Schooled in opera

Lismore Music invites children behind the scenes at The Barber of Seville, says Nicki ffrench Davis

ONE of the great success stories in Irish arts is the Lismore Music Festival. Co-founded by two of Opera Ireland’s key personnel, Dieter Kaegi and Jennifer O’Connell, the third festival runs this weekend, despite funding cuts.

The festival fuses accessibility with high production values. Critical praise for the previous two years is matched by local appreciation for the influx of visitors who come to see imaginative events staged in a beautiful location.

It’s not just Ireland’s opera fans who will enjoy Lismore: the festival is making a keen and energetic play for the fans of tomorrow. Where better to look, they say, than on their own doorstep. The festival has invited 200 local schoolchildren to witness the dress rehearsal of The Barber of Seville, in the company of President Michael D Higgins this evening.

Brid Duggan, music teacher at Cappoquin primary school, has been preparing for the occasion with 25 pupils, all members of the school choir.

“There’s a great interest in music in the school and we take them every year to see a musical, but this opera will be a first time for us. It’s fantastic because of the level of music they’ll experience. They are looking forward to it and excited at the prospect of President Higgins,” she says.

“I was first approached by the festival company director, Peter Power, and we knew that it would be an enriching educational experience. Arts education is an important part of the primary educational curriculum and first-hand experience is so important. It’s the first time I’ve seen this kind of initiative.”

While most participating schools are secondary level, Ms Duggan values the opportunity for her fifth- and sixth-class singers. Co-founder of the festival, Jennifer O’Connell supplied the school with information about the opera and its production in Lismore. “The children were very interested in the details about the staging, cast, and the number of people backstage,” she says. “They like the storyline, too, they like that it’s comic, but it is the love-story element that catches their imagination. Jennifer sent us a CD, too, and listening to it grabbed their attention big time.”

The children will have the chance to participate. “We have been asked to review it, and that gives the pupils the chance to reflect on it. One or two of the parents have said they wished they had this opportunity,” Ms O’Connell says.

Baritone Owen Gilhooly will perform the title role as part of an Irish and international cast, including Puerto Rican tenor Javier Abreu and soprano Pervin Chakar, from Turkey, with a small but perfectly formed chamber orchestra. It will be Gilhooly’s first performance at the festival and he has become enchanted by the picturesque village.

“Every time I come across the bridge, it’s like entering another world,” Mr Gilhooly says. “It’s quite novel, too, setting opera in the stables of the castle. It’s very versatile and still an intimate experience.”

Mr Gilhooly worked with the opera’s artistic director Dieter Kaegi in Opera Ireland days. “This production is very much what we’d call accessible, the drama is very clear without dumbing down.

“What’s ingenious is the way the recitative is in English while the arias and ensembles are in Italian, so the audience won’t get lost but they miss nothing. We worked the translation through in rehearsals in collaboration with Dieter, though, of course, as artistic director he has the final say. His concept is very much about being direct,” he says.

“It’s amazing to see the festival come from nothing,” Mr Gilhooly says. “It’s a flagship for how opera and the arts can work in the future. It’s great to see the Arts Council supporting it and, hopefully, that can continue. There’s an awful lot of frustration and worry these days, but we live in a State, not an economy, and we have to save what makes life in Ireland worthwhile.”

Mr Gilhooly, whose own Mid-West Vocal Academy in Limerick will present its first opera in July, holds the festival’s educational engagement in high esteem. “It’s so important to nurture the next generation, to motivate and stimulate them. The education projects I’ve been involved with have always been fascinating. Children might be reluctant to engage with opera, at first, but once they experience the process, their whole minds are opened up.

“They tend to start to see the fun side and that it’s not all above their heads,” he says. “It’s not just about singing, it’s about being so connected to the text and drama. I love what Jennifer is doing, getting kids in to see the dress rehearsal. Anything could happen at a dress rehearsal.”

* Lismore Music Festival runs Friday, Jun 1 — Sunday, Jun 3;

Lismore musical highlights

The Irish Examiner is media sponsor of the third annual Lismore Music Festival, this weekend in the gardens of Lismore Castle. It has two performances, at 6.30pm on Saturday and Sunday, of Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Saville, directed by Dieter Kaegi. The festival has commissioned a new arrangement for chamber orchestra by Italian violinist and conductor Gianluca Febo, for strings, flute, clarinet and harpsichord. This stars Turkish soprano Pervin Chakar, Puerto Ricahn tenor Javier Abreu, American bass baritone Damon Nestor Ploumis, and Irish tenor Owen Gihooly as Figaro. The schools education and audience development evening, with guest of honour, President Michael D Higgins, is at 7.30pm this evening.

Tomorrow, at 2pm, the LMF piano recital on the Blackwater at Salterbridge House, Cappoquin, is Piano for Four Hands, with Dearbhla and Finghin Collins. There will be live music with Alan & the Accidents at Eamon’s Place on Main Street, Lismore, at 10pm, and the Opera Supper Club at O’Brien’s Chop House, at 11pm. On Sunday, Lismore Farmers’ Market is at Castle Avenue from 10am to 4pm. The Petisse Messe Solennelle, by Rossini, is at St Carthage’s cathedral at 2pm. There is live music at Foley’s on the Mall at 6pm, and the Opera Supper Club is at O’Brien’s Chop House at 11pm.

Marc O’Sullivan, Arts Editor


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