On the surface there’s not that much to get excited about. Niall Doyle, who formerly held top posts with Music Network, RTÉ’s music division and Opera Ireland, is the new head of music and opera at the Arts Council. But dig down a bit and it becomes a lot more interesting.
What’s obvious straight away is that Doyle, who is now in his mid-50s, is the most experienced person to fulfil the role as the council’s staff expert on music and opera. But Doyle is a surviving victim of one of the greatest cock-ups in the history of the Arts Council. And this makes his appointment about as unusual as anti-austerity TD Paul Murphy deciding to join a coalition led by Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.
Doyle trained as a primary school teacher before taking up a career as a freelance tuba player and concert promoter. He played in both RTÉ orchestras, was a founding member of the Prelude Brass Ensemble and worked for a period with Australia’s Queensland Symphony Orchestra and Queensland Brass Ensemble.
Between 1992 and 1998, as chief executive of the Music Network, he expanded that agency from a body with one employee and a turnover of €114,000 to one with a team of 10 and turnover of more than €635,000.
He steered a steady course at RTÉ, and left the national broadcaster's music division in better health than he found it, in spite of the major upheavals that afflicted the organisation during his time there. He managed to create the RTÉ Living Music Festival, to give Gerald Barry's opera The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant its concert premiere and first CD release, and to give Irish music lovers their first full cycle of the Mahler symphonies.
When his Opera Ireland appointment was announced in October 2006, he would have had no idea of the financial turmoil that was going to envelop the country as a whole and arts funding in particular, nor of the maelstrom that was going to engulf opera.
In fact, he had reason to believe that his move to Opera Ireland would see better times for opera. He had served on an Arts Council opera working group that had recommended a significant, ringfenced increase in funding for the artform.
But the council postponed the uplift, and, when things turned sour and the cutbacks began, opera found itself in the firing line. The council announced plans to merge Opera Ireland, Opera Theatre Company and Wexford Festival Opera into a new, national entity, to be based in Wexford.
It was Doyle who cleverly came up with the Shannon Plan moniker for the new proposal, giving it the name of the council’s opera adviser, Randall Shannon, in an effort to separate the details of the plan from the council itself. He wrote a lengthy rebuttal of the plan, which he circulated directly to council members after reaching the conclusion that the summary of his case produced by the council’s executive didn’t accurately represent what he was trying to say.
He had 16 core objections to the plan, his main ones being that it would require about €4 million extra in public funding (although the plan claimed to require less) and would result in 22-29 per cent less opera. He provided detailed tables and calculations to support his case. The Arts Council stuck to its guns.
It was widely assumed that, as a Waterford man, he may have had the ear of the then minster for arts, Martin Cullen, who was a Waterford TD. The minister’s outright rejection of the Arts Council plan, and his subsequent espousal of a different style of national opera company – involving Opera Ireland and Opera Theatre Company, but not Wexford – was interpreted in many quarters as a Doyle-inspired morphing of Opera Ireland into a new and bigger role.
Whatever the truth of the matter, both the council and the Department of Arts shilly-shallied. Opera Ireland was defunded, and presented its last production in 2010. And Doyle found himself without a job.
He created a role in the wilderness by managing the high-definition broadcasts of New York’s Metropolitan Opera in cinemas around Ireland, and later also of the Berlin Philharmonic and the Ballet de Paris.
He now comes to Merrion Square (he takes up his new role in May) as someone who knows how bruising the council can be to clients. And he also comes with the experience of having worked as a freelance, a one-person operation, and as executive director of an arts production company, RTÉ’s music division, which had a €15.5 million annual budget when he managed it. It’s hard to think of anyone better-equipped to provide the kind of advocacy that music and opera need in Merrion Square in these straitened times.
Back to Bach for the Marble City
Hard times or no, Irish composers have been showing an unprecedented level of interest and success in opera. Donnacha Dennehy's The Last Hotel, a collaboration with Enda Walsh as writer and director, will open at the Edinburgh International Festival on August 8th in a production by Landmark Productions and Wide Open Opera.
The production features soprano Claudia Boyle, actor Mikel Murfi and the Crash Ensemble, and will later be seen in London, Dublin and New York. Gerald Barry's Alice in Wonderland, with Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan in the title role, is somewhere down the road.
The Edinburgh festival has an Irish connection through its director, Fergus Linehan. And one of the other creative Linehans, pianist and composer Conor, features in Music Network’s current Joanna MacGregor tour.
MacGregor is a pianist who never quite stays on the leash, either musically or temperamentally. Her Cross Border programme offers what she calls "a musical sketch of my life": a Bach/Shostakovich sandwich followed by a clutch of contrasted Chopin mazurkas, Linehan's genre-crossing, finger-swirling Roadshow, and music from North America (Ives and jazz) and South America (sometimes thundering tangos by Piazzolla).
If MacGregor’s Bach is not enough for you, there’s a major celebration coming up at Kilkenny Arts Festival, which opens on Friday, August 7th.
The 18-concert Eternal Bach programme, the most concentrated exposure the composer has ever had in Ireland, will include the Mass in B minor under Paul Hillier; cantatas from William Christie's Les Arts Florissants; three versions of the Goldberg Variations (harpsichord, piano, and saxophone ensemble); the complete cello suites (István Várdai); the Musical Offering; the Art of Fugue; and much more. And beyond Bach there will be appearances by András Schiff (playing the last piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert), the great Catalan viol player Jordi Savall, and The Cardinall's Musick in choral works by Thomas Tallis. See kilkennyarts.ie.