A hectic few years for Cork Opera House CEO

Since becoming CEO of Cork Opera House, Eibhlín Gleeson has dreamed of hosting The Cork Proms — now just back from maternity leave, it’s about to happen. MARTINA O’DONOGHUE talks to her about work, the venue’s success and motherhood
A hectic few years for Cork Opera House CEO
Cork Opera House Chief Executive, Eibhlín Gleeson. Picture: Miki Barlok

IT’S fair to say that the past four years have been eventful for Eibhlín Gleeson: Becoming CEO of Cork Opera House, meeting her husband, getting married and having a baby.

And yet, when we speak she sounds unflappable.

Returning this month after maternity leave, part of her has never been away.

“I’ve never physically or mentally been that far away from it,” she says.

“While I might be busy looking after my baby, my mind will still be mulling over things. Switching off is not really a possibility. I don’t even think of it as work; it’s an extension of me.”

Her six-month-old boy is napping as we talk and with a name like Art, I incorrectly assume it was chosen because both Eibhlín and her husband Pat Carey work in the arts.

“We really liked the name and it’s a strong traditional name on my side of the family,” she explains.

“He’s absolutely flying it; he’s a great little man. It’s a big difference from my old life!”

In her “old life”, she’s been Chief Executive of Cork Opera House since October 2015 — taking over from previous incumbent, Mary Hickson — and following on from three years spent as general manager.

From the small village of Gneeveguilla in Co. Kerry, her Cork life began when she came to study music at UCC, and although she was a gifted singer, she soon developed an interest in the behind-the-scenes action.

“When you start doing a music degree you quickly rank yourself among your peers, and there were so many phenomenal singers. I was more inclined towards the business side and taking up opportunities outside the lecture theatre. I was in the Choral Society and Students Union and I was running around campus making things happen. That’s what piqued my interest, rather than being in a rehearsal room.”

Following further study in NUI Galway, she set about getting as much experience in arts management as possible, both in Ireland and abroad.

“I went to Scotland, to a place very similar to Cork Opera House: the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh, where I learned the importance of marketing the arts professionally.

“Then I moved to Dublin and worked with the National Chamber Choir of Ireland. It was the time of the recession and funding was drying up; it was a tough time and a huge learning experience for me. It gave me the ability to think laterally and make an arts organisation viable. It’s a business but it’s different to an SME; you’re mission-driven, you’ve a mission statement and you live and die by that mission statement.”

Eibhlín’s next adventure took her to the U.S.

“It was important for me to go away and see what the world had to offer,” she says.

She was successful in getting through a rigorous application process to become one of ten fellows at the John F Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington DC (one of just three non-Americans accepted).

There, she got to work with some of the top artistic administrators on the planet.

“They examined how I might have done things differently in the past. They put a structure on my thinking. They train arts managers to go out there and make a difference.”

During her time there, she was instrumental in putting on events at the White House.

“Now that’s something I never saw happening!” she says with a smile.

“We had performances on St Patrick’s Day. I had an official letter from Michelle Obama inviting the Chamber Choir. I met the Obamas; I have a picture with them. It’s still like a dream. I still can’t believe it really happened!”

At the end of her stint she was confident about returning to Ireland.

“I thought, well now I can go home. I felt I had enough to come back with. And I set my sights on the Opera House.”

Cork Opera House Chief Executive, Eibhlín Gleeson. Picture: Miki Barlok
Cork Opera House Chief Executive, Eibhlín Gleeson. Picture: Miki Barlok

It’s been a very rewarding journey for Eibhlín.

“Every day I genuinely feel privileged to be CEO of Cork Opera House. It’s an awesome place to work. The responsibility is enormous but I really enjoy it. I get to express myself a lot, which I love. There’s a lot of freedom to do exciting things, but it’s a controlled freedom. The board keeps an eye so that risk is always calculated.”

Since becoming CEO, she has had a dream of hosting The Cork Proms and this month the dream is about to come fruition. It’s not something that could have happened overnight. The foundations were laid with the establishment of the Cork Opera House Concert Orchestra in 2015 and the subsequent staging of a number of shows for the Opera Concert Series, including The Marriage of Figaro last March and Pirates of Penzance earlier this month.

