Heresy is the first opera by renowned Irish composer Roger Doyle. The work received its World Premiere last year at Project Arts Centre, as part of the Project 50 celebrations - now audiences can enjoy a live performance of Heresy on RTÉ Lyric fm, at 8:00pm on Sunday, September 3rd.
Doyle, considered 'The Godfather of Irish Electronic Music', speaks of his vast body of compositions as "a celebration of the multiplicity of musical languages and evolving technologies". Over the course of a monumental career, Doyle has recorded a number of seminal records (start with early masterpiece Rapid Eye Movements from 1981, and proceed to his life's work, the epic Babel) and worked extensively in theatre, film and dance, in particular with Operating Theatre, the company he co-founded with actress Olwen Fouéré.
Listen below: Roger Doyle talks to RTÉ Arena
Below, Roger discusses the genesis of Heresy with Sean Rocks, in an interview conducted for Arena.
Sean Rocks: Heresy is a new electronic opera from Roger Doyle. It is based on the life, work and death of heretic Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake in 1600. It opens at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin at the end of the month. Bruno, this character that you’ve chosen as the main subject for this opera, Roger, he was a friar, a heretic, a philosopher, an astrologer, a cosmologist, a playwright, a spy and that doesn’t cover everything by all of kinds. Interesting chap!
Roger Doyle: He is the sort of fella, I think he was a difficult man. The sort of guy, you would cross the road if he’s coming towards you. He made enemies everywhere, he was extremely opinionated. But his influence has grown and grown, especially in the 20th century or the last century. His ideas about the cosmos and multiple realities, and multiple universes and multiple realities existing at the same time have really taken hold and you could say in that sense, that he was a precursor to quantum theory, quantum physics.
I’ve been reading Finnegan’s Wake on and off since 1978. I still pick it up and get rebuffed and find things to admire all of the same time.
SR: When are we talking about? We’re talking about the 17th century.
RD: Yeah, he was born in 1548 and burned at the stake in 1600.
SR: So it’s the end of the 16th (century).
RD: Yeah, 52 years of age.
SR: You say you would cross the road to avoid him, at least that’s what people might have done. How did you bump into him then or bump into his story?
RD: I didn’t know that about his character, but I certainly knew his name from my admiration of James Joyce’s work because Joyce spoke a lot about Giordano Bruno, especially in relation to Finnegan’s Wake. And I’ve been reading Finnegan’s Wake on and off since 1978. I still pick it up and get rebuffed and find things to admire all of the same time. And there’s 400 references to Giordano Bruno in Finnegan’s Wake. The thing that interests me about Giordano Bruno was the fact that Joyce took on board this thing, this idea, this concept of multiple meanings at the same time existing together. One not robbing out the other, but both existing at the same time. And Finnegan’s Wake is full of that. What happened was, I was given a list of heretics by my collaborator in this, Eric Fraad, the opera director. He gave me a list of heretics in an email. There’s a list, he said. And there was Bruno about halfway down the list. He jumped out at me simply because of James Joyce, my admiration of Finnegan’s Wake. So that’s what led me, drew me to him.
SR: I’m kind of surprised. Is this your first opera?
RD: It is my first opera.
SR: I’m kind of surprised by that because I would have thought, given your background, that opera would have been something that was there for a long time bursting to get out of you.
RD: It is a strange thing. You know that expression, 'the woman protest too much'? For years I would say I’ll never write an opera, no , opera is not for me. And I do feel a bit like an outsider to the world of opera, but I used to get very upset and couldn’t quite explain why I made such contributions to the Arts Council's policy on opera over the years. I wrote articles about it and I kept asking myself why am I getting so worked up about this.
SR: And what was working you up and why did you feel like an outsider to the world?
RD: Well, what was working me up at that time, but the structures have changed, was the amount of money that was going to opera companies, how much it was costing the state, which was equal to the amount of money for everybody else.
