Curtain call for Cork, a city proud of its operatic leanings

Cork had the first production of 2014, and features in two successful Arts Council funding applications

There’s something about opera and Cork. It’s not just that the city has a theatre called the Cork Opera House: it’s that Cork just won’t lie down when it comes to having its own, locally produced opera.

Back in the 1980s there was Cork City Opera. When it failed, a string of companies surfaced in the 1990s: Opera South, Kinsale Opera, Opera Cork and the Irish Operatic Repertory Company. On top of all that, when Cork was European Capital of Culture in 2005, one of the city's achievements was the establishment of a new company, Opera 2005, with Toronto-based Irish conductor Kevin Mallon as its artistic director. (Mallon's Wikipedia entry has thea wonderful blooper that he "was born in Belfast, Northern England".)

Sadly, Opera 2005 didn’t survive the economic downturn, and, although it had managed to secure project support from the Arts Council, that support disappeared early on in the council’s belt-tightening. But Cork has benefited from the restructuring of Arts Council support of opera in the wake of former minister for arts Martin Cullen’s initiative to create an Irish national opera company that never got to mount a single event.

Funding up for grabs
The Arts Council now has just two regularly funded opera clients: Wexford Festival Opera and Opera Theatre Company. The rest of its opera funding is up for grabs every year, and Cork features in two of this year's successful applications.


The Everyman Palace Theatre has received €208,000, for "a collaborative partnership staging of a bold and stylish new English-language version of The Vampire (1828) by Heinrich Marschner, to be produced in a significant festival setting (five or six performances), and with a large company of up to 100 Irish artists drawn from the professional and volunteer sectors."

A much smaller grant of €18,690 has gone to composer Ian Wilson, who wants "to develop the concept, libretto and music for a [musically] semi-improvised opera called The Last Siren, to write the libretto under the guidance of director Ksenija Krnajski and to develop the music collaboratively with improvising singer Elaine Mitchener and [Cork] sound artists The Quiet Club."

The year's big project will be Wide Open Opera's Irish premiere of John Adams's modern classic, Nixon in China, at Dublin's Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in May, with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in the pit.

The production, directed by Michael Cavanagh, comes to Dublin from Vancouver Opera, and the cast, headed by Barry Ryan (Richard Nixon), Hugh Francis (Chairman Mao), and Audrey Luna (Madame Mao), also includes Irish singers Claudia Boyle, John Molloy and Imelda Drumm. The Arts Council is supporting this production to the tune of €583,000, and, interestingly, rejected an application for a smaller-scale production of the same work from Cork Opera House.

Six-figure awards have gone to Irish Youth Opera (€169,000 for Britten's Rape of Lucretia), and the Theatre Royal in Waterford, which receives €133,000 towards the production of Eric Sweeney's The Invader, with a libretto by Mark Roper.

Limerick's Lime Tree Theatre receives €25,000 for a new community opera by Brian Irvine, hoping to capitalise on the success of Irvine's Shelter Me from the Rain in Carlow in 2011. And Mark Duley's choir Resurgam has received ¤79,000 for a production in St Nicholas' Church in Galway of Luigi Rossi's 1647 Orfeo, which has variously been described as the first Italian opera to have been staged in Paris, the first opera to have been written and staged outside Italy, and the first opera in which arias outnumber recitatives. Strange as it may seem, this will not be its first Irish production: it was performed in a production by Miriam O'Meara at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham in 1987.

This year's Wexford Festival will introduce works by composers whose very names, I suspect, will be new to most opera lovers. Antoine Mariotte's Salomé opens the festival, followed by Antonio Cagnoni's Don Bucefalo. The third work is Kevin Puts's Silent Night, which had its premiere in 2011 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012.

Opera Theatre Company's offerings will be Kurt Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (a co-production with Rough Magic), and Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore (a co-production with NI Opera). The Wexford and Opera Theatre Company Arts Council grants for 2014 have not yet been made public, but in 2013 the companies received €1,389,100 and €640,000 respectively.

Cork gets in first
The first opera production of the year was – where else? – in Cork last weekend, when the CIT Cork School of Music presented Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, directed and conducted by John O'Connor, and designed by Lisa Zagoni.

The layout in the school’s Curtis Auditorium was unorthodox. The orchestra was at the back, right in front of the organ case, separated from the set by a gauze curtain. There was a monitor at ground level at the front of the stage to give the singers sight of the conductor’s gestures, and a foldback loudspeaker at the conductor’s feet, presumably to feed him the sound of the voices on stage.

The orchestral playing was spirited but a little rough, though nicely balanced with a rich presence from the wind section, which is always especially rewarding in Mozart. The great benefit was that the voices stood out clearly from the orchestra, even the smaller ones, though the clarity of the words varied greatly from singer to singer and scene to scene. The downside was that tight co-ordination between voices and instruments seemed at times to be in the realm of the impossible. And, whatever the reason, when things got desynchronised, the problem tended to persist.

The major roles were taken by professionals, with Mary Hegarty a dignified Countess, Joe Corbett a thoroughly obnoxious Count, Kim Sheehan an attractive Susanna, and Marc Callanan a reliable Figaro. The set was simple, and the costumes effectively moved the work into the 1920s. The chorus was rich in enthusiastic young voices, but the smaller roles taken by vocal students didn't really come to life. In that regard, Cork seems to be lagging behind the productions that have come out of the Royal Irish Academy of Music and the DIT Conservatory in Dublin.

Both of those institutions are also in action this month. Lynne Parker's RIAM production of Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen opened at TCD's Samuel Beckett Theatre last night. And a DIT double bill of excerpts from Lehár's Merry Widow and Puccini's La Bohème, directed by Jennifer Hamilton, is at the NCH on January 23rd.