As a relative stranger to opera, I am not sure what to expect from the one that opens at Dublin's Abbey Theatre this coming Monday. But my seat is firmly reserved and to say that I'm intrigued and excited by the prospect would be an understatement.
The unlikely subject of the opera is one I featured here a few years ago: the short-lived but glorious Monaghan Soviet of 1919, when the red flag was raised over that town’s Lunatic Asylum (as it was then known) and, led by the Donegal union organiser Peader O’Donnell, workers went on strike for better pay and conditions.
Before that, they had endured a 93-hour week, poorly remunerated, and could not even go home between shifts, although as the management countered indignantly, they did “get off every 13th day and every fourth Sunday from 10 o’clock”.
Despite such generosity, they demanded more and barricaded themselves in against the expected police onslaught while, behind the barricades, O’Donnell introduced a 48-hour week. He sacked the matron for insubordination, meanwhile and, according to his own later account, had a man who was deemed guilty of spreading “defeatism” locked in a padded cell.
The patriarchal management responded by offering a pay rise for male staff only, but the Soviet held firm against such a shabby compromise, bolstered by support from the hospital inmates who, in classic style, assisted the asylum’s takeover, exchanging clothes with the strikers to confuse potential attackers.
As I summed up here in 2015: “By the time the situation was raised in the House of Commons, on February 20th, 1919, the chief secretary was able to tell MPs that staff were back at work, pending a settlement.
"But that only encouraged Belfast nationalist MP Joe Devlin to ask one of the pithier supplementary questions in Commons history: 'Is the right honourable gentleman aware that the only successfully conducted institutions in Ireland are the lunatic asylums?'"
Anyway, the workers ended up with a 56-hour week, a pay rise for men and women alike, and the right – if they were married – to go home between shifts. In the pantheon of communist placenames, Peter's Lake, the main waterway in Monaghan town, had briefly rivalled Petersburg. James Connolly, Edinburgh-born of Clones parents, would have been proud.
All this considered, the name of the new opera – Elsewhere – seems a little understated and oblique. Prosaic as it might be, for example, "Monaghan Asylum" itself might have sat more comfortably in the operatic alphabet, just after The Magic Flute and Madame Butterfly. But no doubt the chosen title will make its own sense as the new work unfolds.
Composed by Monaghan-born (but partly Paris-educated) Michael Gallen, who also co-wrote the libretto with poet Annemarie Ní Churráin and playwright Dylan Coburn Gray, the opera is said to draw "upon the hum of murmured rosaries, the eccentric lilt of the Border dialect, and the glitched ornamentation of Oriel sean nós song."
I also note that the characters range from “patients and strikers to Marx and Jehovah, shape-shifting between work routines, football matches, negotiations, dances”.
And it’s interesting they should mention football matches because, until now, I would have thought that if any subject from the county of my birth were to lend itself to opera, it must surely be GAA, with its annual melodrama of violent mood-swings, improbable plot twists, and tragic last acts.
Every season starts the same way, in my experience, with a faint stirring of hope. By late spring, this has usually swelled to a torrent of false optimism, in which any doubters face charges of “defeatism” and the threat of imprisonment, or at least of being banned from going to Clones or Croke Park.
The stage is by now set for great things. Then, instead, the evil Don Giovanni (usually wearing a Tyrone jersey) appears from nowhere, accompanied by sinister music and hisses from the audience. And it always ends horribly, with everyone on stage dead and surviving supporters being dragged off to padded cells for the winter.
That’s a slight exaggeration of course. But not only are you allowed to exaggerate in opera, it’s more or less expected. Now that I think of it, I may have to write the Monaghan GAA opera myself yet. That too might feature the hum of murmured rosaries and the eccentric lilt of Border dialects (heavily censored for the stage). Either way, in tribute to the county’s long-serving football manager, I will probably call it “Banty’s Inferno”.