Irish National Opera’s 2020-21 season sets clear markers for company’s future with specially commissioned short works 20 Shots of Opera

Bold programme also includes productions of La bohème and Vivaldi’s Bajazet and first performances of works by Gerald Barry and Amanda Feery

Innovation and imagination are always needed in a crisis. Irish National Opera is set to prove the rule with an ambitious run of new work, world premieres and new productions. The company was able to respond at speed to the Covid-19 pandemic and adapt its programme to rapidly changing conditions. Its restructured 2020-21 season, which started with the development of a surround-sound version of Brian Irvine’s critically acclaimed Least Like the Other, continues with 20 Shots of Opera, presented in partnership with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. This strikingly eclectic collection of short works, newly commissionedfor casts of one or two singers and an orchestra of up to eleven players, will be filmed and made available from Thursday 17 December without charge on Irish National Opera’s website.

Thanks to Irish National Opera’s size, neither too large nor too small, and generous support from Ireland’s Arts Council, it was well placed to pivot away from public performances during Ireland’s first lockdown period. The creative catalyst for 20 Shots of Opera arrived after the company was obliged to reschedule its planned staging of Rossini’s William Tell. In answer to the question ‘What next?’, Irish National Opera decided to commission twenty Ireland-based composers to write compact operasTheirsubjects embrace everything from Beethoven’s letters about troublesome servants and laundry dilemmas to a marine biologist’s meditations ‘on the enigmatic figure of Libris Solar, an alchemical blend of human, non-human and neoprene’.

“We wanted to find something that was ambitious in scale and involved as many composers, writers and performers as possible,” recalls Fergus Sheil, Artistic Director of Irish National Opera. “It was a painful blow to have to shelve what would have been the first staging of William Tell in Dublin since the 1870s. “I wanted something just as audacious and ambitious as William Tell, but obviously very different in approach. Something that would harness the talents of literally hundreds of artists, each working in small pods and each team contributing to a gigantic burst of creativity. 20 Shots of Opera came out of that. Everyone I asked has rallied to it.”

The list of 20 Shots composers reads like a Who’s Who of Ireland’s contemporary classical music scene. Billed as one of the biggest single-event commissioning projects in the history of Irish classical music, 20 Shots of Opera comprises works by Gerald Barry, Éna Brennan, Irene Buckley, Linda Buckley, Robert Coleman, David Coonan, Alex Dowling, Peter Fahey, Michael Gallen, Andrew Hamilton, Jenn Kirby, Conor Linehan, Conor Mitchell, Gráinne Mulvey, Emma O’Halloran, Hannah Peel, Karen Power, Evangelia Rigaki, Benedict Schlepper-Connolly and Jennifer Walshe. Conducting duties are shared between Fergus Sheil and Elaine Kelly, a member of the company’s artistic development programme ABL Aviation Opera Studio.

Despite the recent resurgence of coronavirus cases in Ireland, each ‘Opera Shot’ remains on track to be filmed in various parts of Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre. The project was able to proceed under the broadcasting category of Ireland’s tough new restrictions; rehearsals and filming sessions have been carried out with the utmost care for the health and safety of all involved.

“Of course, nobody wanted this dreadful pandemic,” comments Fergus Sheil. “But because of it we’ve made positive changes and responded by making an even stronger commitment to new work than we had before. We’ve already performed Donnacha Dennehy’s The Second Violinist, gave the world premiere of Brian Irvine’s Least Like the Other and Evangelia Rigaki’s This Hostel Life, and we are committed to staging Gerald Barry’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground in co-production with London’s Royal Opera House next May. What we’ve done since lockdown began, though, has helped us reforge our identity with some unique projects, 20 Shots of Opera among them. I hope our existing and new audiences will embrace this and be as excited as we are about bringing these pieces to life.”

Restrictions imposed on international travel have also worked to Irish National Opera’s advantage. The company has engaged world-class Irish artists and international singers based in Ireland to perform throughout its 2020-21 season. The casts for 20 Shots of Opera, for instance, include Orla Boylan, Claudia Boyle, Naomi Louisa O’Connell, Sinéad Campbell Wallace and Gavan Ring and such rising stars as Andrew Gavin, Rachel Goode, and Emma Nash.

When a planned May 2020 production of The Abduction from the Seraglio had to be cancelled, INO produced a creative and entertaining eight-part mini-series with the original cast and full Irish Chamber Orchestra, which is still available online. In December, the company will reassemble cast, including Claudia Boyle and Dean Power, chorus and orchestra for concert performances of Mozart’s work (2, 5 & 6 December). Other season highlights include three performances of Tom Johnson’s The Four Note Opera (29 & 30 January 2021); Puccini’s La bohème (26 February – 14 March) and, in co-production with the Royal Opera House, Vivaldi’s Bajazet (17 April – 2 May); Gerald Barry’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground at the National Opera House in Wexford and the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin (Friday 21 & Tuesday 25 May); and the world premiere of Amanda Feery’s A Thing I Cannot Name (18 & 19 June).

“Our casts show the richness of talent we have available in Ireland,” observes Fergus Sheil. “There’s been a great response and people are really happy to be involved. It will be interesting to see what effects this has on us in the long term, as a company that’s light on our feet, adaptable and open to new work. We’ve laid out the vision of what we want to do in future with this season’s programme. Things may yet be postponed or changed because of the pandemic. But we’re ready to deal with that and will make that sure, whatever happens, Irish National Opera continues to develop compelling new works and productions.”

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