Electronic composer Roger Doyle doesn’t like opera. But that hasn’t stopped him from composing them.
Doyle’s first electronic opera, Heresy, premiered in Dublin in 2016, and he’s now working towards completing his second, iGirl, in collaboration with playwright Marina Carr.
“I don’t like the traditional, vibrato-heavy opera singing,” Doyle says. “If a traditional opera singer was to sing my opera it would kill it stone-dead. I want to take opera forward to the next stage by not using normative operatic singers.” Instead, Doyle has opted to work with singers like counter tenor Morgan Crowley, best known for his work in musical theatre, and former Anúna member Bláthnaid Conroy Murphy, for his “studio only” opera iGirl.
“I applied for an Opera Production Grant from the Arts Council for a full production with costumes, lighting and the full works, but I didn’t get the grant,” Doyle explains. “But I was so impressed by Marina’s text and I had just bought a lot of music software, so I just thought, ‘why don’t I just do it anyway, and do it as a studio-only version?’ I have a small studio here in the house.
“I decided to do the whole thing on my own and get singers in and pay them out of my own pocket and make it as good as I possibly could, and make a beautifully produced album.”
His inspiration was deeply rooted in Carr’s libretto, a 52-page series of monologues embodying female loss, sacrifice and suffering. “I’ve never been so deeply affected and inspired by a text in my life,” he says.
“She’s populated it with a combination of these mythological characters and modern-day storytelling. Most of all, I was just responding to Marina’s amazing words but from my point of view, I wanted to do certain things musically, on top of that. I wanted to create an epic, orchestral sound, that the singer is singing in front of a huge, imaginary orchestra and I wanted to fill it with drumming to create a rhythmic link between past and present.
Doyle’s has been producing groundbreaking work in Irish electronic composition since his early his early twenties, and his passion and desire to innovate remains undimmed.
“I compose everyday,” he says. “I can’t stop composing because it’s an absolute obsession and drug. I lie awake at night absolutely thrilled at the days work: it makes me so happy.” He has played and programmed all the parts for Scenes from iGirl himself, immersing himself in new software tools in the two-year process, to build his imaginary electronic orchestra. “What I want to produce is not a substitute for live musicians, but is another world I’ve created that exists independently, with new possibilities and new tools,” he says.
“It’s like an architect working with new materials instead of bricks and mortar: new possibilities, the recording studio as a musical instrument in itself.” Working with Carr in a loose collaboration left him with full creative freedom, but a strong desire to be as faithful to her text as possible, he says:
“I tried to include every single word that she wrote. Every now and then I’d have to leave out a word or two and I’d send her the track and she never minded. She liked everything she heard. I told her once, ‘there’s magic happening here, the words are slotting into the music beautifully,’ and she said a really nice thing back: she said, ‘you are the magic.’”
Doyle, well-known for his the scope and ambition of his projects – his “life’s work,” Babel, was released as a five-CD set – is still at work on iGirl, which he hopes will be released as a double album in the autumn. In the meantime, he’s released Scenes from iGirl, a collection of 13 tracks from the opera.
Having originally planned a live staged concert of one aria from iGirl, I Oedipus, Clonmel Junction Arts Festival, in their Covid crisis move online, commissioned a film of I Oedipus by filmmaker and animator Trish McAdam, which will be livestreamed as part of the socially distanced festival.
Marina Carr is, in fact, a fan of opera; the playwright has written in the past for conductor and producer Fergus Shiel.
“I love my Wagner and my Verdi,” Carr says. “The arias and the duets, the great big soaring voices and the passion: I love them .I find it so fascinating that a composer who doesn’t like opera would compose one, but that’s how Roger is and I love that about him.”
Carr’s libretto for iGirl was not written as such; in fact, it wasn’t written for any particular reason at all. Having met Doyle at an event and discussed working together, she dug out iGirl, which was, she jokes, “probably destined for the wastepaper basket. When I wrote this I had no idea what it was going to be or for who it was going to be. I just wrote it because it came to me; I was very grateful that the words came and that I wrote them down but there was no idea of the end result.
“I wish that would happen more often, rather than sitting down and saying, right, now I have to write a play.
“Roger has put this beautiful music to the words and has made it into an opera. So that’s been really exciting. We’ve been talking back and forth while he was working on it, so it’s a different process to how I would normally work with composers for theatre. There’s generally not a whole lot of interaction between the composer and the playwright.”
