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Exploding opera’s conventions

Prepare to have your ideas about opera transformed by two of Ireland’s most exciting creative voices, whose all-consuming musical experience is converting brand new audiences. The Second Violinist is not your typical opera. And that’s just how librettist and director Enda Walsh and composer Donnacha Dennehy like it.

The multimedia spectacle combines the best of theatre and opera to create a genre-defying, groundbreaking show that’s winning plaudits and fans internationally. ‘I have a hatred of recitative [dialogue which is sung in the rhythm of ordinary speech] and I didn’t want to do anything that verged on that,’ says Dennehy from his base at Princeton University, where he’s Associate Professor of Music. ‘It’s the usual problem with opera: even if someone is asking for a cup of tea, they have to sing it.’ So strong were his feelings that the pair originally conceived of The Second Violinist as having no singing at all, of creating a “visual opera”, with the music driving the action.

However, about a third of the production is sung – but in another break from convention, none of it by the titular central character, Martin, played by Aaron Monaghan. From the start you’re immersed in Dennehy’s music, the multimedia set, and Monaghan’s physical performance of a man whose life is falling apart. But there’s no singing for 15 minutes. When it does start, the effect is electric. ‘The singing is an augmentation of the extremities of the story, a distillation of the emotion of it,’ explains the composer.

The singing is an augmentation of the extremities of the story, a distillation of the emotion of it

Despite his reservations about recitative, Dennehy’s a big fan of opera. In fact, he thinks the format is in a very exciting place, enthusing about the crossover with contemporary theatre that’s happening at the moment. ‘I love working in this medium and I love writing for the voice… in opera you can get away with things you never would be able to in the theatre. You get swept up in the musical weather of it all. Because the whole thing is composed, you just get caught up in this rhythm that’s sweeping you along. That’s what draws me to opera. But I still don’t want to follow the conventions.’

Walsh – who says he’s been attending opera for almost 10 years as a fan – agrees. ‘Because it isn’t narratively straightforward, it’s a pretty good match for us as a team and me as a writer, because I don’t have any interest in writing a “proper play” or making a simple narrative,’ he says. He adds, ‘With this opera, we’re interested in the suburban, in the small and the domestic. When you set the world in that place, with all this big music around it, it heightens all the tininess of living and all the relentless tension around it.’

We found our own way of looking at opera and using the medium in our own style

We are taken deep into that tension in The Second Violinist, which uses the collapsing life of musician Martin to look at what failure does to a person; to examine the sort of character that destroys anything they create or any relationship they get close to. It’s an intense experience that Walsh describes as ‘dragging you by the hair’. Walsh and Dennehy both grew up without the conventions of opera, which Dennehy attributes to his and Walsh’s willingness to break the rules. He says, ‘If you don’t feel like you’re taking risks or if you don’t risk falling flat on your face, it’s almost not worth doing. There has to be a dangerous energy to something, even if you fail, because otherwise it’s just academic.’ ‘We found our own way of looking at opera and using the medium in our own style,’ adds Walsh.

A lot of people said they didn’t think opera could be like this

The non-traditional format was also an important reason behind why a large part of the audience for The Second Violinist had never been to the opera before. ‘I love it when people come up and tell me this is their first opera, and that they’d been blown away by it,’ says Walsh. ‘A lot of people said they didn’t think opera could be like this,’ recalls Dennehy. ‘We thought of it as a gesamtkunstwerk [a multiple art form work]. It’s exploding the conventions of what opera should be. We’re two lower middle class Dublin lads playing with this format, rejecting it at the same time as creating something new within it.’

This is Dennehy’s second opera with Walsh, after The Last Hotel, which premiered in 2015 to great acclaim. The success of both works is precisely what co-producers, Anne Clarke of the renowned Landmark Productions and head of Irish National Opera Fergus Sheil, were hoping for when they set out to bring something new to the world of opera. ‘The intention was it would be fresh and different and it would appeal to an audience that wouldn’t necessarily go to an opera house,’ explains Clarke. ‘It’s been a fantastic development for opera and for people feeling they can access it and not being afraid of it.’

‘Opera is particularly suited to Enda’s style,’ adds Sheil. ‘I’ve seen many of his plays and he really likes to approach things from different angles. You wouldn’t expect a straight narrative in his work and I think that’s really suited to opera because the music can take you from one place to another incredibly quickly and effectively.’

So suited to both Walsh and Dennehy is opera the pair are going to create a third opera, the composer lets on. ‘We’re going to complete a trilogy – but that’s all I can tell you,’ he teases. Both accustomed opera fans and recent converts will be waiting with bated breath.

Landmark Productions and Irish National Opera: The Second Violinist takes place 6–8 Sep in our Theatre.