Behind the Scenes: Irish Youth Opera

Interview and write-up: @EmerNestor

Photographs: @FMarshallPhoto

Now in its second year, Irish Youth Opera (IYO) is working hard to highlight the country's depth of wonderful young operatic talent. At the heart of the company beats the desire to afford Irish opera singers the opportunity to perform in leading roles on home soil within a professional environment. This year the IYO, funded by the Arts Council, in collaboration with NI Opera, the Irish Chamber Orchestra, and the Lime Tree Theatre, brings Handel’s comically entertaining Agrippina to Limerick, Galway, Dublin, and Armagh. Founded by a triumvirate of highly regarded singers (Colette McGahon, Suzanne Murphy, and Paul McNamara), IYO is a celebration of Irish artistry.

Co-founder and Artistic Director Colette McGahon elaborates on the genesis of the IYO:

"Together with my fellow founding directors,  I was inspired by the number of Irish opera singers who were developing significant careers abroad, but had never been heard in major roles in a professional production by Irish audiences at home. So the idea of a company 100% dedicated to providing Irish singers with quality professional performance opportunities — in what can be an awkward career time between the end of training and the early years of the profession — was born. Of particular importance to the spirit of IYO is the notion that Irish opera audiences deserve to hear this talent before it becomes unavailable. In addition, the development of younger singers, répétiteurs, conductors and directors is something the company is very involved with through the IYO Mentoring Scheme and our series of workshops for young singers, which to date have been given by Tara Erraught, Henning Ruhe, Ann Murray, Oliver Mears ( Stagecraft), Antonia Cooling (Media Training)."

When asked to comment on this year's collaborations, McGahon reveals:

"It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to draw on the professional experience of NI Opera and the Irish Chamber Orchestra. In Ireland we don’t have an ‘opera sector’ as such...we have individual companies working alone. Therefore, it really is of huge benefit when we join together and ‘sing from the same hymn sheet’."

In relation to the IYO's repertoire choices, co-founder Suzanne Murphy emphasizes the importance of selecting music "that would suit young voices". It is important to the IYO that singers are given "plenty of time to prepare their roles, and have at least a month's rehearsal before performing on tour". She hopes that in the years to come "we could choose operas with slightly larger casts, and perhaps small chorus, to give the singers who are just leaving college an opportunity of working with their more experienced and senior colleagues".

Murphy laments the ever-present issue of funding stating that "even though we have been very lucky with support from the Arts Council for our two productions (Rape of Lucretia in 2014, and Agrippina this year), there is no guarantee that this support will be there in the future".

Especially proud of its intern programme, the IYO offers positions to a young répétiteur, director and conductor. Last year’s intern répétiteur Tom Doyle came to the Lucretia project “quite demoralised” about his future, but after four weeks with the IYO he came out the other side “a changed person, having met so many talented and inspirational people.” Killian Farrell, last year’s intern conductor, "found the experience to be a unique and invaluable learning opportunity" providing "new insight into the opera profession, as well as a fresh perspective" on his own training as a conductor.

This year’s production is headed by director Oliver Mears, who, alongside NI Opera, “jumped at the chance” to collaborate with IYO, “not least because it is our first Handel production”.

Mears hopes to “retain some of the satirical bite of the original, by placing it in a more modern context”. He goes on to clarify:

"Clearly, the political machinations of 1st-century Rome or 18th-century papacy are of little interest to today's audience, but many of Handel's themes — power, corruption, and materialism — are of course just as current now as when he composed the opera. Place-wise, we wanted to have a sense of high-society Rome now, something chic but surface, sophisticated but infected with graft."

The reality of bringing Handel to the modern stage can be challenging. Mears responds to this with:

"The length can be a problem for a modern audience. We are now expected to reverentially watch a piece of music drama à la Wagner in the dark, but of course baroque audiences enjoyed their operas very differently — with food, wining and dining, and conversation. This means that uncut Handel can be very punitive for a modern audience, so we did take about 50 minutes off the original running time. For a stage director, the da capos pose problems of momentum, but as long as one has three strong psychological ideas for A, B and C, things usually fall into place, especially with a cast as gifted as this one."

This is the first time that the Irish Chamber Orchestra have worked with an opera company, and they are thoroughly enjoying the experience.

Jonathan Cohen has been granted the task of conducting the talented orchestra. The Associate Conductor of Les Arts Florissants has worked with an array of ensembles such as the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and Kammerakademie Potsdam. Cohen is founder and Artistic Director of the internationally acclaimed Arcangelo, and a recipient of the Gramophone Recital Award (2012).

