Fergus Sheil: The story of a conductor

Michael Dervan talks to conductor Fergus Sheil in advance of his tour with the BBC Singers

Members of Shelter Me from the Rain, a new opera, with conductor Fergus Shiel. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Members of Shelter Me from the Rain, a new opera, with conductor Fergus Shiel. Photograph: Cyril Byrne


How do you get from deciding to be a conductor at the age of 14 to conducting Tristan und Isolde at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, taking the BBC Singers on tour, and working regularly with the two RTÉ orchestras? Fergus Sheil was a student in Trinity College Dublin in 1990 when he conducted for the first time. And he founded the Trinity Chamber Orchestra to create the opportunity for himself.

“It gave me the taste for creating something out of nothing, and also the confidence that I could actually conduct,” he says. He also worked with another student band, the short-lived Rückert Orchestra, and soon found himself in charge of a group of long-established amateurs, the Dublin Orchestral Players.

“That got me through an awful lot of music, and helped me understand repertoire from the inside. You have to be more resourceful when you’re working with people who have clear limitations. But the level of joy and commitment from players in amateur orchestras is infectious. They really want to do it.”

His next move was into opera, working behind the scenes with conductors and chorus at the Wexford Festival Opera. “Before that I knew absolutely nothing about the mechanics of opera productions. I jumped in at the deep end. I met some incredible people and learned the process of how you put an opera together from day one to the opening night.”

He got a great fillip by winning the National Association of Youth Orchestras Conducting Competition in Bristol in 1995, and the success led to engagements with the Northern Sinfonia in Newcastle and the RTÉCO in Dublin – however, they didn’t lead to the fairy-story slew of re-engagements. “This was a period when I was struggling to match what I’d learned about conducting with the real world. It wasn’t until much later that I resolved those issues.”

Opera beckoned again, and he worked with Opera Ireland as chorus master and head of music. “I got my teeth into standard repertoire. Wexford had been rarefied, and I knew Paisiello’s Barber of Seville before Rossini’s, Leoncavallo’s La Bohème before Puccini’s. It was also my first opportunity to audition singers, and to be involved in the process of casting."

In 1998 he moved from Dublin to Glasgow to become chorus master of Scottish Opera. “I spent exactly four years there. It was like doing a degree in opera, getting an encyclopaedic knowledge of the art form, because I was on the senior management team, which dealt with all issues of planning, budgeting, human resources and so on. And I was assistant conductor on about half the operas we did there, and worked at the Edinburgh Festival. ”

Return to Dublin
He came back to his native Dublin in 2002 to become director of the Crash Ensemble and then the Arts Council ’s part-time music specialist. “It was like another post-graduate degree. The atmosphere was vibrant, the people working there were creative and challenging, and parts of my brain that I hadn’t used since college were being challenged again.” He didn’t seek to have his contract renewed. “I really enjoyed my time there, but you would burn out, and I didn’t want to do it forever. I was itching to get back into the world of doing things myself.”

His pattern of work remains mixed, and includes lots of contact with young people (the Dublin Youth Orchestras; the Australian Youth Orchestra; the Julianstown Youth Orchestra; Sweeney Todd, a youth opera project with Welsh National Opera) and amateurs (the Wexford Sinfonia; the Kilkenny Arts Festival Choir; a production of Brian Irvine ’s Shelter me from the Rain , premiered in Carlow, the first opera commissioned by a local authority in Ireland; and Irvine’s Rain Falling Up , which brought 872 children, 110 OAPs and the RTÉ NSO together at the Convention Centre in Dublin).

He’s worked with Lyric Opera, which, he says, “sharpened me up hugely,” and conducted the Priests on tour, which was “a bit like Groundhog Day”.

But at the moment his standout achievement has been the creation of a new company, Wide Open Opera, and its successful first production, of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde , at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre last autumn. “It was another moment, like with the student orchestra. There was a serious risk that I couldn’t pull it off. The musical challenge of the piece is enormous. Heading up an organisation that’s going to put on something of that scale, in that theatre, with the production coming from abroad, and the entire PR and marketing machine . . . you can’t know you can do it until you do it."

Summing it all up, he says, “The biggest thing I learned was the more implausible you are, the more traction you can get. I see a direct parallel between Carlow and Tristan . If an idea is really good, don’t be afraid if it’s really implausible as well. If it’s that good, people will come on board.”