ Lyric FM in 2006. The plot was based on the true story of Oskar Kokoschka’s infatuation with Alma Mahler, their brief and tempestuous affair, his participation in World War I, and his replacement of Alma with a specially commissioned life-size doll.

Ethna proposed the idea to Raymond Deane, who has a particular interest in Viennese art and music of the period around World War I, and he was commissioned by RTÉ Lyric FM to write one scene of the six-scene opera. Gavin Kostick wrote the libretto. This scene was then recorded by myself with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in January of 2009, and broadcast on a special documentary programme on Lyric FM.

There the matter lay for some time. Raymond, however, having started, wanted to finish. He subsequently applied for some Arts Council support through bursaries and projects: successfully on some occasions, unsuccessfully on others. Finally the opera was completed in full by the beginning of 2013.

The RTÉ NSO, having being involved in the earlier part of the opera’s development, were keen to take things to the next stage. With Wide Open Opera I managed to structure an agreement between the orchestra and the NCH and to get some funding from the Arts Council for an enhanced concert performance of the opera in the National Concert Hall in September of 2013. This involved projections of visuals by Pauline Bewick on a screen above the orchestra, and a concert performance with singers located in different parts of the NCH and effects created by lighting design. We had a cast of four principal singers and a chorus of 24, with many of the chorus also taking additional roles. We also had dancer Megan Kennedy representing the doll coming to life. The opera was recorded by RTÉ Lyric FM.

The single concert performance that was given is what I would regard as the second-last step in the development of this opera. The final step will be a fully staged production, if that takes place. I have been on the lookout for some time for a possible partner: for example, an international opera company or festival that might collaborate on a full production. Although I have not yet secured one, it is still something that I would very much like to see happen.

Things We Throw Away and the de-mystification of opera

I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with Brian Irvine (composer) and John McIlduff (librettist) on a number of occasions. I worked first with Brian in 2007 on The Tailor’s Daughter, a youth opera that was commissioned by Welsh National Opera and performed as part of the Belfast Festival that year. In 2008 I was part of the team for Brian and John’s first opera together, Dumbworld, which benefited from an earlier version of the Arts Council’s Opera Project grant. I was pleased that they could both work with me for Shelter Me from the Rain in Carlow in 2011, and we worked together again a year later on a major orchestra/choral/installation piece for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad in Belfast called Nest.

In Carlow, part of our motivation was to de-mystify opera for people who never normally participate in or attend operas. We did this by bringing together a big performance company from Carlow and working with them for over a year. Approximately 100 people participated and 1,000 people attended the performances.

We subsequently had the opportunity to undertake another public-art opera commission, this time for Dublin City Council. This was planned from 2011, but took until 2014 to bring to fruition for a variety of reasons to do with funding cycles and the availability of the artists. Here we wanted to once again de-mystify opera, particularly new opera, but we didn’t want to approach the task in exactly the same way. Rather than expecting people to come to a theatre to see new opera, we decided to take opera out to the streets and to public places and to bring it to people that would never encounter it normally.

We developed a scenario for five different short operas – each between five and 10 minutes in duration. Each had a slightly different story under the umbrella title Things We Throw Away. One, for example, was a love song between a discarded iron and ironing board, reflecting on better days when they were at the centre of a busy household. Another focused on the camaraderie and sense of community among smokers on a cigarette break outside an office building, knowing what they were doing was killing them, but enjoying the sense of belonging. A third opera told the story of two elderly women with walking aids, in a slow-motion chase of an elderly man (also on a zimmer frame) who has been unfaithful to one of them. A fourth involved a father-and-son scene outside a pub where the son has fallen asleep and the father is thinking back to better times when he was a child. The final opera looked at the life of the Banana Lady who sells bananas on Capel St, her stern outer expression in contrast to that of the playful bananas that come alive and sing jazzy Latin music, to her annoyance.

Each of the five operas was performed four times over one weekend in July 2014, and each was captured on film. The operas were sung live, with a portable PA relaying a soundtrack that had been specially recorded with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.

The idea is that the performances are not just for the public that encountered them on the street, but that you will be able to go online and view a whole opera, on your laptop, tablet or phone, in under 10 minutes. It’s like an operatic gift from Wide Open Opera, funded by Dublin City Council, to audiences anywhere. These videos are currently in editing phase and will be released online later in 2014.

Getting to know The Oldest Woman in Limerick

Another project also involving Brian Irvine and John McIlduff is a Wide Open Opera production for Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick as part of Limerick City of Culture 2014. This opera will be performed on Dec 12 and 13 in Lime Tree Theatre.

Once again, this is an opera with a community focus. There is a professional cast and orchestra, with a community choir assembled for the occasion. The major involvement of the community, however, has been in contributing the stories. Weeks of research in Limerick were framed by the quest to find the actual oldest woman in Limerick. To date, this appears to be a 104-year-old nun, Sr Anthony. But it’s not just the stories we have heard from Sr Anthony  that have made it into the opera, but in fact the entire process of research: going to the post office, or the genealogy centre; meeting people in residential homes; hearing stories of friends and relations. All these and more have given rise to a series of vignettes that, taken together, will provide a powerful insight into our lives and the lives of others around us.