We spoke with some of last year’s cast members from Britten's The Rape of Lucretia about the positive impact the IYO has had on their respective careers. Their collective response is refreshingly enthusiastic:

Jennifer Davis (Soprano):

"It was an incredibly nourishing environment to be in, and while there was an emphasis on training and learning, we were treated as young professionals.... After Lucretia, I went straight into a contract with Wexford Festival Opera, which, as always, was a wonderful experience. I had many concert engagements and auditions, made my debut at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, and was accepted on the Jette Parker Young Artist programme at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden."

Gyula Nagy (Baritone):

"The inspiration from all those powerful and creative personalities who worked on Lucretia stimulated me in the best way.... We were afforded the experience of a professional environment: music and stage staff, the infrastructure of Wexford Opera House with its staff, publicity, design and wardrobe etc.... After Lucretia I set off to London the next morning to the National Opera Studio where I had an amazing year of training, meeting and working with wonderful, encouraging personalities..."

Raphaela Mangan (Mezzo-Soprano):

"I loved working with Director Michael Barker-Caven. It was very inspiring working with such brilliant intellect, not only on accessible interpretation but on sheer artistry. His collaborative approach was motivating and liberating. It helped enrich the entire rehearsal and performance period. The past year has been a whirlwind of the usual opera-singer related duties — a very exciting and demanding year."

Ross Scanlon (Tenor):

"IYO provided me with an opportunity to perform a demanding lead role in the repertoire at such an early and vital stage of my career. The last year has been extremely busy, both on the operatic and concert platform, with some very exciting roles coming up."

Carolyn Dobbin (Mezzo-Soprano):

"It was fantastic working together as a team and knowing that you were going to create something special. Having the opportunity to perform a title role back in my home country was an incredibly rewarding experience, and to do so within a safe supportive environment, surrounded by a talented, experienced team was invaluable. Since Lucretia, I've performed a variety of roles, including Fatima (Oberon), the Page in Salome for NI Opera, Verdi’s Requiem, Angelina (La cenerentola), third lady in Die Zauberflöte, the ‘Devil’s Jukebox’ for Opera North, and I'm currently about to sing the dream role of Charlotte in Werther."

Emma Nash (Soprano):

"The cast of Lucretia were all young singers at the beginning of their careers and it was a pleasure to learn from each other as well as the distinguished creative team. This, combined with the constant support and guidance of Colette, Suzanne, and Paul, made it a very exciting and stimulating environment for us. The best part is that we had the opportunity to be showcased on home soil in various venues around Ireland. It’s been a very busy and exciting time...I have since enjoyed working with Wide Open Opera and Longborough Festival Opera, and next month I make my Wexford Opera Festival debut as Gretel in Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel."

This year’s inviting cast includes the musical talents of Máire Flavin (Agrippina), Anna Devin (Poppea), Alan Ewing (Claudio), Rachel Kelly (Nerone), Sharon Carty (Ottone), Brendan Collins (Pallante), Dawn Burns (Narciso), and Padraic Rowan (Lesbo). Suzanne Murphy has this to say about the line up:

"I have known and worked with most of the singers in Agrippina for many years, either in the Opera Class at RIAM or as an individual student at RWCMD. You can't begin to understand the pride I feel, seeing how much they have developed over the years and how beautifully they sing and act. They would grace the stage of any major opera house in the world."

Having completed the opera course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she received a Masters in Music Performance with distinction, Soprano Máire Flavin went on to study with world-renowned pedagogue Janice Chapman at the National Opera Studio. Since then she has gone on to perform with the Welsh National Opera, Scottish Opera and Glyndebourne, and was a finalist in the Song Prize at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition.

Máire, how do you feel to have been cast as the lead in your home country, and what do you hope to bring to the role of the menacing Agrippina?

It is an honour and a delight to be taking on this title role in Ireland. Having recently made the move into soprano repertoire, working in such a nurturing environment on my first Handelian role, has been perfect timing. Often, due to the training available abroad, a lot of the Irish talent are then not seen and heard by the Irish audiences and I relish the opportunity to be able to be a part of such a show case of that talent. Agrippina is such a fascinatingly psychologically complex character and so manipulative. I hope that I can bring all the necessary layers to her character and not just play the obvious. The greatest villains are usually very troubled and, at the core, insecure. It is this sense of vulnerability and insecurity which hs coloured the interpretation.

