I’m so over Zoom… a personal best in the parkrun… cinnamon buns… two metre distance… Not my words, but a demonstration of how opera can mirror the zeitgeist as readily, and sharply, as any art form. Each of these random phrases is from Irish National Opera’s 20 Shots of Opera: short new filmed works by different composers (10 men, 10 women) for one or two singers and musicians from the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.
Whether it’s Gerald Barry’s crazed music for tenor and tuba, setting a letter by Beethoven about his laundry, or Hannah Peel’s duetting strangers on the nightmare of dating in a pandemic, these works are as vigorous as anything offered by lockdown. Each piece lasts around six minutes, conceived in an array of styles.
Conor Mitchell’s A Message for Marty, musically dense and comic, features two angry Belfast women – kohl eyes, candy-coloured acrylic talons – plotting against the creep who dumped one of them by text. In Dust, with ballad-like music and words by Benedict Schlepper-Connolly, a woman dressed in pink tulle gradually sheds the exquisite layers, symbolising the death of biodiversity.
Covid-19 recurs like a grim rondo theme: a mother, unreachable in her last moments; a bereft, dying father. One of the most simple and affecting pieces is Her Name, music by Alex Dowling, words by Mark O’Halloran: a young chorister, away at boarding school, secretly mourns his dead mother. Strings and synthesiser revisit a world of ancient polyphony, poignant and elegiac.
The Dublin-based company, only two years old this month, works with composers and performers from across Ireland. The music itself, predominantly tonal and lyrical, is full of variety and character. In these small sound worlds, mostly of strings and percussion, the use of harp is especially vivid. Every one of the “shots” hits home. James Joyce might well have called them epiphanies.
Graphics, smartphones, video and clever lighting all feed into the mix, with different directors for each show – most of them filmed at Dublin’s Gaiety theatre. The energy required, and the long list of production credits, suggests this project was even harder work than a traditional operatic production, and well worth it. It’s also an exceedingly slick and handsome online enterprise in itself. Hugh O’Connor was series director, with Fergus Sheil (INO’s founding artistic director) and Elaine Kelly as conductors. The excellent singers include Claudia Boyle, Orlan Boylan, Gavan Ring and Andrew Gavin. Every composer deserves praise.