Back to the regular beat of a Kilkenny arts festival, with some ‘gateway drugs’ to open it up – The Irish Times
“A lot of people who never dreamed of going to an opera, who didn’t think they would like opera”, were surprised, when they were introduced to Elektra “We like to see if there is a way for the public to not have barriers to trying other things. The more we do stuff where people think they don’t like something… it really tears my world apart. It’s this drug stuff d introduction. The first one is free.
Kilkenny Arts Festival director Olga Barry talks about putting together a program, just as her lineup for this year’s festival, August 4-14, is unveiled on Thursday. Irish National Opera‘s (INO) Elecktra, outside Castle Yard last year, was a ‘gateway’; another was when “several hundred people heard a great piece of music by Stravinsky in 2019 because they had come to see Ciarán Hinds [in The Soldier’s Tale]. It’s that way of bringing an art form, or bringing you a version of an art form, that you might think you don’t like. She is on a roll. “So opera, what is opera anyway? The rules have changed about all of this.
This year, INO is producing Out of the Ordinary, a new community opera in virtual reality. Directed by Jo Mangan and composed by Finola Merivale, it is created as a community music project on Inis Meáin, Tallaght and South County Dublin, where people turn experiences that matter to them into opera, with l Irish virtual reality expertise helping to realize their vision. (INO has had, says Barry, “the greatest positive impact on the arts… All the things that people talk about, opera needs to become a living, breathing thing again. They do, and virtual reality is not just one element of that.”
Barry is delighted that in the same festival “someone can put on a headset and experience contemporary opera in virtual reality in a school gymnasium for 40 minutes, but then they can also go to the three-hour Semele: opera with all the bells and whistles, acoustic music from the high baroque”. Semele sees Opera Collective Ireland and the festival collaborating with the renowned Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin for what has been described as “Handel’s sexiest opera” William Congreve’s libretto is based on salacious passages from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Tony-winning director Patrick Mason and bandleader Christian Curnyn work with young singers from the Sestina-based vocal ensemble in Belfast.
Olga Barry was barely directing on a wet weekend – well, one less festival – when Covid hit. For two years it was “what can I do meaningfully and what can survive in the pandemic?” Now she’s ready for her first large-scale festival since 2019, and looking ahead, with “long-term thinking.” She wants to “get involved in the city because the city is changing”. This includes exploring CCTV and surveillance and the fears leading to it, for the next year.
The creativity of the festival is of the city, its character and fabric, and the use of the city as a canvas, she says. “It’s hopefully an informative job of how Nore informs Luke’s article this year.” It is Luke Murphy’s raft, on a pontoon on the river, reflecting a community’s relationship to a body of water “in a landlocked county”. “We can all be a little scared of dancing, except maybe traditional Irish. There’s something about being a living room on the raft, with a very nice dance made for it. But also, in the spine of the city of Kilkenny, where you will witness it. Murphy is “a major game changer in the idea of what dance can be, how we can connect with people. I don’t mean it’s like a gateway drug, but it allows you to consider dancing without actually considering dancing. (Here we go again !)
Murphy’s stunning and highly original Volcano, a hit at last year’s Galway International Arts Festival, has just won four Irish Times Theater Awards, including Best Production. The raft will be seen by many more people, as they pass or sit on the new river walkways in the new Abbey area, where the pontoon floats between two new bridges. Raft is of the city rather than just in it, drawing attention to what we take for granted.
The castle too. “Something that I notice, as a foreigner: you forget the castle a bit. Until something reminds you, this extraordinary castle is right there. Kilkenny City Council has been proactive in creating accessible outdoor spaces, Barry says, creating “dynamism around changing the way we live in the city center as a medieval, structured city”.
Doing Shakespeare in the Castle Park this year (rather than CastleYard) is “as much to talk about people who won’t go to Shakespeare when they see us doing it. This structure will stay there for the full 10 days whether you go to the piece or not. The scene will look a bit like an installation. And in this installation will stand The Tempest: Rough Magic, the glorious Eleanor Methven as Prospero, directed by Lynne Parker (best director at the theater awards, for Solar Bones in Kilkenny 2019).