As a former member of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House, the Britten-Pears YAP, and the National Opera Studio, soprano Anna Devin is making her mark on the Early Music scene. Last year she shared the stage with Joyce Didonato, Alice Coote, Christine Rice, conductor Harry Bicket, and the English Concert in Handel’s Alcina at Carnegie Hall. Her concert and opera engagements have included appearances at Wigmore Hall, the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, the Royal Opera House, Barbican Hall, Theater an der Wien, and the National Concert Hall, to name but a few.

Anna what attracted you to the role of Poppea and the IYO?

The endless selection of flashy arias she has…the music fits my voice perfectly and is challenging at the same time. Poppea is a complete minx, sex kitten and chameleon. To show all her different colours is a wonderful dramatic game, so I'm having fun! My reason for working with IYO is two-fold: to finally come back to Ireland and do a fully staged production in my home country, in the repertoire that I love to sing; and to work at home with a complete Irish cast, singing with a friends whom I studied with alongside up-and-coming singers is a real treat.

No stranger to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Bass Alan Ewing has performed with many of the world’s leading opera companies including the Berlin State Opera, Zürich Opera, and Dutch National Opera. His festival portfolio includes appearances at Aix-en-Provence, Bregenz and Lucerne. Highly respected for his command of the Renaissance and Baroque repertoire, Ewing has also received acclaim for his interpretation of characters such as Osmin (for both Christie and Minkowski), Seneca, Sarastro, Leporello, Heinrich (Lohengrin), Fafner, Baron Ochs, Duke Bluebeard, Gremin and Sweeney Todd. Aside from his role as Claudio in this year’s IYO production of Agrippina, Ewing also assumes the position of mentor.

As a mentor, how are you finding working with this year's cast?

Well, my first thought on hearing this cast at our first music rehearsal was how very little there was for a mentor to do! Having sung in more than a hundred Handel performances mostly with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, and Marc Minkowski and his Les Musiciens du Louvre, this is one of the most dazzling Handel casts that I've been in. The Youth part of this company's name refers only to the age of its singers (excluding myself naturally!) and not their individual and collective achievements. There won't be another youth opera company in the world where the cast biographies contain the words, Covent Garden, Salzburg, Paris, Vienna, La Scala, Welsh National Opera, Frankfurt etc... as frequently as will the programme book for our Agrippina, and Irish music lovers I hope appreciate that it is the work and skills of high-achievers like Suzanne Murphy and Colette McGahon, and the the institutions where they work, that give our young singers what is needed to compete, successfully, in a global marketplace.

As for being a mentor, well in my first jobs as a soloist in London 20 years ago I was lucky enough to sing with two of the great basses of all time, Robert Lloyd and John Tomlinson, and it was by simply watching how they lived and worked in high pressure rehearsals, how they dealt with their weaknesses as well as displaying their strengths that I learned most, and you would need to ask the other singers whether or not they have gained from my presence here. Certainly, in chats over coffee, singers are always talking about other artists they like and dislike, and I always like to mention some of the great singers of the past because they display an individuality that even in today's virtuosi is somewhat lacking.

What kind of Claudio are you?

Hmmm...I can't tell! It is one of the paradoxes of being a performer that no matter what your intention and your motivations, the effect you have on the audience is way beyond your control, and in a comic opera the comedy usually comes from the character being over-serious rather than trying to be funny. Unusually for Handel, whose bass roles tend towards big powerful coloratura arias, Claudio has three intense slow gentle beautiful arias, but in comic situations, and as the singer inhabiting this role, I depend completely on the guidance of the director to nuance the effect he wants, because only he can see how it forms part of the whole.

Having worked with a variety of international opera companies, how has your experience of the IYO been so far?

Good! Jonny Cohen has performed with the best baroque conductors and has emerged now as one of those best, and the Irish Chamber Orchestra respond beautifully to his imagined sound world. As for the acting side of things, well most singers will tell you that the most interesting acting work is done on the smaller stages. In international houses the priorities, whatever they may tell you, are fixed on building a big set with expensive costumes which will be used in several opera houses over maybe 20 years or more and will form a backdrop for countless singers, many of whom have no interest in what the director might have to say. I have been in a production in an important house where what was roughly blocked in by the director in the first week of rehearsals was what appeared on stage 6 weeks later, and at no time was any singer asked what they thought about anything!

