An opera made from clichés

Some thoughts from composer, Kevin O’Connell, on RIAM Opera’s 2014 production of his one-act opera, Sensational!

Sensational!
Richard Shaffrey and Seán Boylan in Sensational!

An opera made from clichés: this was my reaction upon hearing again my first attempt at the genre from 1992 revived in March 2014 as part of the RIAM Opera Briefs series. The work, Sensational!, is a twenty minute one-act opera with a libretto by Gerard Stembridge.

So had I badly miscalculated all those years ago? I hope not. The clichés were conscious. Opera is a rare chance for a modern composer to address a general audience, and I had been bothered for some time by what seemed like the willful refusal of composers to embrace the chance to do so. So many music-theatrical essays scorned the vernacular and sought refuge in the comfort zone of new-music speak: hocketing, tuneless vocal writing, incomprehensible words, inconsequential plot, if there was any attempt at a plot. So I went as far as I could (and too far for many tastes) in the opposite direction. I wanted tunes, character, story.

The work is a satire. Satire by its nature has always been populist. Think of the Threepenny Opera in either its Georgian or Brechtian clothing. And much in the politics and journalism of the early 90s was worth satirising. (Little has changed.) These characters live and think in clichés. And this suggested to me the bricolage of baroque and Broadway and modernism that makes up Sensational! .

The young performers of the RIAM and the theatrical team from the Lir Academy of Dramatic Arts at TCD under the direction of Conor Hanratty did amazing things. For all its polished, cynical surface, Sensational! is treacherously difficult to bring off. If I had been told twenty years ago that a group of students were going to attempt it I would have been sceptical. How far music education has come in Ireland.

It has been a pleasure revisiting this early work with my brilliant students.

Kevin O’Connell, Composer

 

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