Opera and the telephone go back a long way. Back into the 19th century, in fact. The use of telephone lines to relay live performances from the Opéra in Paris, and also the Comédie-Française, was first demonstrated in 1881. And in 1890 a service called Théâtrophone became available to private subscribers and could also be sampled through coin-operated receivers in public places. Proust used the service from 1911.
Paris was not the only city in which concerts, plays and operas could be enjoyed at home. London had the Electrophone service, which came on stream in 1895 and, like the French original, required its listeners to use headphones. The facility was only available to the minority who could afford phones in the first place, and initially only about 50 people were willing to pay an extra £5 a year for relays from theatres, concert halls and Sunday services from 15 churches. Eventually, of course, radio took over. Electrophone closed in 1924, Théâtrophone in 1932.
By that time, of course, the telephone had already made it into the plots of operas. It features in works by Richard Strauss (Intermezzo, first produced in 1924) and Schoenberg (Von Heute auf Morgen, which premiered in 1930). But the most memorable operatic telephone of the inter-war years is to be found in the lugubrious disillusion of the Benares Song from Kurt Weill's Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny). The setting of the broken English line "Is here no telephone?" and its response, "Oh Sir, God damn me, no." is unforgettable.
Two well-known operas are entirely dependent on the telephone. Gian Carlo Menotti's The Telephone (1946) deals with a young woman so telephone-obsessed that her boyfriend Ben can't get a word in edgewise when he wants to propose. He has to leave the house and call back to do it by phone.
Poulenc's La voix humaine (The Human Voice, 1958) is non-pareil, its sole character an anonymous jilted woman on her last call with her lover. The only levity is her having to deal with the unpredictable vicissitudes of pre-digital landlines.
He's in such a state that he can't find the armpit when he puts on his clothes or make sure that his violin case will stay shut
The Second Violinist, Donnacha Dennehy's new opera with a libretto by Enda Walsh which premiered at Galway Arts Festival last week, takes the phone in opera fully into the 21st century.
Martin, the violinist of the title, is in meltdown. His connection with the world is mediated through his mobile phone. He’s in such a state that he can’t find the armpit when he puts on his clothes or make sure that his violin case will stay shut.
Small wonder then that he doesn’t want to work or that he deletes voicemails to escape their content. Nothing good is likely to happen in a downward spiral that seems to be unstoppable. By the end the alienated musician has blood on his hands, and it’s not his own.
Walsh and Dennehy – and that would seem to be the pecking order between the creators of this work – have chosen to turn away from the profession of their protagonist when it comes to the musical content of The Second Violinist.
As in their previous opera, The Last Hotel, the character who commands most attention remains mute. Aaron Monaghan's Martin does not sing to express his inner turmoil, nor does he even speak of it. He communicates through his clear discomfiture, his agitation, the sheer physicality of his being so at odds with the world. We see a lot of what is really going on in his life through video projections that mirror the screen of his mobile phone.
The work of video designer Jack Phelan – whose images take up the full width of the Black Box Theatre stage – integrates beautifully and seamlessly
The elements combine in a way that makes for a consummate piece of theatre, not least because of Walsh’s own directorial flair, and the appeal of Jamie Vartan’s multi-layered, extremely wide set and Joan Clery’s costumes. The work of video designer Jack Phelan – whose images take up the full width of the Black Box Theatre stage – integrates beautifully and seamlessly, though the sound design by David Sheppard and Helen Atkinson is loud enough to denature the vocal character of both the solo voices and the 16-member chorus.
The singing characters – Matthew, a younger version of Martin (Benedict Nelson), his wife Amy (Sharon Carty) and Hannah (Máire Flavin), the friend she is in love with, all strongly sung – are from another world, the world of his own past as imagined by Martin. It's not a million miles away from the manner in which the old, bed-ridden writer in Alain Resnais's 1977 film Providence creates and manipulates his own peculiarly skewed family scenarios.
The apartness of these characters is heightened by the music, which places them in a calmer, more smoothly aligned world than the rhythmically more intricate, often microtonally separating lines that emanate from Crash Ensemble in the pit under American conductor Ryan McAdams.
Dennehy has woven into the score a musical connection with the Italian Renaissance composer, Gesualdo, who is famous not just for the intense chromaticism of his vocal writing, but also – and here is the connection with Martin – for having brutally murdered his wife and her lover in bed.
I couldn't avoid the feeling that this was a word-dominated rather than a musically-driven show
There are complex evocations of Gesualdo in the score – a musical counterpart to the Gesualdo references in Martin’s texting relationship with the young Scarlett38 (Alyssa Heffernan) – and the timbre of a viola da gamba is also used to colour the instrumental ensemble.
In the end, though, I couldn’t avoid the feeling that this was a word-dominated rather than a musically-driven show, a play with music rather than an opera where it’s the composer who has got to call the shots.