Definitely not the case here, thank goodness. Agrippina is a comedy, and as the cliché says, comedy is a serious business and Oliver Mears gives it and us line-by-line attention. I hope that after the clear success of Lucretia last year and what I hope will be a big success for Agrippina that those in charge of funding Irish opera appreciate that this company has an ethos nurtured by its management which bears top class fruit because of the confidence and goodwill that singers have for individuals like Colette and Suzanne, but which can't be written into the profit and loss accounts.

Mezzo-soprano Sharon Carty is a winner of the RAAP/RTÉ Lyric fm Classical Breakthrough Music Bursary, and former student of the Royal Irish Academy of Music and the Opera School of the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna. Outside Ireland, her opera performances have taken her to the BOV Opera Festival in Malta, the Opera Studio of the Frankfurt Opera, and Theater Freiburg. Her recordings include Orfea Britannica with VUENV Consort, and The stream in the valley — an album of songs and duets by Benjamin Britten and other English composers — on the GENUIN label (2014), with the support of Music Network and the Arts Council of Ireland. Carty was recently appointed as an ambassador for Opera Theatre Company on their “Opera Hub” programme.

Sharon, what has the IYO taught you about performance, and why did you audition for the role of Ottone?

It's been really interesting to work with an exclusively Irish cast, most of whom I know personally, having studied with them at varying points. It's been incredible also to have the opportunity to work with Oliver Mears and Jonathan Cohen — two artists whose work I really admire, and their attention to detail, both with respect to the drama and the music, has been inspirational. The first thing that really drew my attention to Ottone was the music, of course! He has a really beautiful lament, which he sings in Act 2, after Agrippina's machinations have turned everyone else in the opera against him. It's easily one of the most beautiful pieces of music in the opera! Otherwise, the character is a moral and noble one, a real "goody two-shoes" in an opera full of manipulative characters, so it's fun to be the foil to the Machiavellian scheming of Agrippina and Nerone.

Mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly is a recent graduate of the Jette Parker Young Artist Programme at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. She completed her Masters in Opera at the Royal Academy of Music with distinction having being awarded the DipRam for excellence. Recent opera performances include the Royal Opera House, the Globe Theatre, and the Linbury Theatre. In recital, Rachel has performed in Carnegie Hall, St Petersburg Academy of Arts, Wexford Festival Opera House, The Oxford Lieder Festival, and the National Concert Hall, Dublin. She is a former winner of the Bernadette Greevy competition at the National Concert Hall, Dublin. In April 2013 Rachel was invited to perform at the first International Opera Awards in London.

Rachel, what does the music of Handel mean to you?

Handel is where I began my classical music journey began as a young student and he is a composer I continuously return to both professionally and personally.

Bass-baritone Padraic Rowan is a graduate of the Royal Irish Academy of Music, where he was awarded a Masters in Music Performance, under Mary Brennan. He currently studies with Robert Dean in London. A Jerwood Young Artist at the 2014 Glyndebourne Festival, recent awards include the 2014 Glyndebourne Wessex Award, the 2013 Dramatic Cup and Tony Quigley Award, and the 2013 Irené Sandford Award for Singers at the RIAM. He is a 2012 alumnus of the Opera Theatre Company Young Associate Artists’ Programme.

Padraic, what have you learned from your time with the IYO over the past weeks, and what are you most looking forward to?

As a young bass-baritone at the start of my career, it's been invaluable having Alan Ewing here as an IYO Guest Mentor. From conversations about 'the business' to recommendations on recordings, it's been fascinating to have many a tea-break chat with him about his years of experience in the UK and further afield. I am genuinely excited by the level of music-making in this production. There's some pretty breathtaking Handel singing going on and I'm looking forward to showing Irish audiences what this all-Irish cast can do!

Belfast-born mezzo-soprano Dawn Burns graduated with a Distinction from the MA Opera course at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, where she studied with Suzanne Murphy with the support of the Leverhulme Trust. She is a former prize-winner of the NI Opera Festival of Voice competition, and is a current recipient of the BBC/ACNI Young Musicians’ Platform Award. In the recent past, Dawn has worked with Grange Park Opera and NI Opera.

Baritone Brendan Collins holds a diploma in Performance from the London College of Music and a Gold Medal in acting from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. A scholarship award led to study at the opera studio of Theatre de la Monnaie.  He is currently under the tutelage of Robert Dean. His vocal talents have caressed the airwaves of BBC Radio 3, RTÉ lyric fm, and RTÉ Radio 1. The young baritone has sung with Opera Theatre Company, Glyndebourne Festival Opera,

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