Whether as conductor, musician, director or arranger, he has brought ambition and inspiration to dozens of productions. His Pagliacci won last year’s Irish Theatre Award for best opera, but his shows were previously long-recognised in his native Cork.
O’Brien’s next production is Kiss of the Spider Woman, which opens at Cork Opera House’s Half Moon Theatre on Nov 8. Based on a novel by Manuel Puig, the show was written by composer, John Kander, and lyricist, Fred Ebb, whose work together includes hit shows, Cabaret and Chicago. Kiss of the Spider Woman won seven Tony awards in 1993, including for best musical, best book and best score.
“The writers are fascinating to me,” O’Brien says. “Their famous shows are musically accessible, but so good and written so well, with words that totally match the music, and interesting orchestration. I’ve wanted to do Kiss of the Spider Woman for a few years now. It’s dark in the same way as Cabaret and Chicago are dark, but it’s also beautiful, entertaining and funny.”
The theme is triumph in adversity. “It’s ultimately about redemption through the power of imagination and love, in the most difficult of circumstances.”
“It was originally written as a big broadway musical, with a cast of, maybe 25, and a band of another 25 musicians. Ultimately, though, it’s about intimacy,” O’Brien says. Adapting the form to fit the subject, O’Brien has whittled the show down. A small venue brings the audience to the heart of the story. “The Half Moon Theatre allows you to be really close to the audience, so we are all in the cell together,” he says.
The show’s lead character is Luis Alberto Molina, played by Michael Grenell, whose credits over 30 years include three years with the Abbey Theatre Company and four years with Radio Éireann Players, and film and television parts, including Game of Thrones, The Clinic and Fair City.
Fantasy is Molina’s only respite from the torture, fear and humiliation of life in a Latin American prison. His fantasies are based on movies, and around a diva named Aurora.
Aurora is played by Carolyn Goodwin, last seen on the Cork stage playing Eurydice, on saxophone, in Cork Operatic Society’s production of Orpheus at the Everyman theatre, in September. The Dublin-based saxophonist is a former member of the band, Fred, and recently starred in Dumbstruck, one of the Edinburgh Fringe Fest 2013’s award-winning shows, produced by UK theatre company, Fine Chisel.
The third character is Paz, a Marxist revolutionary who has been tortured. Paz is played by Michael Sands, who was a regular on the West End stage, before returning home to Cork a few years ago. He recently starred in Cork Opera House’s hit production, The Sound of Music, as Captain Von Trapp.
O’Brien is proud of the cast. “They’re all such amazing actors and singers, they’re musicians at the highest level, as well as straight actors and this show is very much both,” he says.
The show has a small male chorus. Is it hard to find top male singers in Cork? “There are more male singers than there was,” O’Brien says. “There’s a newer generation of people coming through stage schools, but when they get to a certain age they emigrate for work. The people who stick it out, though, tend to be of quite a high standard. With anything, you want it to be the best it can possibly be. It’s about finding the right voice, not the best, and finding sopranos can be just as hard as finding male singers.”
O’Brien’s work features bold, new musical arrangements, and Kiss of the Spider Woman dramatically condenses the score. “The band is three at the moment: Alex Petcu, Caitríona Frost and Deirdre Frost, so two percussionists and bass. There’s this Latin feel to the music, so that really works. We’re re-orchestrating it between us and it’s working really well.”
Designer Lisa Zagone, whose stunning work brought so much to last year’s Pagliacci, is also on board. Her opulent and fantastical style will be perfect for Molina’s glamorous fantasies.
O’Brien’s ability to deliver satisfying productions on modest budgets is in demand. Does he intend to see out the golden age of opera and musical theatre at home, in Cork, or could he be tempted abroad? “I’ve never consciously decided to make work in any specific place, I don’t have a mad career path planned,” he says.
“I just want to make beautiful work that inspires me. I’ve had the chance to do that here and, equally, I’ve been invited to other places and I do that, too. There’s an interesting not-being-bound-by-the-rules thing that happens in Cork. I’ve had the chance to work with different people, in different ways, and to move between being an arranger, conductor, designer and director, and I’ve had different jobs on different stages, with very interesting artists.
“In 2012, we received a touring grant for Dido and Aeneas, and Pagliacci won the Irish Theatre Award last year, so it’s been a turning point. I started working here with nobody noticing, or coming.” Nowadays, any time O’Brien makes new work, it’s big news.
* Kiss of the Spider Woman — The Musical runs Nov 8 — 23.