This Hostel Life at Christchurch Crypt, 26 September 2019

It’s not dissimilar to the beginning of a Gothic novel.  It’s dark, it’s wet, and the bells of Christchurch Cathedral, a signature of the inner-city Dublin soundscape, have just tolled eight o’clock. There’s a sense of the forbidden, that one shouldn’t be here, and yet a small crowd is lurking in the cathedral’s nave. Our purpose is to delve both into the crypt, and into the latest offering of Irish National Opera: Evangelia Rigaki’s installation opera This Hostel Life. Based upon the book of the same name by Melatu Uchenna Okorie, This Hostel Life recounts the experiences of migrant women in a cruel, though often unexamined, Ireland. 

Evangelia Rigaki and Melatu Uche Okorie

As the audience enters the crypt, they are confronted by a motionless queue – the New Dublin Voices – facing away from them. It’s an unsettling image amongst the arches and shadows, even more so as they begin to move, shuffling and stamping. “Direct Provision is like being in an abusive relationship” they chant, a harsh truth that Okorie’s book, and the stories relayed in this evening’s performance confirm. 

The opera is an immersive experience. As the audience moves about the crypt, they are confronted by overlapping stories and sounds. We hear of stolen children, aggressive hostel staff, rainy days and incessant discomfort, blended with vocal drones, shrieking flutes and rumbling bass clarinet. Performed by soloists Andrew Gavin, Amy Ní Fhearraigh and Rachel Croash and accompanied by the members of Parabasis Ensemble, threads of Okorie’s short stories are woven together into a complex and jarring sonic fabric. 

Amy Ní Fhearraigh for Plec Picks 2018 by Yan Bourke

Rigaki’s choice of instrumentation is novel, but infinitely suitable to both the location and the acoustic qualities of the crypt. The opera becomes a journey of discovery, as the sources of mysterious sounds are revealed. Fintan Sutton’s blasts of the bass clarinet at first seem to be mysterious bellows from the crypt’s depths, drawing the curious audience to where he and Andrew Gavin are stationed.

Tenor Gavin’s performance at times mirrors the initial bellowing: comprising animalistic wailing and howling, the sounds he creates are unsettling when heard from the far end of the crypt, and near unbearable in their frustrated emotion when close by. This Hostel Life is not necessarily a comfortable listen, but does have its moments of tenderness. Ní Fhearraigh, relaying Okorie’s story ‘The Egg Broke’ combines moments of lyrical tenderness with displays of vocal virtuosity in her depiction of a bereft mother. 

The show is (unexpectedly, perhaps) stolen by percussionist Richard O’Donnell and Rigaki’s curious instrumentation. Disembodied, ethereal shrieks of the waterphone seem to emanate from all corners of the crypt at once, an altered colander streaming water substitutes rain, bells and woodblocks punctuate Croash’s emotional confessions.

This Hostel Life proves to be a deeply liminal work. Time itself seems suspended over the course of the performances, the lack of linear cohesion between each episode, and the continuous shuffling and drones of the New Dublin Voices creating a sense of repetitiveness and stagnancy that reinforce the plight of those literally trapped in a hostile and hidden Ireland. With its haunting soundscapes and jarring dissonances, This Hostel Life begs us not to remain comfortable with the stories that it tells, to be moved, to be shocked, and to be angry.

Read our interview with Evangelia Rigaki about This Hostel Life