A devilish new plan for Faust at the Everyman

Director-conductor John O’Brien has taken an adventurous approach

South Korean tenor Jung Soo Yun, the lead in Faust. Photograph: Miki Barlok

South Korean tenor Jung Soo Yun, the lead in Faust. Photograph: Miki Barlok

 

According to Julie Kelleher, artistic director of the Everyman Palace in Cork, the forthcoming presentation of Gounod’s Faust will have the orchestra embracing the stage playing area “like a halo”. That will come as no surprise given the adventurous approach to staging typical of the production’s director and conductor, John O’Brien.

This time there will be a full orchestra, thanks to an award of €284,000 from the Arts Council. Like previous events such as Der Vampyr in 2014, Orpheus in 2013 and the Irish Times award-winning Pagliacci in 2012, Faust will unite the Everyman and the Cork Operatic Society for what O’Brien says is “by far” his biggest operatic production.

Pagliacci , which was co-directed with Michael Barker-Caven, was massive because of what we were doing with it: involving different companies and expanding the stage. This is big in a different way, with a more conventional core and orchestra, but essentially for me the challenge is always to find the best way of telling the story.”

For the main role, O’Brien has hired the South Korean tenor Jung Soo Yun. “It’s a long role and a high role; a lot of tenors wouldn’t have the range or the stamina to do it. But he’s a beautiful singer, and a lovely guy, a man who’s good to know. That’s very important in this opera because the audience must be drawn in by Faust. The same is true for Julian Tovey as Mephistopheles: the devil must be seductive. I’m attracted to stories that have a mythology, and Goethe’s story is about the fantastical, the quest for youth and a pact with the devil. Opera is a visual representation of the subconscious, the music is the subconscious, that’s what I like about Faust.”

 

Making magic

That impulse to get inside someone’s head also influences the design concept. This will be O’Brien’s 10th collaboration with designer Lisa Zagone, whom he describes as the backbone of the production team.

“Both Lisa and I are interested in showing how the magic is being made; nothing will be hidden and, as the orchestra will surround and envelop the stage, the musicians are intrinsically part of the spectacle.”

In getting it all together, O’Brien will be working with Anna Tilbrook as co-musical director and Philip Connaughton as choreographer and assistant director. O’Brien’s CV takes in film, television, concert, cabaret, opera, carols and choirs in a career dating officially from 2001 and spanning at least two if not more continents.

“I’ll go wherever the work is,” he says about operating from a Cork base. “I have been able to do what I want from Cork, so I see myself as located here and ready to travel wherever the work is offered.”

That work can be as conductor, director, arranger, composer or designer, or as accompanist, as in his work with pianist Ciara Moroney for Side by Side by Sondheim in the Everyman in 2010. Over time, he has built up something of a resident team of background allies. For some productions, O’Brien’s lead singers have been guests of international experience but he can also rely on native talent such as Michael Grennell, who sang Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman at the Cork Opera House in 2013, or Cara O’Sullivan, who sings Marguerite in Faust and was the eponymous heroine of Dido and Aeneas in 2012, Nedda in Pagliacci, and Pirelli in Sweeney Todd in 2010.

 

Close to the energy

Music has always been O’Brien’s way into what he describes as doing cool stuff with nice people. He is content to surf theatre’s uncertainties because “it’s the life I signed up for”. His long association with the Everyman is another constant, and he enjoys the venue’s intimacy as a means of keeping the audience close to the energy on the stage.

 

Faust runs February 20th-28th

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