Directing a new opera is an unusual gig. Sometimes it is a work that has maybe had a production or two elsewhere in the world, and you have the privilege of directing a local premiere. Sometimes - even more rarely - you get to be the first person to stage it anywhere.
That's the lucky position I find myself in at the moment, directing Siobhán Cleary's new opera Vampirella. We are working on the world premiere of this opera, which was written specifically for the singers and instrumentalists of the Royal Irish Academy of Music, and is being presented as part of the Academy's long-running Opera Briefs programme. I have been involved with Opera Briefs since it began and it's a great honour to be bringing this new show (back) to life.
With a new opera, there are no previous productions to learn from - for good or for ill. It's a totally blank slate, and that's tremendously exciting.
This gig is unlike approaching a piece by Mozart or Verdi. For one thing, you have the tremendous luxury of having the composer frequently in the room, so you can ask "What do you what from that note there?" - or even, if you're feeling brave, you can suggest a small change here or there! (Always in service of the piece, of course...) With a new opera, there are no previous productions to learn from - for good or for ill. It's a totally blank slate, and that's tremendously exciting.
Vampirella is based on a radio play by Angela Carter, and the libretto has been written by Katy Hayes. It is an unusual challenge to take a story originally created to be heard and not seen and expand it into an aural AND visual experience. The pressure mounts, too, when it features Count Dracula as one of its main characters! Vampirella is a quirky reworking of the standard vampire myth - in this instance, the eponymous vampire is female, and she likes to feed on male victims.
She is the daughter of Count Dracula, last of the line of revenants that have worried the Balkans for over a millennium. Our story happens on the fateful day when a male English virgin, riding his bicycle on a grand tour through Romania, finds himself at the fateful castle. As Dracula himself explains, it is always a virgin that brings destruction to a vampire... We also have a chorus of angry shadows, who represent everything from local peasants hunting vampires to the great lineage of vampire ancestors on the walls of Vampirella's portrait gallery. There's even a vicious cat, and rounding out the cast is the indomitable Mrs. Beane, the countess' governess, who has her own monstrous reasons for accepting a position in this strange, dark corner of the world.
Staging horror is something very new to me - I must confess I'm a bit of a scaredy-cat and generally don't care for the genre.
How does this all come together to make an opera? Well, the combined imaginations of Cleary, Hayes and Carter have constructed a tremendously varied world of sound and music for this piece. It's opera as you've never heard it before! This rich, dark world is filled with surprises and unusual effects, and finding ways to put them onto the stage has been a very rewarding challenge thus far. There are also moments of great musical beauty, indeed moments of tenderness that are all the more surprising since they are unexpected. Siobhán has filled her opera with a dazzling array of musical approaches.
Staging horror is something very new to me - I must confess I'm a bit of a scaredy-cat and generally don't care for the genre. The combination, however, of Angela Carter's delicious turns of phrase (artfully reshaped by Katy Hayes) and Siobhán's truly unique approach to its music is quite intoxicating.
I've been eager to strike the balance in our staging between the macabre and the melancholic, between chills and camp. I'm working with some of my most frequent collaborators on the design for the show, and we're looking forward to having an audience come see it!
Vampirella is presented by the Royal Irish Academy of Music in collaboration with The Lir at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, from Thursday 23rd - Saturday 25th March forthcoming (with a preview on March 21st) - info and tickets here.