Celine Byrne shines as Micaëla in Bizet’s Carmen at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre

The Irish soprano gives a star turn in this new production by the Moscow State Opera, serving to highlight how few opportunities there are for Irish singers here


There were four things that stood out in advance of last week’s production of Bizet’s Carmen at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. There was the fact that it was the first visit to Ireland of a historic Russian company, the Moscow Musical Theatre for Children named after Natalya Sats, which performed in Dublin simply as the Moscow State Opera. This pioneering company has the honour of having given birth to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf .

There was the presence of the company’s chief conductor Alevtina Ioffe. It’s as rare in Russia as anywhere else to find a woman on the podium, although the Irish conductor Lygia O’Riordan did found and conduct an orchestra, Ensemble XXI, in Moscow in 1989.

There was the fact that the production was presented in association with the Picasso Foundation, allowing the incorporation of appropriate imagery from the great artist’s work.

And there was the casting of the Irish soprano Celine Byrne in the good-girl role of Micaëla.

The last of these elements turned out to be the best. Byrne stood out from most of the rest of the cast for her musical adaptability. She has a lovely voice, and she knows how to use it touchingly. She cared for the music of Bizet and conveyed the feelings of her character with a range of nuance that, for instance, eluded the Carmen of Nadezhda Babintseva.

Babintseva’s strong voice and stiff delivery kept all notions of seductiveness at bay, and that stiffness affected the equally strongly projected performances of Ruslan Yudin’s Don José and Petr Sokolov’s Escamillo.

The conductor on the opening night was Evgeny Brazhnik rather than Ioffe (Brazhnik’s name appeared nowhere in any advance publicity that I came across), and his style fully matched the approach of the Russian singers. The cut and thrust of the orchestral playing was strong, but flexibility of line and rhythm were minimal.

The presence of Picasso was minimal, too. A split curtain showed linocuts for the 1956 exhibition of ceramics in Vallauris; there was a poster-like presence on the corner of the scaffolding of the set at the start; and there were projections of bullfighting paintings before Act IV.

The overall effect was as tacked-on as sponsors’ logos on the outfits of snooker or tennis players. Designer Phillip Vinogradov’s costumes were of a kind you might expect to see in photos from Opera magazine half a century ago, and director George Issakyan seemed to have turned up nothing but stale ideas in response to this most popular of operas.

Undervalued singers
The presence of Byrne set me thinking about the challenges facing Irish singers in both developing their careers and making a living. If you are English, French, Swedish or Russian, you will expect in the first instance to find work with the opera companies of your own country. You’ll begin with the smaller ones and, if successful, move on to the larger ones and, in time, if all goes well, add international dates into your diary.

Here in Ireland it works a bit differently, not least because we have so few opera companies to start with. But one of the ways in which we do things differently is expressed in our readiness to ignore singers when they are young, and wait for them to prove themselves abroad before we show any real interest in them. By that stage, some of them are able to command fees on a level that seriously underfunded Irish companies – and that means all of them, North and South – simply cannot afford. I’ve heard from numerous Irish singers how the early snubs affected their level of interest in returning to work with the companies that had given them the cold shoulder.

Opera Theatre Company has the strongest track record in supporting singers in the early stages of their careers, but there are singers who have effectively fallen through their net, too.

Singers’ feelings apart, the situation is still very limited. If you take the costs of a typical production, singers’ fees obviously account for only a small proportion of what’s actually spent. Take the figures that were presented as part of what became known as the Shannon Plan, the Arts Council’s ill-advised plan to wish Opera Ireland, Wexford Festival Opera and Opera Theatre Company out of existence, and establish a new company based in Wexford that would encompass the functions of all three. I’ve crunched the numbers and calculated the percentage of the budget that the Shannon Plan envisaged going to singers in the various scenarios it presented, and it comes out at 12.5 per cent.

Now, don’t for a moment take that to mean that 12.5 per cent of the budget would be spent directly on singers’ fees. Once you remove travel and subsistence costs, the singers would get about 60 per cent of the 12.5 per cent budget allocation. Last year the Arts Council spent about €3.2 million on opera productions by the Wexford Festival, Wide Open Opera, Opera Theatre Company, the Everyman Palace Theatre, NI Opera and Lyric Opera. About €240,000 of that might have reached the pockets of opera singers as fees, and maybe half of that might have gone to Irish singers.

You don’t need a calculator to work out what that means in terms of employment for anyone wishing to pursue a career here as an opera singer. Nor, indeed, what the council’s €126,000 budget for music commissions in 2012 means for composers trying to keep the wolf from the door.

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