Opera houses survive, even thrive, despite Boulez’s pessimism

Opera repertoire has broadened since the French composer’s 1967 comments, and ‘The Invader’ continues a fine recent tradition of new opera in Ireland

Ten years ago I interviewed Pierre Boulez in connection with the 2004 RTÉ Living Music Festival. I had to ask him about opera, given his famous 1967 interview in Der Spiegel that was provocatively headlined "Blow up the opera houses".

The positions Boulez outlined in the interview were extreme. His contention was that, "since Alban Berg's Wozzeck and Lulu, not a single opera worthy of discussion has been composed". That would include late Janacek, and Britten, to name just two composers who have managed to establish places in the international repertoire since then. Boulez had no time for the idea that commissioning new works would solve the issue. "I don't think you can commission a new movement into life," he said. "It's like saying that an obstetrician is sufficient to bring a child into the world. There's something else that has to happen first."

In the 2004 interview, he told me that “opera houses are basically busy with repertoire, but the only things which are really new are the views of the directors. Good directors saved the opera . . . The best productions I have seen were by Peter Brook, Patrice Chéreau and Peter Stein, when they could remodel the space according to the productions.”

Irish composers look to opera


But opera houses have survived, and Boulez has gone on to work in them, conducting not only Berg, but also Debussy and Wagner. The repertoire being presented has broadened, and new operas continue to be written, even in Ireland.

In fact, Irish composers' growing interest in opera has been one of the most amazing musical stories here in the past quarter of a century. It's hard to know exactly what sparked it. AJ Potter's The Wedding was produced at the Abbey Theatre by the original Irish National Opera in 1981. James Wilson's Letters to Theo and Grinning at the Devil found traction in the 1980s. 1990 brought Gerald Barry's The Intelligence Park to the stage in London and Dublin, and his television opera The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit to Channel 4 in 1994. And Opera Theatre Company commissioned and performed four short operas (from Raymond Deane, Marian Ingoldsby, John Buckley and Kenneth Chalmers) when Dublin was European City of Culture in 1991.

It could be that any or all of these productions sparked other composers’ interest in the medium. Whatever the reason, opera has become almost a badge of honour that a lot of Irish composers want to acquire.

The rewriting of the Irish opera landscape after the demise of Opera Ireland is starving the capital of the supply of standard repertoire that it used to have, a situation that needs to be rectified as soon as possible. But the Arts Council is using the absence of a client on the scale of Opera Ireland to redistribute its curtailed opera budget in a way that provides greater opportunities for new Irish work. Boulez, eat your heart out.

The latest beneficiary is Eric Sweeney, whose new The Invader, to a libretto by Mark Roper, opened at the Theatre Royal in Waterford on Friday, and will also be seen at the Wexford Opera House on Friday. It is, if you like, the antithesis of Evangelia Rigaki's AntiMidas, which premiered at Trinity College Dublin's Samuel Beckett Theatre in December. Rigaki, who is Greek, took on the subject of the economic crash and presented it as a kind of Greek tragedy. The Invader is a reworking of Euripides's The Bacchae, updated to the present. AntiMidas was a shoestring production. The Invader, courtesy of designer Monica Frawley, is good-looking and elegant.

The action takes place in a comfortable, present-day drawing room in the home of Rex (Joe Corbett), his mother Agatha (Alison Browner) and his daughter Mia (Natasha Jouhl). The forest, which is the domain of the threatening spirit Dion (Telman Guzhevsky) is visible through a wall of French windows at the back. Dion, of course, triumphs, and the unhinged, cross-dressed Rex dies at the hand of his equally unhinged daughter.

The musical style might best be described as eclectic minimalist. Echoes of Philip Glass abound, but the musical material is much more varied, the 10-player ensemble exploring areas of harshness and dissonance as well as harmonic clarity. The vocal lines work hard to carry the words audibly in a style that bows more to practices of the 19th century than those of the 21st.

The most vital onstage presence is the chorus, seven voices representing the women of the city, who are taken by director Ben Barnes through any number of pseudo-erotic gyrations.

Corbett’s Rex, an overprotective parent if ever there was one, is forceful and forced, Browner’s Agatha concerned and wise, and Jouhl’s Mia youthfully alive and vivacious. Guzhevsky’s Dion is sweet and sour, seductive and repellent in equal measure. But, musically and vocally, the chorus commands the greatest attention.

Both Roper's text and Sweeney's respect for it seem strong enough for the work to sometimes come across as more of a play with music than an opera proper. It's as if Sweeney has accepted the ascendancy of the words to the point where he is prepared to let his music function as a supportive background. In terms of 21st- century Irish opera, he has taken the opposite approach to Gerald Barry, for whom the music, however zany it may be and however much it challenges the words, is always paramount.

Boulez’s 1967 interview, by the way, was to cause the great man some trouble many years later, in Switzerland in 2001, where, it seems, the authorities had kept the comment about opera houses on file as well as a claim that Boulez had threatened to blow up a critic after a bad review. The two statements led to Boulez having his passport confiscated and being detained for questioning before it was satisfactorily established that he was not a terrorist.

The Invaders is at Wexford Opera House on Friday