Struggling against funding issues John O'Brien is moving forward with his new opera

Despite success with previous productions, John O’Brien’s new opera wasn’t granted the funding for an extended run, writes Cathy Desmond

Struggling against funding issues John O'Brien is moving forward with his new opera

THE work of Oscar Wilde has proved a good hunting ground for new opera plots. Gerald Barry’s take on The Importance of Being Ernest is finding a regular place on the international scene.

Now composer John O’Brien turns to Wilde’s fairytales for his first full-length opera.

The Nightingale and the Rose, a tragic story of love and death has all the elements to pack an emotional punch. Just how O’Brien will translate the drama in this poignant tale into musical terms will be revealed when the work premieres in a concert performance at the Everyman in Cork on Sunday.

O’Brien was in his teens when his first incidental music for theatre was aired at the Granary Theatre, marking him out as a talent to watch. Since then, the diversity of the projects he has tackled has been remarkable. As well as conducting a string of award-winning opera productions, recent projects saw him playing piano for blues singer Karen Underwood, and taking on the role of musical directer for the Irish dance show Prodijig at Cork Opera House.


With numerous compositions for film and theatre to his credit, this venture marks a new development in his career.

“I had the idea about a year-and-a-half ago and pitched it to various people. I wrote a ten-minute taster segment which we performed at a gig in Dublin. Cork City Council gave me a bursary to go and write it but it wasn’t until we had the date for this concert performance nailed down that I got down to completing it with librettist Eadaoin O’Donoghue. Because it had been percolating in my head for quite a while, the actual writing happened quite quickly.”

O’Brien has crafted The Nightingale and the Rose with specific performers in mind. The cast includes Cork sopranos Majella Cullagh and Cara O’Sullivan and Limerick tenor Owen Gilhooly, all of whom have worked with him previously.

Majella Cullagh
Majella Cullagh

The composer has been tweaking his final draft in rehearsals and the singers are keen to emphasise the collaborative nature of the process. “One of the first things I learned in the rehearsal room was that the best directors saw themselves as editors. When you work with amazing artists you’d be stupid not consider their suggestions.”

As a singer, Cullagh found herself in the unusual position of being involved in the creative process of a newly composed work.

“It is exciting to be part of that and the piece benefits when everyone’s expertise is brought to the table. John really understands the voice as an instrument. There is not a note of this music that does not fit the voice and it’s easy to find your way into the character.”

The piece is scored for a male chorus and six musicians: Violin, cello, bass with clarinet, percussion, and bassoon. “Each instrumental part is written from the point of view of a character. Even within a small ensemble, there is a wide palette of timbres.”

A trademark of O’Brien’s directorial style is to take the musicians out of the pit and embed them in the action. “We have been able to do some very cool stuff here because there are no rules. Freelancers here can turn their hand to multiple genres whereas musicians in larger centres tend to specialise.

“In my own work I’ve been involved in lots of different areas and that all feeds into my writing. I haven’t consciously set out to ape any one composer but I have been influenced by everything I’ve done in my whole life — how Mozart writes for voices, the work of Puccini and Verdi, and the songs of Sondheim and Nina Simone.

“Because of the specific instrumentalists I am writing for, you may even hear a world music vibe. I see music as music. I set out to write something with emotion and empathy. I find a lot of contemporary music tends to be about intellect. I try to write in a way that appeals to the heart.”


While this forthcoming concert will keep the flame burning, there is a sense that O’Brien sees it as a step in the process of mounting a fully staged theatrical production.

However, that doesn’t look likely to happen in the near future. Despite a string of successful productions that drew capacity crowds and garnered many awards, applications for Arts Council funding by O’Brien and his partners have been unsuccessful for 2016 and 2017.

John O'Brien with Cork soprano Cara O'Sullivan
John O'Brien with Cork soprano Cara O'Sullivan

Both the Everyman and Cork Opera House have picked up some of the slack by presenting concert performances but there is clearly frustration at being hampered in producing opera as theatre.

“Of course we feel hard done by that we can’t continue to produce work of similar quality to recent productions. Given the reaction of audiences and critics, I don’t know what else we could have done. We’ve had great public support. Faust sold out, which was extraordinary for a long relatively unfamiliar opera in French. Without the support of regular funding from the Arts Council, it makes forward planning of a big piece very difficult.”

But O’Brien doesn’t see it as a case of other companies hogging the opera fund pie. (Of a pot of over €2m, the Wexford Opera Festival’s 2016 grant was €1.42m; and €680,000 went to Opera Theatre Company in Dublin for its touring productions. Dublin-based Wide Open Opera received almost €500,000 for its production of The Barber of Seville.)

“I don’t think the other groups are overfunded,” says O’Brien. “We are all trying to do the same thing, create good work. I think the real problem is that Ireland as a nation spends less on the arts than any other EU country with the exception of Greece and, of the available funding, a very small percentage goes to opera.”

The performance on Sunday will be a rare opportunity to see two of the most experienced Irish sopranos of their generation on the same platform. Both are clearly looking forward to performing together.

There’s lots of laughter backstage at the Everyman and there is talk of future collaborations. “I’m playing the moon. I’ll probably be lit blue,” O’Sullivan quips.

“None of this would happen without John. We turn up and sing but he has the drive and willingness to make the sacrifices to put it all together. He has really thought it all through. It is really beautiful“.

The Nightingale and the Rose will be performed at the Everyman, Cork, on Sunday

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