Éna Brennan, whose short opera Breathwork premieres at Dublin Theatre Festival this week, never thought of herself as an opera composer until 2020. Under the name Dowry she has an independent career as a violinist, and her group, Dowry Strings, collaborates across genres, including with Bell X1, Christian Löffler and Colm Mac Con Iomaire. “I fell into opera in the way I’ve fallen into so many other things,” she says.
Then Brennan was approached by Irish National Opera’s artistic director, Fergus Sheil, to compose one of the company’s 20 Shots of Opera, short, filmed operas that were commissioned to fill the lockdown void. Her contribution was Rupture, with two singers “portraying a woman and her conscience”.
Rupture was spotted online by the dramaturge Olaf A Schmitt working for Opera Atelier, a joint project by Austria’s Bregenz Festival and the Kunsthaus Bregenz. “They were in the middle of trying to find their next composer for their contemporary project. My name was put on a list, I think. They had already engaged their director, David Pountney, at the time. So I was brought into the fold ...
“I remember there being a Zoom call where, the first half an hour, all the terminology was ‘the composer, the composer, the composer,’ and, by the end of it, it was, ‘You will do this. You will do that.’ I felt that I’d been hired, literally, while we were talking.”
It was quite a breakthrough for Brennan. “I hadn’t worked internationally before at all. I’ve only had commissions and work done within Ireland, aside from touring with bands the odd time.” INO drew her into its opera studio, which gave her access to language training, close contact with opera singers and free access to all of the company’s productions. “But ultimately, their main form of support to a composer is to commission them,” she says.
Although she thought of writing two separate operas, she wisely decided that relating the work for INO to the bigger Bregenz project was the way to go. “Breathwork has become a microcosm, a microcell, an amoeba of the larger work that I’m working on for next year, which has the working title Hold Your Breath.”
The 20-minute piece, she says, “could land into the full opera, but it’s got its own identity; it’s got its own world. And by virtue of working with the director John McIlduff and the designer Sabine Dargent, it will have its own visual experience. I’m really excited to get into the performing space, because it’s so site-specific a piece that there’s really only so much that we can do chatting away with each other in the rehearsal room.”
Breathwork, which is partly pre-recorded and partly live, is having six performances on each day of its three-day run at Project Arts Centre. “I’m very excited to see it come to life and for it to progress through all the different viewings. I think it will shift in the way the singers play with the material from performance to performance.”
For the subject, Brennan says, “I’m going back to my lovely existential dread that I seem to put into all my work. The larger work, its libretto and its subject matter came from many, many conversations between myself, David Pountney and the Portuguese visual artist Hugo Canoilas. We would meet in Bregenz, and we’d also have just regular conversations over dinner.”
The process was highly collaborative. “It’s not as if I was left with the sole responsibility to create this work and it would then be directed and then it would be staged. It’s very much a collaborative entity between the director, the visual artist and the composer. Which is totally within my wheelhouse as well. Collaboration is a huge part of what I’ve done in the past. And I feel safer in that space. I don’t like when there’s too much pressure on one person.”
In-person meetings were hard won during lockdown. “Long story short, we were having to go through all of these bureaucratic travel elements to get to those meeting rooms. The first thing we’d always say to each other is, ‘God, how did you find that?’ ‘Did you have to download that pass?’ ‘Did you get a Covid test?’ All these hoops, just to be able to get into a room together.”
Out of these experiences emerged “the theme of bureaucracy and how we’re kind of shepherded around the place and moved like those tanks on a board you see in those historical documentaries. That became such a massive theme, that idea of how we are displaced, in a way, and what control or lack of control that we have around that.
“And then right alongside that is our own control over what we are doing. That’s climate change and the destruction that we are creating, and the fact that we’re really seeing that change now. Hugo Canoilas has a massive interest in working with natural materials, or that space and void around nature. So he was a huge influence when it came to working on organic symbolism. His vernacular is completely different in the art world to something I would have encountered before. So it was really interesting talking to him about it.”
David Pountney “went away, then, and made this libretto which married these two big themes together. This idea of the control and lack of control that we have, over ourselves as individuals within society, and bureaucracy. Or, also, the control we have over how we’re affecting everything outside of us. The natural world and what that means for us.
“I don’t think the idea is that we are completely hopeless,” Brennan says. “I don’t want to leave an individual feeling there’s absolutely no hope and we’ve destroyed everything there is to destroy. It’s more to create different ways of thinking about it. It’s a short work: you go in, you experience this world, you leave it. And, hopefully, you have conversations about it, or there’s something poignant that might hit home.”
Éna Brennan’s Breathwork is at the Cube at Project Arts Centre at 3pm, 4pm, 5pm, 7pm, 8pm and 9pm from Thursday, September 28th, until Saturday, September 30th; INO’s new production of Gounod’s Faust, also part of Dublin Theatre Festival, is at the Gaiety Theatre on Sunday, October 1st, Tuesday, October 3rd, Thursday, October 5th, and Saturday, October 7th