Eibhlín Gleeson is planning to breathe new life into the city’s strong operatic tradition, writes Marjorie Brennan.
Eibhlín Gleeson is encouraging me to resurrect my long-dormant singing ambitions.
“It’s never too late — if you’re a singer, you’re always a singer. I always say it doesn’t matter what it sounds like, it’s the practise of singing, the experience and the release.”
As CEO of Cork Opera House, Gleeson is now putting her passion for singing into her profession. Her mission?
To put the opera back into Cork Opera House.
“When I took this job, I had to do a lot of soul-searching about what I thought I could bring to the Opera House.
“As a custodian of this institution, it’s important that I have a strong vision for what, artistically, it can achieve.
“I studied music in Cork, I’m a singer and while I don’t claim to be an expert, I am very interested in opera.
“There is 161 years of opera tradition in Cork, and the onus is on us to continue that for future generations.”
Gleeson’s interest in the art form is from the heart.
The CEO of the legendary venue enthusiastically recalls her own experience with the Cork Operatic Society, singing in the chorus of Faust, which was performed to huge acclaim at the Everyman Palace theatre in 2015.
“The Everyman has also done fantastic work in developing opera in the last few years.
“Singing in Faust was an amazing experience. I did it before I took over in this role but it has been hugely beneficial.”
While Gleeson is aware of the perception that opera doesn’t have the same instant appeal of more popular art forms, she is confident that audiences in Cork are open to exploring it more.
“It can be a difficult one to sell. However, Cork audiences are extremely supportive of opera, always have been. We are confident that if we deliver a good show, the audiences will come.
"This is one of the programming streams we want to develop and really see where we can go with it. I just want opera to be part of the conversation with the city again, in a meaningful way.”
Gleeson also believes that putting more opera on the programme will showcase the musical talent that abounds in the city.
“I’m constantly impressed with the phenomenal standard of artists Cork produces. It’s because we have incredible institutions like the Cork School of Music and UCC who are developing young artists in such a rounded, worldly way.
"They are not just focusing on technique, which is of course hugely important, they are producing artists who are fresh-thinking and hungry, and who are not willing to accept less.
“It’s a dream for me because it means I have an infrastructure to create something really fantastic with.”
Gleeson has been in her role for well over a year now, having taken over from Mary Hickson late in 2015. She says the foundations for strengthening the venue’s opera offering were laid last year.
“We have to get the house ready if we are going to do this again. It’s not something that can be created overnight.
"The repertoire, the singers, the orchestra, the chorus, the set designers, the lighting designers, the technical team and the marketing team, all of these needed to be developed from the ground up. We are in the middle of that period now.”
The Cork Operatic Society, which is an amateur chorus, forms a central part of Gleeson’s plans, as does the establishment of a house orchestra.
“Last year we produced two concert performances, La Traviata and The Merry Widow. They worked very well and also gave us the opportunity to approach the Cork Operatic Society wth a number of different projects to work on.
"They are not just working on one-off projects so there is a consistency in their rehearsals, which means they are constantly developing as a unit and as a chorus.
"That was one of the most significant things we did, to develop an opera chorus for Cork that we could use if we do full-scale opera again.
"It’s the same with the orchestra — we toyed with the idea of bringing in outside orchestras but what sat best with us as a team was the idea that we would put together an orchestra that could serve us in many different art forms.
“So, the Cork Opera House Concert Orchestra was born.”
The Opera House will stage a concert performance of Bizet’s Carmen tonight, followed by Mozart favourite The Magic Flute in March.
“The opera concerts are a great way of whetting your appetite if you are not completely experienced in the field of opera,” says Gleeson.
“I enjoy them because it is an uninterrupted experience of the music.
“The composer gets to shine and the audience is given access to the voices, the music and the chorus; what is prioritised is delivering the score beautifully. It is a luxury that we are not often afforded.
"In October, we will perform a concert called Chorus, an evening of all of the favourite opera choruses.
“We will be working with the Cork Operatic Society and we are delighted that Majella Cullagh will be our soloist.”
Gleeson also pays tribute to composer and conductor John O’Brien, whose experience in staging opera has been a huge asset.
“We draw hugely from John, who is an opera specialist. He has played a big part in developing this vision with me and we are feeling it out together.
"We were also delighted to secure Alan Smale as the leader of the Cork Opera House Concert Orchestra and he is also very enthusiastic and dedicated to what we are trying to achieve.”
While the venue will also present full-scale performances of Aida and Nabucco later in the year, in association with Ellen Kent productions, Gleeson is not ruling out the possibility of the Opera House producing its own full-scale opera at some stage.
“I would like us to move in to producing opera again here but there are all sorts of moving parts involved in that. We will be looking at the sources of funding available and our own capacity to do that without putting the Opera House at risk which is obviously a big consideration.
“I am optimistic that it is something that in the next three years we can achieve.
“This is about our own artistic and musical ecology and what Cork has to say.
“There is a legacy there.
“We are the Cork Opera House after all — I keep saying it but opera is our middle name,” she laughs.
Cork Opera House presents a concert performance of Bizet’s Carmen on February 25.
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