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‘I was five when I saw my first opera and about 14 when my dad started building the theatre’

Polly Graham, who is directing Irish National Opera’s new Così Fan Tutte as an antidote to cancel culture, grew up with an opera house in the back garden

It has been decried as vulgar, immoral and miserable yet also celebrated as sparkling, witty and delightful, so what is one to make of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte? Certainly there are delicacies, if not huge red flags, to be aware of when staging an opera the title of which more or less translates as Women Are All the Same. For Polly Graham, who is directing a new production for Irish National Opera, it is a lot more interesting to explore where ideas come from, how they work and how they can be reworked than simply to call for cancellation.

In truth, if you were feeling squeamish about the typecasting and the victimisation of women, much of the world’s operatic canon would be on the list for decommissioning, and the opera buffas, or comic operas, are as much in the firing line as the great operatic tragedies. Graham agrees that what happens to characters such as Tosca and Madame Butterfly may be pretty unsatisfactory by any woke standards, but she suggests that, for an artist, “there is so much to play in those roles, I wouldn’t write them off completely”. Instead, she describes how one of the beauties of an art form that combines music, words and acting is that it enables you to shift the emphasis in subtle as well as more overt ways, often with profound effects.

Graham has been listening to a podcast by the African American academic and activist Loretta Ross. “She’s talking about how cancel culture is incredibly disruptive. She has this other phrase, this idea of calling in instead of calling out, of basically invoking a dialogue with the thing that makes you angry or frustrated, instead of just cancelling it. I think that is so much more interesting.”

Graham grew up with opera in her blood. The UK-born director studied English at Trinity College Dublin, a choice of university made in part because of her Irish mother, but it was the opera house her father built in the family back garden – now home of Longborough Festival Opera – in the Cotswolds that set her path for life. “I was five when I saw my first opera,” she says, “and about 14 when he started building the theatre,” referring to her father, Martin Graham.


In a story with echoes of We Bought a Zoo, the 2011 film with Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, Martin Graham began his working life as a labourer, then started his own building business. Good timing (buying houses in London in the 1970s) and hard work (doing up houses in London in the 1970s) left him and his wife, Lizzie, a comprehensive-school teacher, well off enough to realise a dream or two.

After discovering opera via BBC radio, Martin bought a recording of La Bohème and, so the story goes, insisted on playing it at his building sites. His workforce, he once told the Guardian, would throw bricks at the tape machine. Then he began “playing Verdi, or perhaps a bit of Mozart”. “My dad started everything and my mum made it happen,” Graham has said. “My dad is incredible and limitless in his thinking – before Longborough he was flying hot-air balloons around Europe.”

My dad is incredible and limitless in his thinking – before Longborough he was flying hot-air balloons around Europe

When we talk, via Zoom, Graham is sitting cross-legged on the floor of a storage room somewhere at Artane School of Music, in north Dublin, where Irish National Opera’s cast are rehearsing. Instrument cases lean against walls behind her, but at least there’s a bit of quiet. “We are sometimes interrupted by trumpets,” she says, laughing. “My dad was the total outsider,” she continues. “He was just, ‘I don’t care, I want to do this…’” She describes the early days of the acclaimed Longborough Festival Opera, of which she is now artistic director, as “total chaos the whole time. But hugely exciting. There was just a very blurred boundary between what was family life and what was a festival. But it was also wonderful.”

Seeing opera as something amazing, cool and fun rather than as a schmoozefest for the aspirational ultrawealthy makes Graham a perfect fit for Irish National Opera, a company, she says, that arouses a certain amount of envy among some of its UK counterparts. “I see INO taking loads of risks and being so full of energy and verve and creativity in a way that is terribly hard to see in the UK companies,” she says. “That is not a critique of any of the amazing people who run the buildings and the companies in the UK, it’s just the wider culture is not supporting risk, and not supporting the value of art for art’s sake. The state of arts funding in the UK is so depressing, and so restrictive.”

Graham’s risk-taking with Così Fan Tutte involves setting it in Ireland around 1914-15 and bringing in narratives of socialism, nationalism and nascent feminism. Originally premiered in Vienna in 1790, Mozart’s opera has, in other productions, been set in a 1950s carnival fairground inspired by Coney Island, in New York, and at Cambridge University in the 1970s. “I had been reading Roy Foster’s incredible book Vivid Faces,” Graham says of her decision about time and place. “I have become completely obsessed with this period. You could think about politics, but you could also think about individual lives and connect to them.” Another influence is JG Farrell’s Troubles. Published in 1970, Troubles definitely demonstrates that comedy can be drawn from very tragic circumstances.

Graham adds Patrick Kavanagh’s line that “Tragedy is underdeveloped Comedy, not fully born”. In this production she is aided, she says, by a cast that “are some of the most skilful and clever and capable artists. They can turn things on a sixpence, from tragedy to comedy.” Yes, there are elements of tragedy, and definitely hints at its potential, but ultimately, she says, “it is very, very funny”.

Comedy or tragedy, the plot of Così Fan Tutte is definitely a tricky one. In a reductive nutshell, the cynical Don Alfonso bets two young men that all women are unfaithful and that their own fiancees, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi, are no better than the rest. The men fall in with his plans and pretend to go off to war, returning disguised as foreign soldiers to woo each other’s lover.

In fairness, Dorabella and Fiordiligi hold out for at least act one before more chicanery tips them into succumbing. Despina, their maid, gets involved. Pretending to be a notary, she draws up a fake marriage certificate, and just when everything is completely unravelling the men return as themselves, initially claiming that they find it hard to forgive their lovers (yes, even though they’re in it up to their necks), but, as it’s a comedy, everyone ends up living happily ever after.

As a mezzo, Sharon Carty, who plays Dorabella, alternating with Gemma Ní Bhriain, has sung both male and female roles. She was a brilliant Orfeo in INO’s 2018 production of Orfeo ed Euridice. “You do get to explore more,” she says. “As a woman you can be wife, mother, sister, but when you go on stage in a trouser role it is such fun.” Fun is still to be had in a dress, and with this production, Carty says, “as a female singer, singing the role of one of the women who are duped, the end is very satisfying”.

So how do you go about that shifting of emphasis? Do you change the libretto? Carty refers to the idea of “the third line”, which the opera director and writer Daniel Helfgot describes as something that develops within the interaction between words and music. For a director or singer, that includes “subtext, focus, movement, facial expression, and vocal inflection”.

Graham points out the example of when Despina laments the drudgery of being a maid. “This is usually done in a very commedia dell’arte way, with a very direct chat to the audience. She’s always alone on stage, so we’ve changed that and given her 16 people to kind of radicalise, all the staff of the household. It makes perfect sense, as if she’s just been to a James Connolly political meeting and has come home to disseminate pamphlets.”

It’s a reminder that everything in life and in history is subject to perspective and interpretation – and a reminder of how frequently we forget that. The other thing about Così Fan Tutte is that it is justly celebrated for the elegance of its score. “The music is incredibly beautiful,” Carty says. “Come see it. You won’t regret it.”

Irish National Opera’s Così Fan Tutte opens at the National Opera House, Wexford, on Friday, May 19th, then moves to the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, from Tuesday, May 23rd, to Saturday, May 27th, and Cork Opera House on Wednesday, May 31st, and Friday, June 2nd; there will also be concert performances at University Concert Hall, Limerick, on Sunday, May 21st, and at Leisureland, Galway, on Monday, May 29th