When Amanda Feery talks about music, opera, life, the effect is like a free-flowing stream of consciousness. She lives through the various moments she speaks of rather than pointing out any of the longer connections.
She tells me about her early musical years, beginning piano at the age of eight, playing stuff by ear and improvising around songs. “I had it in my head that I would be a writer. I had copybooks full of short stories everywhere that needed music. I started writing little pieces for the short stories, as soon as I could write music down.” But she never links her early engagement with words, story and music – or her later writing of incidental music for school plays – with the fact that we’re talking about an opera she has just written.
Performing took over in her teens so she now sees herself as having been late to composition – meaning not until her 20s – "in terms of thinking seriously about it". It was really through composition lessons with composer Donnacha Dennehy while studying music at TCD that she was encouraged to start composing again, even though, as she puts it, "I was a bit of a dossy undergrad as well".
She also mentions clarinettist Paul Roe as having been encouraging "at a time when I was still sort of clueless. He was probably the person who first played a piece of mine more than once." Again, she doesn't link the success of a clarinet piece with the fact that she studied the instrument herself, and had played it in the Tullamore Town Band.
By 2009 or so she wanted to leave Ireland because living in Dublin had become "unsustainable", and in 2012 she got a scholarship to study in Princeton, "a lifeline in a way, because it was funded". She had finally got to a situation where it was possible to concentrate full-time on composition. Princeton, she says, helped her become more relaxed about the reality of a composer's daily grind and grapple successfully with the fact that not every day of the week was going to be productive. She discovered how to accept that "it's okay if the process takes a long time. It's okay if at the end of the month I have just 20 bars of a string quartet written."
Back in Ireland again she found herself having to work three jobs just to pay the rent. But more recently things have taken a turn for the better. She's been the composer on Irish National Opera's (INO) ABL Aviation Opera Studio since 2019, and she started a new job as lecturer in composition at NUI Galway last February.
Feery's new opera, A Thing I Cannot Name, is part of her work at INO. As a creator, opera is new to her, as it is to her librettist, the writer Megan Nolan. This made for a nervous start. "I guess I've more of a relationship with contemporary and experimental opera. INO has this good balance as a company. They do the traditional, lavish staging as part of their season. But they're also great at exploring the more contemporary, experimental opera as well," Feery says.
"I was getting so much advice starting this project. I talked to Alice Goodman for libretto advice – I was trying to do a match-make of herself and Megan maybe having a chat. This is my first opera and it's Megan's first libretto. The two of us were just a bit deer in the headlights about a lot of stuff. Alice told me about her work with John Adams [Goodman wrote the librettos for Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer]. Other people told me I would have to have a certain number of duets and arias to balance the story. I got further advice that you have to have three peak points in the narrative that are high drama, and there must be three."
She couldn't reconcile the range of advice with the reality of modern operas. "What opera do you mean? There's Einstein on the Beach, which doesn't have three high points. I'm a big fan of Robert Ashley as well." Ashley's extraordinary operatic work was featured at a Béal Festival in Dublin in 2012, just two years before his death at the age of 83. "That structure is not part of his operas. I have to thank out into the ether Robert Ashley, because I later saw an interview with him, and he said, 'If you think it's an opera, it's an opera. If you want it to be an opera, it's an opera.' It's such a simple line, but I felt really happy to hear that. It was validating and comforting." After all that, of course, "I still had to write the music".
She’s been drawn to Megan Nolan’s work for years, her stories and her journalism, “mainly how she picks apart feelings that are very hard to talk about, very hard to describe. I knew I wanted to do a project around female desire, but not in terms of longing and yearning and infatuation and lust. But more the darker, meaner corners of it, the ugly side of it.”
Nolan, whose first novel, Acts of Desperation, has had a rapturous reception, is, like the composer, no aficionado of the standard opera repertoire. She has been to see opera, though not for years, yet she says: “I don’t think of it as something dated or old-fashioned, because I have young friends who are into it.”
The two met up and “Amanda told me what she found interesting in my work, and why she wanted to approach me. There were a couple of essays she remembered lines from, and she said, it’s this sort of thing. Acute longing and yearning, and about wanting to write an opera that had to do with desire and women but didn’t centre men in those desires. To have different stories of women who have been consumed by longing for something and it’s not a man.”
The solution was to set A Thing I Cannot Name “in a single apartment in Dublin that changes hands between these three women over different time periods. She [Feery] let me at it for a few months, and then we came back together after that.”
Rebecca is the youngest character in the opera, “the most contemporary one, in love with her boss, an older woman who’s very withholding and doesn’t acknowledge that there’s something going on between them. It makes Rebecca feel increasingly sort of insane, like she’s inventing the whole thing.”
Jean is in her early 30s, “around my sort of age. She’s about to get married, supposed to be feeling very happy but instead is fixated on her husband’s ex-girlfriend and building this weird, internal world of jealousy. She’s trying on her wedding dress, but imagining this other woman inside of it. Her world is getting taken over by this fantasy of the other woman.”
Catherine is older, “and has spent a lot of her life taking after her parents and hasn’t really separated from them in the way that adults are supposed to. She’s grappling with the idea of what it means to be coming into your middle age and not have separated your original family unit, and to have not won external relationships from that.”
Joy of collaboration
Both creators clearly relished the experience of working together as well as working on an opera, even if lockdowns presented barriers which ultimately transformed it from a live production into a film. "If I ever do an operatic project like this in the future," says Feery, "I'm going to relish the process a lot more. Myself and Megan and Aoife Spillane-Hinks, the director, sharing images and pieces of text we'd come across, novels we were reading, bits and pieces that were influencing us. I'm going to relish that a lot more and let it all seep in. You have to be patient about it."
Nolan says: “When I wrote any of the earlier drafts I can’t stress how little I knew what I was doing. I just wrote and then had to figure it out with Amanda. I just sort of vomited up a draft of all the things that I thought might be important and then we whittled it down together.
“As with anything you have no extensive experience of, you think of it as one thing. You will have perceived it through representation in culture rather than the thing itself. I think I just didn’t really know how divergent different pieces could be. That’s been really nice. It’s nice to learn that about anything in the world, that it’s not just the singular thing you assumed it would be.”
And is her appetite whetted for writing more texts for opera? “I think I’d just love to work with Amanda again. I don’t know if it’s something I would have a natural skill for, to be honest. She and I understood each other very well. So I would definitely want to collaborate with her again.”
Amanda Feery's A Thing I Cannot Name, with Kelli-Ann Masterson (Rebecca), Rachel Goode (Jean) and Aebh Kelly (Catherine), directed by Aoife Spillane-Hinks and conducted by Elaine Kelly, has its first online screening on Tuesday, July 27th, as part of West Cork Literary Festival. See westcorkmusic.ie/literary-festival