Sunday 17 December 2017

Theatre: Lost in translation: the new love of Roddy Doyle

Big sounds: Gavin Quinn and Roddy Doyle at the Don Giovanni rehearsals. Photo: Mark Stedman
Big sounds: Gavin Quinn and Roddy Doyle at the Don Giovanni rehearsals. Photo: Mark Stedman

Maggie Armstrong

The first opera Roddy Doyle ever went to was Madama Butterfly, a long time ago. "Didn't like it. Found it tedious," says the Booker-winning creator of novels, short stories, children's books, plays, screenplays, prodigious Facebook posts, a musical and, now, translator of Don Giovanni for Opera Theatre Company and the Dublin Theatre Festival.

Not a lifetime fan of the aria, when he gave up teaching in 1993 to write full-time, he found the days "long and yawning". He started playing music, but rock, pop and soul were too distracting - "there was too much fussiness and business". So he listened to Maria Callas. Next, he started attending live and screened opera.

"I often don't enjoy or really care about the story or the plot. I know a lot of people go to the opera armed with information. I think that's missing the point. I just sit back. I like it because you're subjected to this music for hours. It just keeps on flowing and flowing."

Last year Doyle received an unexpected email from Fergus Shiel of Opera Theatre Company. Invited to translate Mozart's 1787 opera buffa - that's a light opera, fact fans - it didn't take him long to make his mind up.

"The notion of translation really intrigued me. I didn't have to come up with a story because it was there already. That's the biggest anxiety of the lot - how to get to an ending. That's the type of stuff that would keep me awake."

Doyle is "always working on a novel", but likes to spice things up when he can. "The older I get, the more I'm interested in doing work that is foreign. Things I've never done before. I like the idea of an occasional adventure. I like the gamble of can I do it, will I be capable of doing it? My taste is very broad. I'd hate to limit myself."

A hunger for the new seems part of the reason Doyle does so few interviews.

"This would not be a first love," he admits over our coffee. "I don't like hearing myself repeating myself constantly, I don't think it's good."

His Don Giovanni adventure lasted a year: "It was very, very slow at first".

"There are 73 pieces of music that require translation, so it's a huge job."

Before Doyle got working on the libretto, he listened to the music "incessantly". He listened on iTunes, timing each line to the second as he examined the rhyme schemes, and sat with two translations from the Italian in front of him, on a monitor and an iPad. After he had written 10 pages, he learned that certain words wouldn't work in song as they would in speech. "It was an education, to put it mildly."

Don Giovanni's tale of seduction and excess - directed by Gavin Quinn of Pan Pan - will be "set in Dublin without being slavish to the place", says Doyle. "It's about a bit of a lad, who won't settle down, so to speak. But even though it's called Don Giovanni, I, quite early on, decided that it's actually about the three women. They're very contrasting - musically and lyrically - because psychologically they're very different. And they're strong."

It's no wonder that Doyle grew up in a house full of music, in the north Dublin suburb of Kilbarrack, third of four children. His father, Rory, was a printer who played the banjo. His mother, Eta, still lives in Kilbarrack in her 90s. "It was a very good, stable, humorous, warm upbringing that I had," he says, describing a house stacked with books and records, including classical records that his parents loved.

A love of big sounds was part of the reason he enjoyed being a teacher - teaching a class of 17-year-olds when he was just 21. He says a writer "is never on the inside", but, "I was listening. I wasn't listening as a novelist, I was just listening as someone who liked listening. I realised that if I was to be successful at this job, I'd have to listen - I couldn't impose silence."

Doyle appears to thrive on chaos and voices. His love of being around the young people of Kilbarrack was the reason he wrote The Commitments.

"I wanted an excuse to bring a bunch of young people together, so they'd all be talking at the same time, and there'd be the fights, and the affection and the jealousies." And he didn't want just any band. "I wanted it to be a big band". His desire to take the fear out of writing and encourage self-expression in young people is the reason he set up Fighting Words - another cacophony of voices which he visits every week.

Of late, he's been going between rehearsals for his The Commitments musical (playing in October at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre) and Don Giovanni. "I'm rarely at my desk these days, I'm just mooching around listening to music. It's great." As low-key as they come, Doyle likes the job description "translator".

"People will come to this because it's by Mozart, not because it's translated. Ultimately, they're not going to come away and say 'that was a great story'. They're going to come away full of the music."

Don Giovanni plays at the Gaiety Theatre September 29, October 1 & 2 as part of Dublin Theatre Festival and Cork Opera House, October 5 and 7.

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