Carr, like everybody in the world of performing arts, has had innumerable cancellations and postponements this year.
“We’re all beyond disappointment at this stage, we’ve all had so much cancelled and postponed,” she says with a small laugh. “There isn’t even any point in going there. In terms of productions, they’ve all been cancelled or postponed, but I’m in the same boat as everyone else. But it’s been good in terms of writing because there’s been more time to think and write.”
Was she particularly disappointed not to have seen the live fruition of her collaboration with Doyle at Clonmel Junction? “No, I still think this will be a live production at some stage. We have other arts festivals interested as well.”
Having heard her iGirl monologues, which include characters from Greek mythology and figures like Joan of Arc, as well as modern voices, brought to life by Doyle, does she have a favourite track?
“No, I love them all,” she says. “The singers are beautiful and it’s a very powerful, haunting soundscape. There’s a yearning in it, and a sorrow in it, that Roger has really captured. It’s quite unsettling to listen to and it evokes a lot of things. The sound he has created is pretty extraordinary and original.”
I Oedipus will livestream as part of Clonmel Junction Arts Festival on July 4 at 7pm.
Scenes from iGirl is available on Bandcamp
Cliona Maher, Director of Clonmel Junction, and her team, have re-imagined the 2020 Festival with 50+ specially created digital events and a visual arts explosion in Clonmel itself and she invites people to join in this celebration of the arts from July 4th to July 12th.
Here she nominates some of her personal favourites from the many events happening:
“I grew up on the main street of Clonmel, so I’m fascinated to hear what a group of architects consider necessary to encourage town living, moving the discourse beyond parking and shopping. This conversation is the culmination of a year-long project and we hope to inspire informed debate on how the public spaces of Clonmel are used.”
Orla Hegarty will facilitate an online discussion with architects Orla Murphy, Louhglin Kelly, Annuntiata Maria Oteri (Politecnico de Milano) and WIT School of Architecture’s Sharon O’Brien and Miriam Fitzpatrick (UCD/WIT). The starting point is an ecological perspective of the town as human habitat: how to accommodate the physical, cultural and psychological dimensions of people, while promoting the survival and health of the planet. The discussion will be followed by a Q & A.
“Three artists with very different practices talking to Sean Rocks about their take on creative vision will lead to a fascinating conversation about a word that we often hear bandied about but which these three exemplify for me.”
Sean Rocks will host composer Roger Doyle, visual artist Ailbhe Ní Bhriain and director Adrian Jackson, where these talented artists will talk about their work, their processes, as well as their vision and goals in the field of artistic creation and performance.
“I’ve followed Anne Cleary and Denis Connolly’s career for over 20 years and their calling card is a seemingly effortless blend of intellectual high concept with a quirky sense of humour and a boundless curiosity. This lecture series is in advance of a major show at The Crawford Gallery in Cork in October.”
The vision and scoop of these lectures is immense, swooping from the vastness of the cosmic microwave background, to the nanoscale of a gamma ray, and is based on research undertaken over the last year. In seven lectures, Anne and Denis will take each type of light and tell the inspiring, and often tragic, human stories of the people behind its discovery, while considering a wide range of artistic, aesthetic and ethical questions related to their uses.
“I first heard Dónal play a few years ago and he’s such a great storyteller, along with that beautiful voice, and those guitar skills. This set is not a concert he’s played before – he’s chosen songs that he played with his father which he feels show the breadth of Liam Clancy’s career and interests. It’ll be a blend of the familiar and the new, performed by this consummate musician.”
On the 10th Anniversary of his father’s death, Dónal will perform his music in a special solo performance. Dónal is regarded as one of Ireland’s finest guitarists and his most recently released album is On the Lonesome Plain. He will also talk about memories he has of touring and playing with his Father, Liam.
“Trish McAdam’s video for I Oedipus takes an aria from this stunning electronic opera by Roger Doyle and Marina Carr using the restrictions that surrounded its creation as a positive, with a wonderful performance by Morgan Crowley. And also Between The Beats – the combination of poet Michael Coady’s beautiful words, composer Marian Ingoldsby’s unique and inventive setting for the lovely voice of Kelley Petcu and the virtuoso skills of Alex Petcu, all with a delightfully abstract visualisation by Eimear King. I’m so excited to see it!”
The artists will speak about the background of the work before the premiere screening of I Oedipus. iGirl explores female grief, sorrow and sacrifice, and offers an insight into themes highly relevant in contemporary settings.