Wednesday 16 January 2019

'It's the art form that cuts the deepest'

The newly formed Irish National Opera kicks off its programme tonight with Thomas Adès's risqué 1995 opera Powder Her Face. The British composer tells Hilary A White about the controversial decision to weave a sex act into one of the arias

Access all arias: Powder Her Face starts a nationwide tour
Access all arias: Powder Her Face starts a nationwide tour

Thomas Adès isn't fooling anyone. When, at the precocious age of 23, he and libretto writer (and novelist) Philip Hensher decided to weave a fellatio scene into an aria of Powder Her Face, they knew what they were doing. Nearly a quarter of a century and hundreds of productions later, it seems to have worked. Adès might as well come clean.

"I can't feign complete innocence," he says, his voice succumbing to the first of many sing-song belly laughs. "There was this element of, are we really going to do this? We were larking around a lot, but we were also fairly serious-minded blokes, and while we'd been talking about how outrageous it'd be, we were also talking about Lulu and similar operas and novels we loved. I can't pretend there wasn't a little bit of an element of, 'well, we'll probably attract a bit of attention'."

While it might sound it, 'fellatio' is not an operatic term. Suffice to say, the transgressive undertow of Powder Her Face has ensured its place as a seminal, mould-busting work of contemporary opera that will tonight launch the recently formed Irish National Opera (INO). Based on the scandalous divorce proceedings of Margaret Campbell - the promiscuous Duchess of Argyll - that rocked polite British society in the early 1960s, the work will romp around the island for the next couple of week and hopefully bring a fizz less associated with the form.

"Having that in an operatic stage was a first at the time," Adès humblebrags. "Back then, we didn't picture this scandalous act literally on stage, we saw it as more a kind of dream sequence. But some productions took it much more literally than we intended, as an explicit thing. The music that appeared from my pencil does have an erotic dimension, but anyone who comes to the piece expecting just something titillating or shocking, there's a lot more to it than that, they'll find… I hope so anyway!"

If it's anything like its creator, today hooting down the phone from the US where he spends most of his time, Powder Her Face will be a bluff and engaging piece that will kick-start INO's mission to cultivate into existence a sustainable opera audience. Adès is aware of the company's challenge, and gently bats away any notions of his natural habitat being a high-brow, elitist place.

"That's so much the wrong way around," he sighs. "Opera is the most 'about-life' art form that there is. Even if the subject is gods and monsters or whatever, or as in Puccini, everyday people, it's the art form that cuts the deepest. It's a complete reversal of the truth to say that it's only designed for elites. The reason it has this reputation is because it can be the most powerful art form of all, some would say the highest, which is a misunderstanding. No matter how great the most wonderful movie or wonderful novel, there's something about an opera that goes beyond itself, beyond music, beyond words, beyond all the individual elements. Does that make any sense?"

Perfect sense, even if Adès' gentle zeal is spilling over as he argues the case. Why else would the one-time semi-finalist in the 1990 BBC Young Musician of the Year turn his attentions to opera when it looked like a career "bashing away at the piano" had been mapped out for him? This son of a linguist father and art-historian mother grew up in North London with the great and good of the cultural world dotted about his days ("Francis Bacon was the most wonderful man. Inspiring. Free-spirited. Very nice."), but it was at an obtuse angle that any such influences struck him.

"You look back on that time and think how extraordinary to meet people like [literary hero] Stephen Spender and [pianist] Alfred Brendel as a matter of course, and I was very lucky. But you have to remember I was also just this chubby schoolboy trying to get on with his maths homework and usually failing. I don't want to give the impression it was one Proustian fellow after the other"

He unfolds himself from a giggle and elaborates: "I mean, this is perverse of me to say, but a bit too much of that sort of thing can be a distraction, making you think you don't actually have to put any work in, which I'm afraid you do. The truth is I loved playing the piano but I hated practising and learning whole recitals. I knew this wasn't really what I was put on earth to do."

Besides the litany of opuses, operas and orchestral wonder works, Adès has a bursting cabinet of honours amassed in his 47 years, from being the director of concert groups and festivals while still in his twenties to being an EMI recording artist to being a virtuoso of contemporary opera whose name is a by-word for "masterpiece".

Today, however, it is his reputation as a grafter that means most to him due to a persistent chip on his shoulder.

"Am I really? Gosh, I'm very glad to hear that because one is convinced that one is bone idle! I remember being called that by a particularly 'truthful' teacher in school and it cut me to the quick so I suppose I've had idleness snapping at my heels all this time since."

Irish National Opera's tour of Powder Her Face opens at the National Opera House, Wexford, tonight and tours to Watergate Theatre, Kilkenny, (Feb 27); Solstice Arts Centre, Navan (March 1); Hawk's Well, Sligo (March 3); O'Reilly Theatre, Dublin (March 6 & 7); and Siamsa Tíre, Tralee (March 9). Full details and tickets at


As part of its remit, Irish National Opera — the newly formed amalgamation of Wide Open Opera and Opera Theatre Company — aims to nurture an opera-going audience here that will sustain ambitious plans it has for large-scale as well as touring productions. Along with affordable ticketing and English surtitles, one of its strategies will be to bring Irish talent to regions rarely graced by the art form.

But how has a nation so in thrall to storytelling through song remained immune to opera’s allure in the first place? Why has the culture of visiting the opera as a family unit evaded Ireland while being commonplace right across Europe?

As INO artistic director Fergus Sheil (inset) explains, Ireland was even something of an opera hub at one stage, a place that created the great tenor (and personal friend of Mozart) Michael Kelly, the peerless John McCormack, and the composer Robert O’Dwyer, who heralded the Cultural Revival with his as gaelige masterwork, Eithne. It is also widely assumed that James Joyce would have devoted his life to singing had the pen not anchored him.  

“There were a lot of Irish composers and a lot of operas performed here,” Mr Sheil explains. “But somehow when we got independence, things like classical music and opera didn’t thrive. They were maybe seen as non-indigenous, and we never really recovered from that.”

According to Mr Sheil, INO’s timing is primed to strike while the iron is hot. Internationally renowned homegrown composers such as Gerald Barry and Donnacha Dennehy and playwright Enda Walsh are part of its plans, as are a recent spate of top-level Irish singers forging big careers overseas such as Tara Erraught. A 2018 Arts Council grant of €2.8m makes it the second largest beneficiary of the funding pot after the Abbey.

“We’re trying to reclaim our position as an opera centre,” Sheil says, “if that’s not too grandiose.”

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