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A sock down in lockdown with 20 Shots of artistry

20 Shots of Opera

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Gavan Ring sings while Stephen Irvine plays tuba in 'Mrs Streicher'

Gavan Ring sings while Stephen Irvine plays tuba in 'Mrs Streicher'

Gavan Ring sings while Stephen Irvine plays tuba in 'Mrs Streicher'

It may be depressing to realise that we are heading into another extended period without hope of our theatres and concert halls opening. Yet audiences as well as directors, writers, performers and composers are adjusting to the reality. The result is work planned specifically with a computer screen in mind. That may be no substitute for the open live stage of a concert hall or theatre, but when it is planned by an expert craftsman, it can come close to sending shivers of pleasure up your spine, even without being part of a living, breathing audience.

And that is what has happened with Irish National Opera's 20 Shots of Opera. It was filmed in November in the Gaiety Theatre, and became available free of charge on www.irishnationalopera.ie on December 17. It's still there.

The direction of the project was in the hands of actor director Hugh O'Conor in his first foray into opera. He also directed three of the operas, all 20 of which were commissioned by the INO. Each of them run from six to eight minutes.

O'Conor's eye, very much that of a film man, is there throughout, and with minimal sets (all by Sarah Bacon) there is a sense of appetite satisfied: these pieces never leave you with a feeling that the composers, librettists and directors are making the most of a bad situation. They engage as unabashed works of art in their own right.

Only two seemed to me to be more sound exercises to show-case the voice (although that in itself has a value), and they all told their brief stories from charming to tragic to meditative without apology, and without seeming to sigh for the more "normal" medium.

The composers were led off with an eminent bang, with Gerald Barry's Mrs Streicher, with extracts from Beethoven's irritated letters to Nanette Streicher, sung by tenor Gavan Ring as he rages about difficulties ranging from losing his socks in the laundry to getting caught in the rain wearing only thin trousers, all rising to a passion of clearly terrified neurosis. The piece also featured Stephen Irvine on tuba.

All the scores are played, usually mood-perfectly, by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, with conducting credits throughout shared between INO artistic director Fergus Sheil and Elaine Kelly. Twenty singers, several actors, and a number of directors contribute, with Jo Mangan responsible for five, and the directorial list including Annabelle Comyn, Aoife Spillane-Hinks, Tom Creed, Caitriona McLaughlin, and husband and wife team Louis Lovett and Muireann Ahern.

But it is, of course, the singers who take pride of place, and they include stars such as Claudia Boyle, Imelda Drumm, Orla Boylan, Mairéad Buicke, Sinéad Campbell-Wallace and Andrew Gavin, through to the up and coming: Brenton Ryan, Rachel Croash, Raphaela Mangan, Naomi-Louisa O'Connell, Gyula Nagy, as well as enchanting boy soprano Sean Hayden (and that's not all of them) and it is an extraordinarily impressive guide to the vocal talent in this country, much of it under-used and under-celebrated.

For the operas themselves, those that "tell a story" have particular appeal, and make for a ready appreciation of the approachability of new music.

Hannah Peel's Close gives us the first "real date" between two young women who have met online, and now, socially distanced in the time of Covid, set out to get to know each other, apologetically admitting that each has brought protective gloves. It's almost brutally touching as delivered by Rachel Croash and Raphaela Mangan.

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Conor Lenihan's The Patient Woman gives us a stridently hypochondriac woman (Imelda Drumm) bothering her exhausted doctor (Brenton Ryan). "You're all I've got, Doc," she whines. Except it's true, as she reaches the blank wall of death.

Alex Dowling's Her Name shows a boy chorister, now boarding at school following the death of his mother. ("I'm a reminder.") But the boy holds his dead mother in his head, never voicing her name.

In contrast, David Coonan's Verballing is hilarious, as Amy Ní Fhearraigh sings the (animated) role of a garda being coached in how to interview suspects without walking herself into trouble.

There isn't a bummer among the 20, but perhaps it's Jenn Kirby's Dichotomies of Lockdown which best sums up 2020 as Aebh Kelly (mezzo) and Andrew Gavin (tenor) "converse", moving from eulogising the garden birdsong to listing the dreary familiarities of lockdown life. Their opinion? "We're f***ed!"

Operatically, as this collection proves, we're definitely not.


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