James Joyce’s Dublin: Where Dubliners meet the sopranos

James Joyce’s famous short works are filled with music. Alan O’Riordan meets two gallants who decided to make them into an opera.

James Joyce’s Dublin: Where Dubliners meet the sopranos

James Joyce’s Dublin is a world suffused with music – Molly Bloom’s arias, Bloom’s

reminisces on the same; lachrymose ballads; the popular light opera of the time; the performances, and lengthy discussions of singers and music in The Dead, itself recently made into an opera.

Now it’s the turn of two more stories from Dubliners to make the leap from page to stage, with The Boarding House and Counterparts composed by Andrew Synnott and adapted by Arthur Riordan for Opera Theatre Company.

“I didn’t make any particular reference to the Edwardian music or the operatic music Joyce would have been hearing around Dublin in those days, though I do have one sneaky quote of Molly Malone in there,” says Synnott.

“I suppose I tried to create something a world to suit the characters that Arthur’s voice had created, to try to stick with what he had invented. I think he has similar preoccupations as Joyce with the sound of language.”

The choice of which stories to stage has a practical element, of course, since they had to accommodate the casting and voices.

Nonetheless, as a pair, they capture very well the none-too-flattering picture of Dublin Joyce wanted to portray: a city of

constrained lives and frustrations.

In The Boarding House, we meet Mrs Mooney, introduced in one of Joyce’s more hilarious understatements: “One night he went for his wife with the cleaver and she had to sleep at a neighbour’s house. After that they lived apart.”

Mooney, or “the Madam”, runs a boarding house of a certain reputation. There, a guest, Bob Doran, falls under the spell of her daughter, Polly. Soon he regrets it, for her vulgar ways. But Mrs Mooney has been waiting for just the “right moment” to intervene.

Later, in Ulysses, we meet a dissipated Bob Doran on one of his “periodical bends”.

Counterparts, meanwhile, gives us one of the book’s most memorable characters – the hulking Farrington, a man cruelly miscast in life as an office clerk. In the story, he vaingloriously recounts a witticism delivered to his boss over a night’s drinking, as all the while his failures and

frustrations build.

“Both stories feature a protagonist straining against the strictures and conventions of Edwardian Dublin,” Riordan says. “And that paralysis that Joyce talks about is very


There are common threads and contrasts that make them a lovely pairing. They both involve a clerical worker; both, strangely, feature English musical hall artistes as a kind of glimpse into a more exotic outside world and a slightly scandalous one.

“The Boarding House, for me, was the more technical challenge. Because in the book, it all revolves around what is unsaid – which is a challenge given it’s an opera. Whereas in Counterparts, this guy gives lip to his boss and recounts the story of this little victory over a night’s drinking, so it’s all about what is said. So in that sense, too, they make a nice contrast with each other.”

A big feature of Dubliners is how Joyce allows the voice of the traditional omniscient narrator to be open to the words, ideas and phrases of his characters. It’s an effective technique, allowing for psychological penetration at once deft and economical – but it’s one whose elisions and implications are impossible to translate to the stage.

Riordan approached these problems in a number of ways, including using the son in The Boarding House, Jack, as a narrator, but also by looking elsewhere in Joyce’s work for guidance.

“I’ve done a few adaptations over the years,” he says, “and if there is a bit that needs to be filled in for dramatic purposes, it’s always useful to look elsewhere in that writer’s work to see if there is something. In Dubliners, I did go quite heavily on the rhyme because when Joyce wrote verse, in Chamber Music or Gas From a Burner, he used rhyme deftly and in vast quantities.

“His verse was very traditional in that sense – rhyming couplets or lyrical verse. The lyrical and the scurrilous sit comfortably side by side there, as they do in a lot of Joyce’s work. So rather than trying to reinvent prose dialogue, I went full-on inventing verse in the spirit of Joyce. Heavily rhymed songs are my comfort area, I guess, in any case.” Synnot’s score is for piano and string quartet, a very satisfying sound world, as he puts it.

“It’s very hard to pin down an exact style,” says Synnott.

“What I’ve tried to do always is have music that fits, that finds the drama of the moment. It is all about creating drama, and something that is rewarding for listeners of all levels of experience. In Counterpart, for example, that frustration, that kind of simmering anger bursts out in violence at the end, and it’s quite harrowing, a devastating end.

“The Boarding House, though, is mostly invented by Arthur, so the whole opera is filtered through his voice. It’s distinctly using his rhyming couplets, which he’s written to fabulous effect. What you want is not a sing-songy effect, but couplets where they can create a dynamic between the music and the text.”

Dubliners is at Clayton Whites Hotel Wexford, as part of the Wexford Festival Opera, on Oct 20, 26, 29 and November 1. It is at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin, Nov 9-11.

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