“It’s a full operatic work as a concert performance, with the orchestra and a soloist, so it’s a full operatic score without all the trimmings,” explains Eibhlín, referring to the absence of expensive costumes and sets.

“It’s a good way of producing opera without putting financial strain on the organisation and it was super-successful.”

The orchestra has also brought an extra sparkle to contemporary music during collaborations with Cork singer-songwriters Jack O’Rourke and Marlene Enright for the past two Right Here Right Now festivals, when each had one of their albums fully orchestrated for their performances.

“It was a phenomenal success and really valuable for the artist. So many objectives were met by the festival. It had real heart and soul,” she says.

And so the stage has been set for The Cork Proms to finally happen. It will consist of three successive concerts, featuring the Cork Opera House Concert Orchestra and a host of special local, national, and international guests.

Presented alongside PwC, in association with the Cork Midsummer Festival, The Cork Proms will be curated by director Wayne Jordan (The Wizard of Oz and ProdiJIG: The Revolution), and renowned conductor John O’Brien, both of whom come in for much praise from Eibhlín.

“John is a Cork man born and bred and a very important part of orchestral music — or any music — in the city; someone who is really valuable in our society.

“Wayne came from the outside and in a short space of time really got to know the city. He’s a highly renowned director; one of Ireland’s leading lights. He has an incredible curatorial style and he brings something very contemporary to a very old tradition.”

If little Art is her flesh and blood baby, then The Cork Proms is her other baby, one which has been well minded during its gestation.

“This is born of my vision and it’s hard for someone else to see it (that vision). Part of me didn’t want to hand it over; I wanted to see it through and realise the vision I had for it. It’s an acute personal interest of mine. But the organisation of the Proms has been functioning perfectly without me,” she insists.

In some ways, the past six months have found both Eibhlín and her place of work in unchartered territory, as it’s the first time in the history of Cork Opera House that its CEO has gone on maternity leave.

“It’s a new departure for the staff, the board and myself alike but the team have risen to the challenge 100%. They’ve really stepped up and it’s been a very positive experience for me knowing that my other precious baby would be minded and loved in my absence,” she says.

Opera singer Majella Cullagh with Ger OÕMahony from PWC; Ashley Keating, Cork Opera House and conductor John O'Brien at the announcement of the inaugural Cork Proms.Picture. John Allen
Opera singer Majella Cullagh with Ger OÕMahony from PWC; Ashley Keating, Cork Opera House and conductor John O'Brien at the announcement of the inaugural Cork Proms.Picture. John Allen

What better way to return from maternity leave than to see her vision on the stage.

“It’s going to very special and it’s very important that we have people at it! For anyone who is curious about orchestral music, this is a really good starting point. I can promise that it’s going to be entertaining. If anyone thinks it’s boring, stuffy, classical music, it’s the opposite of that. Our doors are open to everyone, we programme for everyone; we don’t ever want to exclude anyone.”

The Cork Proms will feature three concerts with distinct musical styles and themes, kicking off on Midsummer Night, June 21, when the orchestra will perform music by Mendelssohn, Mozart and Vivaldi.

On Saturday, June 22, the Orchestra, and guest vocalists, will perform hits from much- loved American musicals, conducted by Cathal Synnott (Riverdance, Threepenny Opera).

Meanwhile, the trio of concerts will conclude on Sunday, June 23, paying homage to the world of pop music led by Cork vocalists Majella Cullagh, Kim Sheehan, Laoise Leahy, Karen Underwood and Camilla Griehsel.

Audiences can expect special renditions of classics from David Bowie, Queen, Abba and Leonard Cohen, among others.

Eibhlín hopes people will treat it as a festival and consider coming to all three concerts.

“We’re asking people to take a chance on something that wouldn’t normally be their go-to event. It’s our job to make it awesome and the people of Cork’s job to come and support it!

“It will be a world class event, no question about it.”

Tickets for The Cork Proms are available at www.corkoperahouse.ie or 021 427 022 and at Cork Midsummer Festival: www.corkmidsummer.com

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