My Weekend: There's chinks of light now as theatres are streaming gigs...

Composer, conductor and piano player John O'Brien from Cork city tells us about how his weekends have changed in 2020
My Weekend: There's chinks of light now as theatres are streaming gigs...

John O’Brien. Picture: Jed Niezgoda /

Tell us a little bit about yourself:

I’m John O’Brien from, and living in, Cork city, in a tiny house in the city centre. I am a composer, conductor, director and piano player, and I work in opera and theatre, often at the Opera House and The Everyman. I’ve written four operas, lots of theatre music, a few film scores, orchestral and choral pieces. I wrote the music for ‘Lilith’, the album, with Éadaoin O’Donoghue who wrote the lyrics, and for Karen Underwood to sing. We recorded it live last year at the Cork Midsummer Festival, and now we’e released it as an album on Bandcamp.

What is your ideal way to spend a Friday night?

Up until last March, I’d often be working on a Friday night - conducting a concert or an opera, or maybe playing a gig with Karen. That is my real ideal way to spend a Friday night!

It’s obviously been much different since then - where almost every night has been a night off at home. There’s a few chinks of light now with theatres streaming gigs. I did streamed concerts with Karen, and with Majella Cullagh, from the Everyman. I’m directing a live broadcast of a reading of Marina Carr’;s play ‘The Cordelia Dream’; this Saturday. And we streamed ‘Lilith’; from the stage of the Opera House last weekend. Weekends are starting to have a bit of life again for me after a long absence.

John O’Brien. Picture: Jed Niezgoda /
John O’Brien. Picture: Jed Niezgoda /

Lie ins or up with the lark.. which is it for you?

I was always a night owl, and used to be able to sleep for ages. Like lots of people, lockdown has really messed with my sleep patterns. So now I could be awake at 3, or 5, or 6 or 9...

Does work creep into your weekend at all?

Work usually revolved around audiences, and therefore weekends. Most gigs will be Thursday to Sunday. Rehearsal periods tend to be more of a formal Monday to Saturday, but even then - if there are children, or amateurs involved in the cast - it might mean Monday is the day off.

If money was no object where would you head to on a weekend city break? And who would you bring with you?

I miss travelling - going to see theatre, opera and concerts in London, New York, Berlin with my girlfriend. But all of those places are very changed now, and it will take them a long time to recover. For now, I’d settle for somewhere sunny, and with a bit of Nature!

Closer to home, is there some place you like to head to recharge the batteries?

It’s been very tough living in the city centre with the travel restrictions. Any beach is great, especially if it’s deserted - feeling small in the giant universe, the constancy of the waves, the fresh air.

John O’Brien. Picture: Jed Niezgoda /
John O’Brien. Picture: Jed Niezgoda /

Do you like to catch up with family/friends at the weekend?

Often family and friends come to performances, and we can hang out and celebrate after.

Working in music and theatre, often my friends are my colleagues too. It’s been very strange not meeting very many people over the last few months, and I’ve found zoom quite weird and stressful. But it seems a price worth paying to keep my more vulnerable family and friends safe.

Do you get to indulge any hobbies? Even as a spectator?

Work and life are completely intertwined. Music, theatre, books, tv and film are all both hobbies and creative influences. And I love being in the audience as much as I love performing.

Entertain or be entertained? If it’s the latter do you have a signature dish?

Both. I love cooking. There’s no signature dish - I like to be inventive and try new things. I’ll try to buy local, and cook what’s in season. I’ll often research multiple takes on a recipe, then make it my own. I also love when someone else cooks - it’s the act of sharing that’s most important.

We have so many places to eat out in Cork - where are your go to spots for coffee/ lunch/ special meal?

Coffee: Filter, Soma, Alchemy. Lunch: Sandwich Stall (in the market), Farm Gate, Crawford Art Gallery. Dinner: Da Mirco, Elbow Lane, Yuan Ming Yuan.

Sunday night comes around too fast.. how do you normally spend it?

Performing, and then celebrating, or preparing diligently (often what I procrastinated doing previously) for tomorrow’s rehearsal.

What time does your alarm clock go off on Monday morning?

It usually doesn’t. Monday is often my Sunday.

The album Lilith is now available on John’s Bandcamp – Enjoy a thrilling cabaret-style song cycle by Éadaoin O Donoghue and John O’Brien, performed by Karen Underwood, with Dave Whitla on bass, Fionn Ó Ceallacháin on drums, and John O’Brien on piano and recorded live at the Cork Midsummer Festival 2019. See https://johnobrien-

  • This Saturday, November 21, The Everyman presents The Cordelia Dream, by Marina Carr and directed by John O’Brien, as part of Play It by Ear, a programme of shows for The Everyman stage and available on live audio broadcast. Tickets €9 are available from

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