Opera In Donegal Illuminates Dark Winter Days 

by Sean Hillen 

Kudos go to both An Grianan and the Regional Cultural Centre in Letterkenny, northwest Ireland which, like many such places worldwide, are trying valiantly to ride out Covid and keep their heads above water.

I mention these two theatres in particular as, living in west Donegal, about an hour’s drive from them, I was impressed this past weekend to see that both hosted contrasting musical events – an opera and a traditional evening of pipe music.

Photo by Pat Redmond

And they have planned an attractive series of events next year and Fingers crossed, their confidence is well-founded.

Peoples’ fears about the spread of Covid are still, of course, high as evidenced by the sparse attendance at the Irish National Opera’s performance of ‘The Lighthouse’ by composer, Peter Maxwell-Davies, at An Grianan that I attended on Saturday, the last gig on a three-week national tour by the INO.

Normally, such a production – featuring 12 musicians and three excellent singers  – would attract a full house, but applause goes not only to the artists but to audience members who took the trouble and effort to attend on a wet and windy evening.

Photo by Kip Carroll

I’m still undecided about opera in English – maybe it’s simply unfamiliarity, being so used to hearing operas in Italian – but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. It’s an interesting way to woo people to such performances who might normally be reluctant to hear opera, even more so in a ‘foreign’ language. At least the plot is easier to follow. 

As a writer, the story behind the opera intrigued me greatly, the true-life disappearance of three keepers without trace from their lighthouse in Eilean Mor in the Outer Hebrides around this time of year in 1900, a mystery that has never been solved. My interest was raised even further as I’m reading a novel entitled ‘The Light Between Oceans’ by Markus Zusak, in which most of the action takes place at a lighthouse and which illustrates the long periods of loneliness that could send a sane person off-kilter. 

Photo by Kip Carroll

There was no doubting the high level of talent displayed at An Grianan by both the orchestra conducted with pizzazz by Elaine Kelly, on her first tour, as well as the male vocalists in multiple roles – tenor Gavan Ring, baritone Ben McAteer and bass John Molloy – who did an excellent job of switching roles from inspectors to lighthouse keepers, a challenging task considering the characters were so diverse. The Irish National Opera is now directed by Edwina Casey.

Stage craft was excellent, with a minimum of props combined with eerie wisps of mist creating an air of suspense and expectation as inspectors arrive on the island in search of the three lighthouse keepers and find everything shipshape, except no sign of any people.  

The musical score, reminding me of the background music that enhances movie scenes, was perfectly pitched to create the all-encompassing, haunting mood that hovered between mystery, fear of the unknown and anger.

‘The Lighthouse’ proved to be an innovative oasis of entertainment amidst a desert of such cultural events as they all fall one by one under the scythe of the Grim Reaper called Covid. 

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