Going Wilde for a new opera

Award-winning composer and director John O’Brien brings a new opera to Cork this month, inspired by the writings of Oscar Wilde. He talks to COLETTE SHERIDAN about the phenomenal cast, why opera is open to all, and calls for more funding for the arts in Ireland.
Going Wilde for a new opera

BRINGING OPERA TO THE STAGE: John O’Brien, director and composer of The Nightingale and the Rose, with Eadaoin O’Donoghue, associate director of the opera, at the launch of the new autumn season for the Everyman Theatre, Cork. Picture: Alison Miles /OSM PHOTO

COMPOSER and director, John O’Brien, is realising a long-held ambition in transforming Oscar Wilde’s story, The Nightingale and the Rose into an opera.

The world premiere of the opera opens at the Everyman on October 13 and promises to be an enchanting spectacle with music to suit its poignant theme.

Award-winning John, originally from Glasheen, is renowned for his imaginative and accessible approach to opera. His previous operas at the Everyman include Pagliacci, Der Vampyr and Faust.

As a teenager, John was “obsessed with Oscar Wilde”. For him, The Nightingale and the Rose is one of the most beautiful, amazing short stories.

“It is so well-crafted. Every sentence in it is vital. it’s poignant and sad and has a delicacy and pathos about it. It kind of reminds me of Harry Clarke’s stained glass windows and Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations with their fine detail. The story is also infused with colour with its adjectives and adverbs, describing colour,” he said.

Ostensibly, The Nightingale and the Rose is a children’s story. But for O’Brien, it’s really an adult story with its themes of love, art and sacrifice. He had forgotten about the story up until a few years ago.

“When I noticed it again, I was thinking that it would be a really good subject for an opera. So myself and Eadaoin O’Donoghue adapted the text to make a libretto out of it.”

It took a while to get funding for the project.

“Making an opera is hard work. It’s over three years since I had the idea to turn the story into an opera. We did a concert performance of it in the Everyman two years ago. Myself and Eadaoin (associate director of the opera) went to Budapest for a week and got it all out. It has been ready since then.”

The Arts Council gave John some initial development money to work with dancers, musicians and actors.

“We also did some work on the music and made a recording of it. The music flowed really easily. The text is so singable. It feels really natural. Since we wrote the opera, we’ve made very few changes to it. It came to us fairly fully formed.”

The story concerns a nightingale who hears a student crying in his garden because the girl he loves, the daughter of a professor, will only dance with him at a forthcoming party if he gives her a red rose. But there isn’t a single red rose in the garden.

The nightingale, a believer in true love, feels sorry for the student and is willing to kill herself in order to create a red rose for him. While her death results in the flower, the girl refuses the red rose when the student presents her with it.

The girl is dismissive of the rose because she has received more valuable gifts from another suitor. The student is let down, decides love is impractical and vows to stick to philosophy and metaphysics. He throws the rose into the gutter where it is destroyed.

The implicit question posed in the opera is whether the sacrifice of making something beautiful is ultimately worth it.

Soprano Kim Sheehan plays the nightingale.

“She invokes the muses at the beginning of the opera. We’re exploring the idea of creativity and inspiration. We’re asking what does it mean to create something beautiful only to see it destroyed. Was it worth the process in the first place?”

The opera is a tragedy but the audience will have its own ideas as to the questions posed.

John said the cast of 19 is “phenomenal”.

“We have amazing dancers who are to the fore and also singers, who come to the fore. Everything is connected. Even having the characters of the moon (Majella Cullagh) and the sun (Owen Gilhooly) allows us to have a more cosmic view of story.”

The set and costumes are by Lisa Zagone, John’s long-time collaborator.

“The design is beautiful, colourful and imaginative. In opera, everything has to be bigger and larger than life. The emotions are totally true. But you’re not dealing with realism. It’s more heightened emotion. It all becomes a magical. playful and beautiful world.”

For John, creating this opera “is a little bit of a rebellion for me against really cool stripped back theatre that’s black and white with maybe a projector. This production is a celebration of beauty and melody, rich harmony, rich colours and textures. These things at the moment are not cool but the audience will, I think, love it.”

Cork audiences are very receptive to opera, says John.

“When you think of Faust, it was a three and a half hour opera in the Everyman that was sung in French. And it was sold out. What I notice about audiences for opera is that they are young, middle-aged and old. They are rich and poor with some people who dress up to the nines and others who wear jeans and a T-shirt, like myself. In Cork, opera is connected to working class areas. People feel they have ownership of it. An opera like this is written for everybody. It’s not about elitism. Everyone can understand it and if you want to probe the deeper levels of it and its philosophy, that’s all there. But equally, if you just want an entertaining night out, with music sung beautifully, that’s there too.”

The opera has a budget of between €300,000- €350,000 says John. The main funder is the Arts Council. Cork City Council gave the project some initial funding and there are other sponsors including local businesses.

“I’m really thankful to the Arts Council that I can make this opera. It’s a really big thing to do. But we wish there was more money to make other stuff, such as what we applied for last year and the year before and haven’t been able to make. Resources are finite.

“This country has one of the lowest rates of arts funding in Europe. Artists are seen as really important in Irish society. We use them for promotion. But actual funding is very low.”

Because making a living as an actor, dancer or singer is precarious, John observes that most Irish artists, particularly performing artists, who are freelance, tend to be able to move from genre to genre.

“There just isn’t enough work in any one area. Look at myself. During the summer, I was working as musical director on The Wizard of Oz at the Cork Opera House. I play the piano for Karen Underwood.

“I’m writing a piece of music for a film thing and everything in between.”

Clearly, versatility is the name of the game while, all the time, striving to produce great art

The Nightingale and the Rose is at the Everyman from October 13 to 20. It also tours to the Lime Tree Theatre in Limerick and the Civic Theatre in Tallaght. There will be a post show talk at the Everyman on October 16.

For more see www.everymancork.com/

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