This project is funded by a grant from Limerick City of Culture and by a project grant from the Arts Council. It is a partnership between Lime Tree Theatre and Wide Open Opera. The impetus came from Louise Donlan, manager of the theatre, who had seen the Carlow opera in 2011 and wanted to create something that in a similar way addressed the lives of everyday people through the medium of opera. One of the aspects of Brian Irvine and John McIlduff’s work that I particularly like is that no matter what the subject matter, everything so often relates back to human interactions and choices in a way that anybody can understand and relate to. I’m hopeful that this new opera will offer something meaningful in this regard also.

The power of collaboration, pt 2: Gas

One of my first phone calls after forming Wide Open Opera in 2012 was to composer Donnacha Dennehy, to enquire about his opera Gas. Donnacha and I were in college together at TCD and later I worked with him for Crash Ensemble for a couple of years, so I have been across much of his work and I knew that this idea for a new opera was one that had been with him for the best part of 10 years. Gas is a psychological-thriller type of opera, centring on a woman who hires people to help her as she plans to end her life.

Gas had received some workshops and development grants previously, but Donnacha was unsure about its direction. Shortly before I spoke to him in 2012, he had met and worked with playwright Enda Walsh – and he wanted to start Gas again, this time with Enda.

In my first Wide Open Opera meeting, I had breakfast with Donnacha and Enda in Dublin, and Enda came on board. In what was an inspired move, they asked me to co-produce with Anne Clarke of Landmark Productions, who at the time I didn’t know. Landmark, of course, has produced many of Enda’s plays, including Misterman, Ballyturk and The Walworth Farce.

Anne Clarke brings to the table a huge amount of theatrical, marketing and commercial experience, combined with an enviable roster of international contacts. I bring experience of opera production and an entirely different set of contacts here in Ireland and internationally.

Together since early 2012 we have agreed a timeline for writing of the opera with Walsh and Dennehy, secured co-production agreement in principle from three international festivals/venues in Edinburgh, London and New York, agreed a plan for Irish performances of the opera in September/October 2015, secured support from the Arts Council and Culture Ireland, assembled a cast and creative team, secured agreement from Crash Ensemble to perform – and we’ve been shortlisted for a major international philanthropy award for international co-productions. We plan to give 28 performances of this opera in four centres in late 2015 and early 2016, with a total budget of over €1m.

I’ve learned from this the value of working with people who have complimentary skills, experience and contacts to my own. The process has also encouraged me to see opera from a broader context than I might have before. Coming from a musical background, I would always have viewed opera as something that a composer writes. But here, notwithstanding Donnacha Dennehy’s immense international success, Enda Walsh with his astonishing theatrical credentials is undoubtedly also a major factor that draws international co-producers. The roster of international co-producers then hugely strengthens the case when applying for funding. The funding then allows us to pitch the opera to cast and creative teams at a very high level. The whole process becomes a virtuous circle. The process reminds me a lot of my first production in Carlow. If the idea is attractive enough, people will get behind it.

Rosemary Kennedy and future directions

As a postscript, I’ll sign off with a few details of another opera that is taking its first steps into the world in 2015. Whether it will grow to full size, nobody knows!

The concept here is to develop an opera around the story of Rosemary Kennedy, sister of JFK. Rosemary was socially awkward, perhaps without the same IQ as the rest of her over-achieving family. Her father, Joe, mortally embarrassed, organised for a quack doctor to perform a frontal lobotomy on the 23-year-old Rosemary. The operation was performed while she was awake, and she was encouraged to sing as they hacked away parts of her brain. When she could no longer sing, they stopped. Rosemary was institutionalised for the rest of her life, living on into her 80s, all but completely abandoned by her family.

The idea for this opera came from Laurence Roman, who has written the libretto. Brian Irvine will compose the music. We would like to develop an opera on a large scale with full orchestra, cast and chorus. This may prove too ambitious. In the meantime we have just secured a project development grant from the Arts Council, and in early 2015 we will begin the composition of some scenes; we will record these with the RTÉ NSO and begin the process of looking for a co-producing partner, most likely in the US in the first instance. It will be 2018 at the earliest before this opera is performed, if we get that far. We are now taking baby steps at the beginning of the process. But as we’ve seen, these processes do take many years, so it’s important to have several operas at different stages of development.

Watch this space, but watch other spaces also. I’m in conversation with a lot of different composers and writers. It’s my view that there is a lot of creative potential in Ireland from many different artists. Although we are a country without major institutions such as a national opera company, it may be possible over time that we can focus on the development of new opera and eventually win international recognition in this sphere.

Fergus Sheil is Artistic Director of Wide Open Opera and Opera Theatre Company. See and

Main photo (at top): Barry Ryan and Claudia Boyle as President Richard M Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon in 'Nixon in China', Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin, May 2014