Irish National Opera returning to stage after summer of shifting sands
Pandemic forced young company to revamp plans and find ways of performing online
Ronan Leahy and Naomi Louisa O’Connell in Irish National Opera’s Least Like The Other, Searching for Rosemary Kennedy in association with Galway International Arts Festival in the Black Box Theatre. Photograph: Pat Redmond
March is probably not anyone’s favourite month at Irish National Opera. Two years ago the Arctic weather caused by the Beast from the East disrupted the company’s first-ever production, a tour of Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face. And this year the Covid-19 lockdown wrought its own havoc, beginning with the cancellation of Georges Bizet’s Carmen.
Dealing with Carmen, which had gone into rehearsal in mid-February, “was pretty straightforward,” says artistic director, Fergus Sheil. “We were in the middle of it. We had to shut it down. We had no option. Everybody understood that. We did have to make a call about dealing with artists, about how we would pay them. It was not fully envisaged in the contract that this kind of thing would happen. You just need to treat people fairly and do the best that you possibly can.
“Normally,” he explains, “principal singers are paid on a performance basis. So, no performance, no fee. We made settlements with everybody on an equitable basis. And I think that was much appreciated at the time. It all happened very fast, and we have rescheduled Carmen for a subsequent season. Everybody was keen to do it, and made themselves available, and the rescheduling of it turned out to be . . .” He hesitates and says the word with a light smile. “. . . easy.”
Next up would have been Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio. “If you cast your mind back, people were hopeful that this was only going to be a two-week lockdown. Like everybody else, we were waiting and hoping. And then we had to make the decision to cancel. That was more difficult because the Mozart hadn’t even got off the ground.
“What we now find difficult, months later,” he says, “is the utter unpredictability.” Decisions can be upended by the changes in the official restrictions. “You have to undo it, and do something else. There are so many people involved in opera – orchestras, technical teams, venues, it’s a whole family of people. Having to change tack so often is unusual. In opera you usually plan far in advance and deliver the plan.”
The company has followed what became the standard pattern for performing organisations: making previous work available online and generating new projects under lockdown conditions. It ran online recitals with interviews from artists’ homes and created a sassy updated version of the Mozart, done with computers and phones, again from the performers’ homes. The audio alone, says Sheil, resulted in thousands of individual audio files that had to be synchronised and balanced to create the final whole.
“The greatest challenge,” says executive director Diego Fasciati, “was achieving a certain musical standard while not having all the people in the one place for the recording. So I don’t think we would do something again with people recording themselves at home. But people have asked us, could we not do this for other operas as well – make them into something very different.”
Sheil sounds enthusiastic about more of the same, once everyone can be in the same place to do it. “All the extra audiovisual work has given us valuable new experience. I know it’s not a replacement for a real production in a theatre. But we’ve had great feedback about it from right around the country.”
The original Mozart production may be lost, but “we’re hoping to schedule some concert performances in conjunction with the Irish Chamber Orchestra”.
The only solution to the shifting sands of public regulations has been “to make decisions at the very last moment we can make them. Which can be infuriating, difficult and challenging for everybody involved.” The company will be back, live on stage, for a limited audience in Brian Irvine and Netia Jones’ Least Like the Other in the Dublin Theatre Festival.
The parameters for that, says Shiel, changed a number of times as we were planning it. “We just had to adapt and respond.” This shifting sands affected “when we could do it, when we could start, when and where we could rehearse, when we had to get people in, because of quarantine. And, financially, what size of audience are you going to get, what kind of income you can earn. Budgets have had to be reshaped.”
And, crucially, “artistically, the whole project has been reshaped.” The opera, a harrowing exploration of the life of Rosemary Kennedy, sister of JFK, had rave reviews at Galway International Arts Festival last year.
“We’ve decided to do it without a live orchestra. We’re offering a new, digital, surround-sound style experience, with a prerecorded orchestra. We’re hoping for the audience to experience something like a high-end movie experience, where sound could be coming at you from anywhere. It gives us something new to say, a new way to deliver it. But everything had to be planned and replanned and changed. Every week, almost, there was a different plan about how we would manage to get there.”
Fasciati interjects. “I think we were from the beginning a fairly flexible company – as in, we’re not tied down to an opera house, or a full-time chorus or orchestra, which is what has allowed the company to implement Fergus’s artistic vision. But now, in the Covid situation, we have to be even more flexible than we were. Once we got over the loss of Carmen and Seraglio, we started planning the online mini-series in April, at a time when everyone was still in a state of shock at the whole country being in lockdown. I think now we’ve gotten used to this new way of working. We have to be flexible. We have to change plans.
“And our partners, be it artists or venues or festivals or funders, have been very understanding. People know that we’re going into this in a situation where who knows what will happen in three weeks. Like there might be another lockdown and we’d have to cancel. We have to at least try.”
As Sheil points out, the situation “could change. It could make things better or worse.”
How has the curve of the company’s development been affected by the drastic changes enforced by the pandemic?
“It is a young company,” says Sheil. “We started in 2018. But thank God we didn’t start in 2020. If this had been our first year we would have been cut off at the knees, as it were. Although we’re very young, I do feel we’ve built up a certain amount of capital – with the Arts Council, with our funders, with our supporters, our audiences, the artists, with festivals and with venues. People trust and and know us. We want to grow and grow. But we’ve already had a great first two years. I feel we have a little something to stand on.
“I’ve always loved the idea that opera can be versatile and exist in unusual spaces. In my past, with Wide Open Opera, I did things like outdoor operas on the streets of Dublin – Things We Throw Away in 2014 and 2015 – and we’ve been involved with the street-art opera, He Did What?, and community operas. There’s always a challenge. We need to be able think outside the box. The current situation is going to force a pause for the larger-scale productions, and give us an opportunity to add to the breadth of our artistic voice.
“So I feel somewhat positive in that regard. We’re going to learn a lot more about putting opera on in unusual situations. And separately from all of this, we were already developing a virtual-reality opera.” He sees all of this “paying dividends down the road, when we get back to the larger-scale operas again”.
“The great peril for the company,” says Fasciati, is one that all organisations face. “That is the survival of the artists and the other personnel who make art happen. Because they can’t make a living at the moment. We have to protect the artists and the technical personnel and the creative teams who work in opera and theatre and dance and in the visual arts. We have to ensure the audience survives, that the audience is there next year and the year after.
“An economic crash would be really detrimental to the company. The best thing the Arts Council could do at the moment is to tell companies, for 2021 you will have the same grant you had in 2020. That would give everyone some peace of mind and making planning possible.”
He catches himself on, then adds: “Of cours, an increase would be better.”
Irish National Opera will unveil its full new season on Tuesday, September 22nd. Brian Irvine and Netia Jones’ Least Like the Other is at the Dublin Theatre Festival from Friday 25th to Sunday 27th. See dublintheatrefestival.ie