Arts Council out of tune with needs of opera world

Kirkos Ensemble continues to stretch musical boundaries in new concert series

 

The Arts Council’s recent call for proposals for “main-scale opera provision” from 2018 is running in a tight timeframe. The call for three- to five-year plans went out on February 13th. There was a workshop for potential applicants on March 1st, with the deadline for the submission of proposals being April 3rd.

Thereafter there is provision for a dialogue process with applicants, a date of May 4th for submission of any finalised proposals, a presentation to the decision panel by shortlisted applicants a week later, and a date of May 24th for the panel’s recommendations to be acted on by the full council.

The heavy-hitting contenders appear to be an alliance of Wide Open Opera and Opera Theatre Company – Fergus Sheil is artistic director of both – and a partnership between Kilkenny Arts Festival director Eugene Downes and Wexford Festival Opera. 

As part of the process the council is currently providing answers to questions from potential applicants to clarify any issues that were not fully dealt with in the March workshop. All questions and answers are being made public and can be viewed on the council’s websiteat artscouncil.ie. The names of the questioners is being kept private.

Assumptions

Of the three questions that have been answered so far, two relate to clarifications about calendar years and the proposed September-to-May season that the new company is expected to work to. 

Some of the assumptions in the answers are more than a little perplexing. “The Sept-May opera ‘season’ division is used as the standard national and international practice in terms of repertoire planning frameworks and the presenting and marketing [of] repertoire to audiences,” ” the council says.

This would all be well and good if only such a September-to-May season existed. Welsh National Opera’s forthcoming season will run from September to June; in 2013-14, it ran from August to July. The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden will run from September to July, as will the Bavarian State Opera, with the last month devoted to the Munich Opera Festival. 

The three-month, June to August dead spot that the Arts Council suggests is anything but an international norm, especially if you consider that beyond the work of year-round companies, it’s the summer months that see the likes of the festivals in Bayreuth, Salzburg and Glyndebourne in full swing. Opera in summertime – everyone wants it.

Yet the council goes on to say: “The call prioritises the presentation of the principal main-scale productions to be done during the standard Sept-May season, when experience and practice indicates the largest local audiences are available for regularly produced opera, theatre, concerts etc.”

When it comes to opera, the council does not appear to know what is best for opera in Ireland and seems shy of taking the advice of the report writers it has hired to tell it what might be better for opera in Ireland. Plus ça change . . .

Chamber music

The Kirkos Ensemble (pictured) has never been short of ambition. The group, which began as a student ensemble in the Royal Irish Academy of Music, presented reimaginings of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on the occasion of the work’s centenary in 2013 and plunged audiences into darkness for a series of blackout concerts combining new works and classics.

It is currently giving what you might call relatively straight chamber music programmes in the Bewley’s Café Theatre in the Powerscourt Centre in Dublin city centre, if you can call a programme of Webern, Georg Friedrich Haas, Seán Ó Dálaigh and Breffni O’Byrne relatively straight. 

The decision to open last Saturday’s programme with Webern’s Five Movements, Opus 5, proved unwise. Webern’s compact, highly potent, expressionist pieces need to be communicated with a sense of mastery and cohesion rather than striving. 

Ó Dálaigh’s (pul)s(a)tring quart(ion(echo)s)et packs a lot of ideas into its title, but the playing did little to breathe real life into the concepts. 

The evening took a turn for the better with O’Byrne’s Beyond a Shadowed Sky, in which the musicians conveyed a far stronger grasp of shape and purpose, a sense of the music behind the notes. 

Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas’s String Quartet No 2, completed in 1998, is an exploration of texture and tension using microtonal means, growing from an assertive low cello C, out of which harmonic partials create a complex musical efflorescence. The performance had its rough edges, but it was an example of what Kirkos does best – searching out where others haven’t reached – by giving the Dublin premiere of this fascinating work. 

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