As the arts emerge from lockdown, companies are beginning to look up and bravely deliver plans for the future. We’ve been here before – not long ago well-organised plans were being scrapped (as they still are in some countries), and the warnings are all around – but last week saw announcements from two Irish opera producers, Blackwater Valley Opera Festival and Irish National Opera. It’s an interesting moment.

INO’s 21/22 programme certainly speaks to lockdown experiences, with works offering accounts of distant wonder and longing, through to full-on escape fantasies. There are big-hitting high-concept works that you’d expect from a national opera company alongside fresh new material and community projects, including the virtual-reality Out of the Ordinary, award-winner of the €50,000 Fedora Digital Prize. An ambitious and complex programme, it sees the company drawing on a wide reach of Irish theatrical and musical talent. As INO artistic director Fergus Sheil explains, ‘the richness of our new offering is explained by us having had to carry forward productions from last season, and also branch out to find new connections with opera-lovers.’

The first item on the agenda is a performance with a difference, as INO joins Cork Opera House to present a test concert event on 10 July, one of the first with a live audience in many months, featuring soprano Majella Cullagh alongside Emma Nash, Niamh O’Sullivan, Gavan Ring, and Brendan Collins, performing a selection of favourite arias, accompanied by pianist Gary Beecher.

Degrees of separation: on screen

Looking to performances of complete works, Covid has sped INO on its way to becoming a multimedia production company, and this is reflected in the range of approaches on offer. Firstly, for total separation (of audiences from performers), there is the filmed production. At the end of July, West Cork Literary Festival hosts the inaugural screening over Zoom of a specially-commissioned new work, A Thing I Cannot Name by Amanda Feery with writer Megan Nolan, promising an experience of novelistic intensity with the voices of Kelli-Ann Masterson, Rachel Goode, and Aebh Kelly.

Rachel Goode - I Thing I Cannot Name - photo by Jeda de Brí

By contrast – in both gender and setting – there is also a newly-filmed production of The Lighthouse by Peter Maxwell Davies. Audiences can see this haunting chamber piece screened in wild and unlikely locations from 7 July – Hook Head, Valentia Island, and Fanad Head are on the list, taking ‘site-specific’ to a whole new level. The show then returns in the winter for a more conventional tour of live performances.

The biggest beast in this category belongs to Gerald Barry’s supposedly unstageable Alice’s Adventures Under Ground (not to be confused with other recent Alice operas by Unsuk Chin or Will Todd). Filmed recently, it streams from 5 November and stays online for six months. A co-production with Royal Opera House (London), in many ways it revives partnerships formed in the 2013 Wide Open Opera/NI Opera co-production of Barry’s The Importance of Being Ernest. INO and ROH now headed by the same artistic directors (Fergus Sheil and Oliver Mears) as the previous companies, while the stage director of that production, Antony McDonald, returns, as do three of the singing cast: Hilary Summers, Peter Tantsits, and Stephen Richardson. They are joined by Claudia Boyle, Clare Presland, Gavan Ring, and Alan Ewing, plus a trio of dancers led by Stephanie Dufresne.

The invisible orchestra

The next production category leaves screens aside for a physical venue, with full staging, live singers and spaced-out audience, but with a pre-recorded orchestra. This reduces the number of live performers and could be called the ‘karaoke’ option. Already the norm with dance companies, turning the instrumental element into a fixed backing track may still take some getting used to. This was the plan for the redesigned one-singer work Least Like The Other, Searching for Rosemary Kennedy by Brian Irvine and Netia Jones, but dates at last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival had to be withdrawn. Now it is set to return in September, with performances in Dublin, Cork and Limerick, sung by Naomi Louisa O’Connell and (for two dates) Amy Ní Fhearraigh.

Stephanie Dufresne, Naomi Louisa O'Connell and Ronan Leahy - Least Like The Other, Searching for Rosemary Kennedy - Photo Pat Redmond

One advantage of pre-recording the orchestra is flexibility of venues, and this may be behind INO’s most surprising announcement for the coming year. This is its first staging of a Richard Strauss opera with a season of Elektra in August at Kilkenny Castle Yard, for Kilkenny Arts Festival. The opera was last heard in Dublin in a memorable concert performance by the RTÉ NSO nearly 20 years ago, and the minimal staging of that encounter will now be exchanged for an outdoor staging with invisible orchestra. The searing non-stop psychodrama of Elektra easily sets it apart, promising an unforgettable experience. The cast in this production will be led by Giselle Allen, Máire Flavin, and Imelda Drumm, with the experienced writer and director Conall Morrison creating his first operatic production.

On stage

The last production category is the conventional: in a theatre, with singers, players, and audience. Understandably, the first of these won’t be until November, with a new production of Beethoven’s Fidelio directed by Annabelle Comyn. Perhaps a delayed tribute to mark last year’s 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, it offers an exciting chance to hear Sinéad Campbell Wallace sing Leonore, one of the most heroic of soprano roles. Another factor behind this choice might be the work’s role in German theatre tradition, in which Fidelio is seen as a work of renewal and rededication. If so, to have it staged as the first opera in the Gaiety after the lockdown is certainly a welcome statement of intent, and optimism.

After the success of Vivaldi’s Griselda in 2019, Peter Whelan and the Irish Baroque Orchestra collaborate with INO to present another Vivaldi opera in January 2022. Adele Thomas directs a new staging of the orientalist fantasy, Bajazet, in a co-production with London’s Royal Opera House, which will feature Rachel Kelly’s INO debut as well as a welcome return by Niamh O’Sullivan. March 2022 hopefully sees the much-anticipated production of Bizet’s Carmen – featuring Paula Murrihy in the title role – one of the first cancellations of the initial lockdown. This is followed in June by a rarely-seen Donizetti opera, Maria Stuarda, telling the story of the rivalry between Mary, Queen of Scots, and the English Queen Elizabeth. In something of a coup for INO, this production (directed by Tom Creed) offers the chance to see award-winning Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught make her role debut as Maria, appearing opposite Anna Devin – and (again covering two dates) Amy Ní Fhearraigh – in performances in Dublin, Cork, and Wexford.

Into the community

As well as these main-bill productions, INO is developing new projects with different communities in Ireland, and the next twelve months will see some of these come to life. Another victim of 2020 was the community work Paper Boat, composed by Elaine Agnew with writer Jessica Traynor to be part of Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture. Now re-scheduled to April 2022, it will see a professional cast join local children and young musicians, directed by Conor Hanratty, to tell a Galway tale from the time of Cromwell.

June 2022 will see a youth opera by David Coonan and Dylan Coburn Gray, Horse Ape Bird, drawing together Music Generation Meath and Music Generation Kildare, with support from Maynooth University Music Department, and teenagers from Meath and Kildare are welcome to take part. To top it off, next year also sees a virtual reality community opera, Out of the Ordinary, with communities from Inis Meáin, Tallaght, and other parts of rural Ireland and south Dublin, creating new work with composer Finola Merivale and director Jo Mangan – details to follow.

For further details of Irish National Opera’s full programme for 2021-22, see