SR: It’s a very expensive art form, isn’t it?
RD: Very expensive art form. But things changed for the better in recent years in the sense that the Arts Council now have opera projects awards and opera production awards for first timers or so to speak. So that’s me, I’m a first timer, it finally happened. Yes you could say what took me so long was my background in insisting on the equality of music in the theatrical experience. Well, it happened, it’s here now basically.
SR: You haven’t done the entire opera previous to this, Roger, but you have done snippets out of or you’re working towards the full version.
RD: Yeah, we got off the ground three years ago, we got one of those Arts Council Opera Project awards, which enables you to get the thing up and running. We presented and produced act one, which added up to about 40 minutes at the Kilkenny Arts Festival and with one performance in the Dublin Theatre Festival in their development section and in the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray. So for that, I got everybody into my studio afterwards to make sure we’ve got that recording. So now, this is a two-hour version.
SR: And the voice we heard there was Alex Smith, but in this new version that you’ll be doing it’s a young girl who is playing that part - Aimee Banks.
RD: Aimee Banks, yes. We couldn’t actually find a boy’s soprano, that was right for us. And you know the way things work out, I was at a birthday party for Bob Quinn, the filmmaker, who’s a man I worked with a lot and composed music for a lot of his films. At this birthday party was this young girl who was Bob’s, I think she’s his grandniece. This was months ago. And she sang beautifully an aria from an opera. And when we were searching around for a boy soprano, the time was running out and I said, well there’s Bob Quinn's grandniece, let’s find out if her voice suits the part.
SR: Did you write the libretto, or how involved was Eric Fraad in all of that?
RD: He was somewhat involved. The libretto is by Jocelyn Clarke and that was for act one, so to speak. We’ve continued with Jocelyn on this, but there are some new scenes that Eric wanted included. There’s the scene with Queen Elizabeth I, which is new and (one with) Cardinal Bellarmine, which is the guy who sent him down - you know Bruno was incarcerated nine years before he was burned. So he had a really miserable last few years of his life.
I’m a full-time composer and I’m never short of ideas. I switch on the computer in the morning and off I go, inspired by the previous day’s work.
SR: I referred to it in the introduction as an electronic opera, and we’ve got a sense of that in the piece that we just heard. That was obviously a piano accompanying the singer but we also heard some sounds coming in there. Are those electronic sounds created live, or is it tape material that you worked on?
RD: It’s about 90 % tape, prerecorded soundtrack, but we do have some live musicians as well. There are some scenes from an extract from a play Bruno himself wrote. We have some scenes from that and we have two live percussionists for those scenes. But the rest of it is electronic. But even when I say electronic, some of it does almost sound acoustic and some of it sounds quite beat-based and others sound more hard-based electronic.
SR: So there’s no specific style, you would say.
RD: No, multiple styles - you know me, it all comes out differently.
SR: Well I suppose if you’re talking about a guy who agrees with multiple universes and multiple times, you’re hardly going to stick to one single style.
SR: And I presume multiple styles happening together.
RD: Yes, that seems to be the way my mind works, I mean that’s the way I’ve always done things.
SR: Given, you know, you were saying this is your first opera, was it a longer process than maybe some of the other pieces that you’ve written? Just because of the forces involved and the different considerations around libretto and what staging we might eventually get.
RD: It isn’t, because I compose every day. I get up and I compose every day and often sometimes into the night. I’m a full-time composer and I’m never short of ideas. I switch on the computer in the morning and off I go, inspired by the previous day’s work. So it comes out, you know, it comes out. I play with the technology. It surprises me sometimes and you know, sometimes I’m amazed of what comes out by myself.
Listen to Roger Doyle's Heresy on RTÉ Lyric fm at 8:00 pm on Sunday September 3rd. The studio performance of Heresy, with additional compositions not heard in the live performance, will be released on Heresy Records in December, and distributed worldwide by Naxos.