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Old Ghosts opera: ‘James Joyce’s writing is as near to music as prose can ever be’

Writer Marina Carr and composer Evangelia Rigaki explain how they approached making an opera inspired by the Penelope chapter of Ulysses

Ulysses 2.2, the year-long celebration of James Joyce’s great novel by Anu, Landmark Productions and MoLI (Museum of Literature Ireland), ends with an opera. Evangelia Rigaki and Marina Carr’s Old Ghosts is a response to the Penelope chapter of Ulysses and has just four characters – Joyce, Nora, Homer and Penelope.

Greek composer Rigaki is head of music at Trinity College Dublin. Two of her operas have been produced in Dublin. “AntiMidas, or, Bankers in Hades” was a 2013 response to the global financial crisis, with a libretto by Scottish poet WN Herbert. This Hostel Life was a 2019 installation opera about direct provision, after the book by Melatu Uche Okorie, that was first performed in the crypt of Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral. Who says living composers cannot or do not address the issues of our own time?

Rigaki seems a little nonplussed when I ask about her relationship to Joyce. “I read James Joyce while I was a student. I read Dubliners the moment I arrived in Dublin, I thought it would be appropriate. And now with the Ulysses anniversary, I read that book again, when we got the commission for the project. I was reading Ulysses and an analysis about Ulysses quite a lot, until I got Marina’s words for Old Ghosts. I thought it would help me get into the project. I was trying to figure it out, get an understanding. But once the words of Marina arrived I put Joyce aside and focused on what I now had in front of me. I’m not an expert in Joyce. I feel appreciation and respect.”

Carr studied Joyce as part of her English degree at UCD and, through his letters, relates to him as “a gorgeous man, a beautiful human being” while being well aware of his shortcomings. She marvels at how early he figured out that he needed to leave Ireland and also at “the longing in the work for home and the way he captured the heart and soul of the nation and the people. He’s someone you keep on the desk, like the dictionary, the source. He’s there and you dip in anywhere and look at a line – you can take an adjective or a word and think about how you might use it yourself. Or when you’re more relaxed, just savour the work. He’s incredible.”

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She says later: “He was an extraordinary writer, but he struggled. He struggled like everyone struggles. So that makes him very relatable for someone approaching him and his work.”

When Irish National Opera sounded her out after the company got involved in the Ulysses 2.2 project, she says, “I jumped at it. It’s easy to write a libretto. The composition is a little more difficult.”

She knows rather more about the challenges of composition than you might expect. Her father, the writer Hugh Carr, also studied music and had composition lessons from the composer Frederick May (1911-1985), whose 1936 String Quartet in C minor is a major landmark in Irish music. Hugh Carr also wrote music for some of his plays and family life was infused with music, including having to sit through recordings of Mahler symphonies on Sunday afternoons as a child, which the young Marina did not appreciate. But Mahler is a composer she now adores. “It was passed on, the love of music.”

Carr says that she has always been fascinated by Molly Bloom, “just the role of that and the cadenza, the sweep of it, the outer reaches of expression and modes of thought and feeling that it encompasses. You know there are only eight sentences in the whole thing, which is over 30 pages. That was the starting point.”

Then, she says, “I was thinking, because Molly Bloom has been done to death, that I’m not having Molly Bloom in the chapter about Molly Bloom.” She laughs. “What do I do then? I began thinking about the source and the inspiration that Joyce would have drawn on. Obviously Homer comes to mind, so I had Homer in there. I thought, I’m not having Molly Bloom but I can have Penelope. And then Joyce and Nora, of course. That’s kind of where it came from for me.”

The opera is set in one of the rooms in which Joyce lived in Trieste. The two upstairs rooms in MoLI, where the performances will take place, have an old-world quality that really suits the opera, says Carr, beyond the fact that Joyce studied there.

Rigaki’s musical process only started when she got the words, a fact that is not to be taken for granted in opera. Tales are legion of composers writing chunks of music before a single word has been written – or composing music that does not fit the supplied text or that requires more words to be provided.

Rigaki wrote nothing before she read the text. “The driving force when I write an opera is the words. I build any concept I might have in music only after I read the words. For me the most important is the words and the idea, and only then do I create the musical world. I try to start with a clean slate in every operatic project I do, and have different approaches for each one. So this one is a direct response to Marina’s words and what was needed for this piece.”

So, what kind of words are they? There are dialogues and monologues, conversations between Joyce and Homer and Joyce and Nora. And, explains Carr, “the final section is Joyce writing a letter to his Auntie Josephine”. From her earlier experience as a librettist she understands that “there’s always too much libretto, and it always has to be cut. Evangelia was very good on this. We only cut a couple of lines, I think. I was going to cut more, and Evangelia said, ‘No. I’ll make it faster,’ or something like that.

“Trying to marry music and text is a challenge. I always think that with opera the librettist is the easy job. It’s the composer and the singers who have the hard job, and the orchestra. There are few words, and you have to allow for the emotion that the music will carry. It will complete the story. Getting that balance right is the thing.”

The opera, says Rigaki, is scored for saxophone, harp, percussion, cello and double bass. The fact there are four singers, and the size of the room, influenced the writing. “I couldn’t go very, very loud, for example,” she says. “I had to take account of the acoustics of the room and create something that would work in a small space, but also work when it is recorded, because there’s going to be a video.”

She describes Old Ghosts as “a dream project for me. It allowed me to bring my Greek background into play. It’s the first time for me to do something like the Odysseus myth in an opera. I’ve tried to make an amalgamation of Greek sounds, Irish sounds, Monteverdi, jazz, Xenakis. There are so many references in the piece that I never saw coming before I read the libretto. That was a very interesting journey.”

It is also, she says, “a very different approach than the last opera I did for Irish National Opera, which was again in a site-specific place. This Hostel Life was a peripatetic experience [the audience could walk through the crypt where independent, simultaneous performances were taking place], now it is all about the text. This Hostel Life was all about the experience, not the text, it was about the sounds and how they impose on you, because you had four performances happening at the same time. It was not important to understand all the words. It was important to get the webs of sounds, because it was about direct provision and all that it creates. Now, in Old Ghosts, it is about the words. I hope that all the words are understood. It’s a completely different approach.”

The two are already working together on a new project. Rigaki explains that she is “in discussion about a full-scale project with Marina and Irish National Opera to follow Old Ghosts. My dream is to write operas with Marina until I die. For me this is a dream collaboration.”

And, as a writer putting words in the mouth of a great writer and his muse, was Carr liberated or constrained by the task? “Liberated. Who am I? I loved it. Because I love the man, I love his work. I didn’t feel constrained at all. He was such free spirit, I think, a wonderful singer himself, and musician. His writing, his work, is as near to music as prose can ever be. It was a joy. I only hope I’ve done him justice.”

The Irish National Opera’s and ANU’s production of Evangelia Rigaki and Marina Carr’s Old Ghosts – with Christopher Bowen (Joyce), Jade Phoenix (Nora), William Gaunt (Homer), and Doreen Curran (Penelope) – is directed by Louise Lowe, designed by Owen Boss and Saileóg O’Halloran, and conducted by Elaine Kelly. It runs at MoLI from Thursday, February 2nd, to Saturday, February 4th. See ulysses22.ie