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Opera resonates in hard times

Moments from stage are eerily reflective of life as we wait for this lockdown to end, writes Emer O'Kelly

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Opera fans will love The Veiled Prophet, sung by Sinead Campbell-Wallace, Mairead Buicke, Gavan Ring, Simon Mechlinski and John Molloy, plus the Choruses of the Wexford Festival Opera augmented by that of TU Dublin Conservatoire.

Opera fans will love The Veiled Prophet, sung by Sinead Campbell-Wallace, Mairead Buicke, Gavan Ring, Simon Mechlinski and John Molloy, plus the Choruses of the Wexford Festival Opera augmented by that of TU Dublin Conservatoire.

Children aged from six upwards may prefer The Girl Who Forgot To Sing Badly, by Theatre Lovett. Both available on the RTE Player

Children aged from six upwards may prefer The Girl Who Forgot To Sing Badly, by Theatre Lovett. Both available on the RTE Player

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Opera fans will love The Veiled Prophet, sung by Sinead Campbell-Wallace, Mairead Buicke, Gavan Ring, Simon Mechlinski and John Molloy, plus the Choruses of the Wexford Festival Opera augmented by that of TU Dublin Conservatoire.

People writing for page and virtual stage seem to have just one topic currently; and we need their insights to take us beyond the immediacy of fear and despondency concerning the pandemic. But another art form has always found inspiration in plague, imprisonment and isolation. And that's opera.

And quite weirdly, two operas staged in Ireland in the past year have seemed to pre-figure the emotions and privations of coronavirus. Most striking was Fidelio, staged by Lyric Opera director Vivian Coates in the NCH in February as part of the celebrations for Beethoven' s 250th birthday.

Set in Spain, the composer's only opera tells the story of Florestan, a political prisoner being starved to death in isolation in a hidden dungeon far beneath the "ordinary" (but still hideous) cells of a local prison. The hero, however, is his faithful wife Leonore, who disguises herself as a labourer (Fidelio) to gain entrance to try to free him.

The prison governor responsible for his unjust imprisonment decides to murder the already almost dead Florian because a visit from the state governor will expose his villainy. So, as Fidelio/Leonore is being forced to dig her husband's grave, help arrives. And in the meantime all of the prisoners, none of whom has seen daylight for years, are allowed a brief period in the sunshine, where they sing one of the great choruses of opera.

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Children aged from six upwards may prefer The Girl Who Forgot To Sing Badly, by Theatre Lovett. Both available on the RTE Player

Children aged from six upwards may prefer The Girl Who Forgot To Sing Badly, by Theatre Lovett. Both available on the RTE Player

Children aged from six upwards may prefer The Girl Who Forgot To Sing Badly, by Theatre Lovett. Both available on the RTE Player

In Coates' production, the moment was touchingly and effectively staged with the dazed chorus, in filthy white rags wandering blindly in the light. And the moment has been eerily with me throughout the past weeks as we wait to emerge from the crushing burden of lockdown.

There was another coincidence in the production: soprano Sinead Campbell-Wallace sang the glorious role of Leonore/Fidelio. And last year at Wexford Festival Opera, she sang the role of the heroine in a concert performance of Charles Villiers Stanford's 1870s opera The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan. Stanford composed the opera based on the Thomas Moore poem, Lalla Rookh with the veiled prophet, Mokanna, hiding himself from view to prevent his terrible demonic visage being seen.

Holding his Persian society hostage, Mokanna sends young warrior Azim at the head of an army to confront the advancing ruler, leaving the boy's lover Zelica to beg to have him returned to her. But singing "Here, judge if Hell with all its power to damn/can add one curse to the foul thing I am", Mokanna reveals his face to the girl and she collapses.

But Azim does return, and overcomes the false prophet, but not until Mokanna has poisoned his own soldiers as his power wanes.

The opera had only been staged a few times in the past, first in German in Hanover, and for a single performance in Italian at Covent Garden early in the last century. But its "resurrection" in Wexford last year, (championed by Una Hunt's company Heritage Music Productions) was the first time it had been sung with the original English libretto by William Barclay Squire. David Brophy conducted with Simon Mechlinski as Mokanna and Gavan Ring as Azim. The Veiled Prophet, with all its prophetic resonances for our time, can still be viewed on the RTE Player.

And also available for viewing (for the entire summer) is a stream from Sydney Opera House. It's the longstanding Theatre Lovett hit, The Girl who Forgot to Sing Badly, an opera aimed at children aged six and upwards.

By Finegan Kruckemeyer, The Girl Who Forgot to Sing Badly features Louis Lovett himself, and was recorded on tour at Sydney Opera House's The Studio in 2014.

It tells the story of Peggy, who packs fruit alongside her parents, and sings like an angel… an unfortunate angel who can't sing at all. But when the packing jobs dry up, and Peggy emerges into the light, she finds that the city is empty. And in trying to salvage things, Peggy discovers that courage can help you to sing gloriously as well as badly. Perhaps yet another operatic lesson for Times of Covid.

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