LISMORE Music Festival returns for its fifth year, from Thursday, bringing quality opera to one of Ireland’s prettiest villages. This year’s centrepiece is the much-loved Magic Flute, by Mozart. The opera will be set in a circus big-top tent, thanks to a collaboration with Fossett’s Circus.
Leading the instrumental ensemble, a lean and nimble nonet whittled from the orchestral score, is Aoife Dowdall.
The violinist appears regularly on stages, most often with the RTÉ Concert and National Symphony Orchestras.
Dowdall leads a group that includes two of her sisters, violist Lisa Dowdall and cellist Jenny Dowdall, and her father, the esteemed flautist William Dowdall.
“I don’t know how the other musicians will feel, but we’ll try not to take over,” says Aoife. “As a musical family, you tend to grow up in rehearsals and someone always seems to end up walking out,” she says of their passion.
It seems unlikely that there will be family squabbling: the three perform together regularly. “I often work with my sisters, I probably play with Jenny most; we do a lot of quartet stuff together.
“Jenny and Lisa play with Julie Feeney a lot, and Lisa’s in a band, too, Favourite Things. But I don’t play with Dad as often as I’d like. I played with him more often when he was with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra.”
William was principal flute of RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 2004, before taking up a post at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. He performs regularly as a soloist.
It will be Aoife’s first performance at Lismore. “Lisa played there two years ago,” she says. “And Dad has played there three or four times. It sounds really nice. I’m really looking forward to it. The location is beautiful. It is a reduced orchestra, compared to what’s usual for opera, so the musicians are more involved and each has a bigger part to play, and more to contribute to the whole.
“I’ve probably heard more about the late-night gatherings that can happen at Lismore. All the musicians are hosted together in one house, by Des and Denise Fitzsimons, and it sounds great fun.
“We three sisters are going to share a room, so we’ll be going back to our youth. It’ll be interesting to see if we fall out in such close quarters,” Aoife says.
Music lovers can also hear the four Dowdalls performing together at Salterbridge House, on Sunday as part of the festival’s concert programme. The concert will feature Mozart’s ‘Flute Quartet in C major’, and Haydn’s ‘Flute Quartet Op. 5 No. 3 in D, as well as an arrangement of Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ for string trio. “I love the ‘Goldberg Variations’,” Dowdall says. “It’s a very strange piece and different from his other work. Of course, it was originally for keyboard, but in this arrangement, for trio, I think the different parts of it are really brought out, and a lot of the suspensions sound really beautiful. We’ve played the Mozart quartet in C major together many times, but never the Haydn D major. They’re both good fun. ”
Dowdall has extensive experience playing for operas. “I love opera,” she says. “I did the Wexford Festival Opera last year and I’m often involved with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, when they perform with Lyric Opera.
“Opera in Ireland has improved in the last couple of years, having almost disintegrated before that,” she says.
“I’m delighted to be more involved with opera again. I get to do a lot of concerts with singers singing operatic arias, but it’s not the same. Full operas totally draw you in. The length works in its favour, as there’s a build-up of emotion all the way through, and you get the arc of the story, which you miss out on in concerts. It can be very hard to just drop into the middle of an act in a concert situation.”
Lismore is an intimate experience. “A lot of the time, in opera, singers are very separate from the musicians. I think this is very much more a mingle kind of thing, socially and also on stage, where we’re playing very close to them. Usually, we’re totally separate, so we don’t get enough of the drama.”
It’s a trend that is becoming the norm in Irish opera, outside of Dublin and the Wexford Festival, with tight budgets demanding reduced numbers of performers and highly creative productions. The outcome for audiences can be every bit as captivating and moving as larger stagings: what might be lacking in sheer impressiveness of scale can be compensated for by intensity, and the kind of subtlety of gesture and expression that is lost on a large stage.
The Lismore production team is promising the spectacular, however, with an impressive entrance by the Queen of the Night, for her famous aria. The secret of what exactly will happen won’t be revealed until showtime, but the opera will be performed in the magical environment of a real big-top circus tent, on loan from Fossett’s Circus.
To ensure an authentic and genuine circus setting, the production team is working with members of the Fossett family on costumes, props and lighting. We can be sure that soprano Kim Sheehan, as the Queen of the Night, won’t appear out from the mouth of a tiger, but the singers will have training from the circus’ performers, so audiences can expect to be dazzled. “The circus tent will certainly give a festival feeling. It’s something special,” says Aoife.
* Lismore Music Festival takes place May 29 to June 1. lismoremusicfestival.com