A little out of the way, Callan also “reinvents himself but from the inside”. This year, Asylum Productions (which memorably took over the town for The Big Chapel X in 2019) presents an ongoing festival co-production, The Local, lamenting the demise of Ireland’s quintessential ‘democratic space’, the local pub , through the prism of Italia ’90. Next year will see a full community cast alongside a professional crew, for a site-specific show in an abandoned pub. Also of the venue will be In Rhythms by Loosysmokes, aerial and acrobatic show, but in an agricultural shed outside the city, emphasizing “Kilkenny is a rural city”.
Barry, originally from Cork, and now completely plugged into Kilkenny, observes “I think Kilkenny is a place where people have to raise their young to go, and hopefully they want to come back to raise their children.” In the absence of a third-tier university (despite the new South East Technological University in Waterford and Carlow), “what will entice people to resettle at 30 if they have spent 10 years in Dublin, Cork, London, New York? I am deeply of the opinion that it is the city that has the sense of thrill. Things happen here. The ecology of the festival throughout the year lends itself perfectly to this. She unrolls the long list of Kilkenny festivals.
“If you were growing up in Kilkenny you would think, of course, I want to come back and choose to live here as an adult. There aren’t many cities in Ireland that can do that and I think it’s the arts that make it a living city, with the right amount of energy coming from the local authority. The more things we can do out of the ordinary, the more we contribute and celebrate the meaning of Kilkenny. The castle should not just stand there as a monument to good restoration. Messy things like doing theater or making art have to happen there. Kilkenny is lucky to host this.
Its classical programming is a mainstay of the festival. This year “we are organizing a kind of mezzo soprano festival”. Sharon Carty performs with the Irish Chamber Orchestra, a new work by Deirdre Gribbin, to a text by her son, Ethan Stein, a young poet with Down syndrome.
Ailish Tynan, “one of our absolute best” is doing “a kind of potboiler opera selection”, also with ICO. “We have Tara Erraught, the next best thing to come out of Ireland in opera” in The Trials of Tenducci at St. Canice’s Cathedral with the Irish Baroque Orchestra, which “reframes what we think Baroque is, and the basic Irish historical repertoire which was a big deal in the Baroque, when Dublin was the second city. It’s very much in our musical heritage DNA.
Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh and the Irish Chamber Orchestra will perform Róisín ReImagined. “She wouldn’t call herself a mezzo, but her voice has undergone an extraordinary transformation since her early years as a traditional singer. I don’t think anyone else could have taken that, breathed new life into the songs of Sean Nós, reimagined as art songs A great Irish voice from a different tradition again. Ireland produces more top singers than you could care for, frankly.
Alongside such powerful singers and ensembles comes another mezzo: Anne Sophie von Otter with Brooklyn Rider performing Schubert’s Death and the Maiden and Winterreise, plus the European premiere of new songs Rufus Wainwright wrote for them . “She is a marvelous interpreter of song”, on “one of the greatest instruments in the world, the mezzo soprano”.
Olga Barry wondered for a moment, was it a risk, “to have so many singers at the head of so much of the classical program. But they are all individually distinct in their repertoire and approach.
And several female voices too. “It wasn’t conscious, it wasn’t intentional. And yet we engineered it. Indie Rollercoaster Sessions also have a strong female presence in their ‘very singular voices’ feed, including the young Irish artist Maija Sofia, art-pop quartet Bas Jan and early Irish actor-singer Keeley Forsyth (also in Rollercoaster are Sean O’Hagan and Myles O’Reilly).
Amergín and the Tuath Princess brings together poet-in-residence Theo Dorgan and composer Colm Mac Con Iomaire, at the intersection between the foreign poet arriving by sea and meeting the Tuath Dé Dannan; Bríd Ní Neachtain is Amergín and Aaron Monaghan Tuatha, with a seven-piece ensemble led by Mac Iomaire.
Much of the work in Kilkenny has been long in development, but probably no more so than Kevin Atherton’s The Return at Butler Gallery. Part of the three-part installation involves him “re-entering” Boxing Re-Match, a video/film projection he made in 1972, for some sort of conversation with his younger self. The three video installations of The Return consist in revisiting an older work. “He is very interested in how the public engages with his work. It’s not a passive thing.
Preparing for August, Barry talks about being able to return to the “rhythm of the day” of a Kilkenny festival. A gallery after breakfast, Shostakovich at noon, maybe a lecture in the afternoon, before the theater in the evening. “The idea that you spend the day around town. Classical music at the start of the day punctuates the day for a large part of our audience. My mission, if you will, has been to diversify people’s types of experiences.
The Kilkenny Arts Festival runs from August 4-14