Opera Collective Ireland—formerly Irish Youth Opera—returns to the stage this September with a touring production of Benjamin Britten’s timely anti-war opera 'Owen Wingrave'. With the aim of providing a platform to early-career artists in Irish opera, OCI has built up reputation for quality productions of lesser-known works in its two previous seasons, with Britten’s 'The Rape of Lucretia' in 2014, and Handel’s 'Agrippina' in 2015. After a quiet year, this new production, in collaboration with the Académie de l'Opéra national de Paris (the training arm of the Paris Opera), promises to be OCI’s most intriguing yet. We spoke to director Tom Creed just as rehearsals were about to start.
Why 'Owen Wingrave'? What drew you to tell this particular story?
I think there’s something in the air right now. It started with a kind of coincidence in a way, as Paris Opera Academy and Opera Collective Ireland both had the same idea at the same time, which was to stage 'Owen Wingrave'. And both of them had the idea of asking me to do it, which in a way is how we ended up with the co-production that we’re doing, where we created the production in Paris and now we’re bringing it to Ireland and re-imagining it with a cast of really fantastic Irish singers.
The project for me started in autumn 2015 and I travelled to Paris in December that year to have my first meetings about the production; ten days before I was due to travel the terrorist attacks at Bataclan happened. As I re-read the libretto on the plane I felt like I’d heard these words before, they reminded me of the debate that had happened the previous week in the House of Commons where David Cameron had led his colleagues into the vote at which Britain decided to join the airstrikes on Syria. This libretto, which had been written in the late 1960s by Myfanwy Piper (after the short story 'Owen Wingrave' by Henry James), while the Vietnam War was raging, felt very close to things that were happening in the world. This was before Donald Trump won the American presidential election, or looked like he was even going to run, or before Brexit, but there was something, a sense of a kind of jingoistic nationalism that was starting to re-emerge around Europe.
I couldn’t help but think about Owen’s predicament in the light of all of that. In the process of working on the production, Brexit happened. In the first staging of this production in Paris, Trump was elected and so, as time moves on, this idea of a young man standing up against a warmongering authority to say "no, this is not right, peace is what we should be aspiring to" felt more and more pertinent and I think it continues to be.
This opera has perhaps been underestimated until relatively recently; do you feel that there’s more still to be discovered in this work?
Yes, I think so. Britten was originally commissioned to write this as an opera for television and, offered the opportunity to create a work that could be seen by millions of people all at once, he thought ‘what public statement can I make through my art?’ Where so many of his previous works had been about more intimate experiences, the experiences of individuals and society, or people dealing with literal or metaphorical ghosts in pieces like 'The Turn of the Screw' or 'Peter Grimes', this was an opportunity to make a much more public statement. I think of Britten’s gesture with 'Owen Wingrave' as a kind of a provocation to the public and an address to the public.
They were in the middle of the Vietnam War, but he looked back 30 years to his own experience, with his life-partner Peter Pears, of leaving Britain at the beginning of the Second World War to avoid being called up for service. When Owen’s family chant "how dare you, how dare you?", that was very much Britten quoting his own experience at the hands of the British media and the British public. And so, at this point in the 1960s he looked back to the ’30s and then thought about this story by Henry James, whose work he had so fruitfully adapted in 'The Turn of the Screw'. He thought back to this other story, about a boy who takes a stand against war and against ten generations who have gone off and died for their country. Britten thought that this might be a way of processing his own feelings about Vietnam and his own experience of being a conscientious objector in the Second World War. Then, of course, we look at it from a contemporary vantage point, through the light of current conflicts.
One other thing to say is most productions I have seen have followed a kind of stiff-upper-lip Britishness, of people sitting around in period costume in a musty, shadowy drawing room, and for me I’ve often found the piece to come across a little bit stiffly, so we’ve really made an attempt to unlock the piece and reveal what’s going on at the heart of it—we’ve kind of stripped away all of that, and found a way of putting people who look like people like ourselves on the stage, a contemporary family, and also to try to find the violence and the sexuality and the trauma that are piled up in the score—and engaging with that with the singers.
Given the way that the narrative plays out, the personal politics of 'Owen Wingrave' can be problematic—how do you see it?
For me the women and the men in the piece are equally to blame, actually. We’re trying to imagine—for each of the characters—what is the real situation? What are the things that drive them? Those are economic, those are personal: you have a family like the Wingraves where ten generations of men have all gone to die in war. The only way this traumatised family can somehow understand that is to have convinced themselves that this is right, that this is the only way things should be, and so when Owen upsets the apple-cart by saying "I’m going to go a different way" he threatens to pull down this house of cards that his family have staked everything on.
What we’re really trying to explore with the piece is the consequences of Owen’s decisions for everybody; so it’s not just him against society, but what does it mean for each member of this family or for his friends, what’s at stake and what are the consequences for Owen’s attempts to do something that is right? It looks at how hard it is for somebody to stand up in the face of family and romantic connections, and public opinion, to do the right thing. So all of those things… for me, when you start digging at the piece, issues of family and childlessness and parentlessness, and how we’re tied together by economics and by ideology, all of these things are so rich in the piece. When you look at Britten’s other work there’s so much there as well, but there’s something about Britten’s politics and also his ideas about the individual that come together in this work—which maybe is why it’s finding a life again now.
How do you find working with younger artists?
I’ve done a bunch of work with the Royal Irish Academy of Music, I’ve also been working on and off with the Lir Academy where I’ve done a production every year with the graduating acting students, and I’ve found working with young artists really energising. There’s a kind of frankness, and enthusiasm and bravery that you get from working with young singers which is really exciting.
I think we’re in a really exciting time for young opera singers in Ireland. It’s a credit to the developments in training for singing in Ireland, both at the DIT and at the RIAM. My experience is more working with students from the Academy, where the students come out having done a lot of work on stage, having worked with different directors, with different approaches, doing more full productions than just scene studies, so that we have a generation of singers who are really stage literate and who are really confident as singing actors.
And, more generally, how do you think the future for opera in Ireland is looking?
I think, with the developments happening with opera in Ireland right now, that things are coming together in a very exciting way: with the developments in training, the new company that’s just been announced, the new composers who are writing new work… All of these things are happening together, there’s a real opportunity for Irish opera to move up a gear and expand its reach and its ambition.
'Owen Wingrave' opens in Limerick (Lime Tree Theatre, 9 Sept), and then tours to Cork (Everyman Theatre, 13 Sept) and Dublin (O’Reilly Theatre, 15-16 Sept)
Further details, see: operacollectiveireland.com
Images by Frances Marshall (except where indicated otherwise)