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  • Chris O'Rourke

20 Shots of Opera

Raphaela Mangan and Rachel Croash in Close. Photo Ste Murray.


Be it Dublin, London, or New York, Irish National Opera's online delight, 20 Shots of Opera, has had many reaching for superlatives. As well they should. Comprised of twenty short pieces up to ten minutes in length, commissioned from a gender balanced mix of twenty composers, each work intentionally engages with the screen rather than trying to replicate a live experience. Playing with dissonance, tonality, and loops, using animation, splits screens, and innovative camera angles, the end results are joyous, heart breaking, weird, and somewhat wonderful. With each work having its own Youtube slot, allowing easier navigation without unnecessary scrolling, it's less an opera parade so much as an opera hand grenade. Exploding expectations and showing remarkable innovation, 20 Shots of Opera delivers extraordinary moments of music, singing and design.

A series of recurring themes soon emerge, with COVID both directly and indirectly dominating. Robert Coleman's The Colour Green (text Mark Boyle) speaks to the new normal of creating work under lockdown conditions. Andrew Hamilton's erth upon erth also speaks to COVID with a deliciously dark twist at the end. As does Dichotomies of Lockdown by Jenn Kirby, again with a delightful last second sting in the tail.

The Colour Green. Image from stream.

Touch, by Karen Power (text Ione), explores social distancing, as does Glaoch by Linda Buckley (text Doireann Ní Ghríofa), highlighting its pains and perils as soprano Sarah Shine, and mezzo-soprano Gemma Ní Bhriain, negotiate the heartbreaking restrictions of online communication. Hannah Peel's darlingly charming Close (text by Stella Feehily) finds soprano Rachel Croash, and mezzo-soprano Raphaela Mangan, turning in terrific performances, along with a stunningly sung duet, as two women meeting for a first date under social distancing.

For those who like a little less COVID in their lockdown viewing, 20 Shots of Opera offers a gamut of experiences as diverse as they are memorable. Concerns for the environment feature in Irene Buckley's Ghost Apples (text Jessica Traynor), and again in Dust, with music and text by Benedict Schlepper-Connolly, lamenting the loss and destruction of the environment. Psychological states find voice in Éna Brennan's Rupture, which might initially evoke a Disney lightness, before everything spilts to become a recognisable nightmare, the layered singing sounding superb. Peter Fahey's eerily moving Through and Through finds a haunting Daire Halpin being visually and vocally mesmerising, which Annabelle Comyn directs with style. The Gift by Evangelia Rigaki, with libretti by Marina Carr, strays into familiar Carr territory of daddy and daughter issues. Emma O’Halloran's, The Wait, (text Mark O'Halloran) journeys into dark, and often disturbing spaces.

Carolyn Dobbin & Emma Nash in A Message for Marty. Image from stream.

Loss finds its voice in A Message for Marty, (or 'The Ring') by Conor Mitchell, which sees soprano Emma Nash, and mezzo-soprano Carolyn Dobbin, revealing that the only thing more dangerous than a woman scorned is her over protective sister. At A Loss by Micheal Gallen mediates death and electricity like a secular hymn. In Her Name by Alex Dowling, with text by Mark O’Halloran, sees superb boy soprano, Seán Hayden, deliver a sensitive portrayal capturing the loneliness of living through grief in a boarding school.

Throughout, there's often a thrilling juxtaposition between a largesse in sound and the banality of textual details. Between the dissonant in music and the harmonious in voice. Often it's the unexpected that yields the fresher experience, or something that's just wonderfully quirky. The Patient Woman by Conor Linehan sees text by Louis Lovett channelling his nostalgic leanings a la Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, poking playful fun at both Hollywood noir and opera. Jennifer Walshe's Libris Solar features a doughnut loving Claudia Boyle deftly directed by Tom Creed, and Gráinne Mulvey's unsettling La Corbière (text by Anne Le Marquand Hartigan), finds soprano Mairéad Buicke and mezzo-soprano Anne Marie Gibbons as little more than voices and footsteps in the mist. Gerald Barry's laundry driven tirade Mrs. Streicher, inspired by letters from Beethoven, laments the real miseries of the world, like lost laundry and poor servants.

Amelie Metcalfe & Brenton Ryan in The Patient Woman. Image from stream.

Much of 20 Shots of Opera's success lies in embracing the online visual medium, even if several exhibit a fetish for extreme close-ups of eyes, lips, and teeth. Indeed, underscoring some magnificent singing by some of opera's brightest stars lies a hugely fruitful collaboration with the technical team and directors. Katie Davenport (costume), Paul Keogan (lights), Luca Truffarelli (video design), and Sarah Bacon (production design), all make significant contributions. Along with directors Annabelle Comyn, Stephanie Dufresne, Joe Mangan, Tom Creed, Aoife Spillane-Hinks, Muireann Ahern, Davey Kelleher, Sarah Baxter and Hugh O' Connor (also series director). Conductors Elaine Kelly and Fergus Shiel, conducting the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, also deliver some sterling work, the latter, as INO's artistic director, having every reason to be particularly pleased. Irish National Opera is still in its infancy at two years old. Yet already it's cementing its reputation as an international opera company for the 21st century.

Perhaps what 20 Shots of Opera challenges most are lazy assumptions about what opera is or should be, as well as how best to go about presenting it online. If one of the less inspiring outcomes of COVID has been the often disappointing manner in which performance has been translating online, 20 Shots of Opera struts about the medium in all its operatic majesty and owns it by embracing it. True, it will never replace live performance. Yet these are more than simply short films infused with a music video sensibility, being more akin to miniature operatic experiences. Each achieving what it sets out to do on its own terms.

Like a more-ishly rich box of chocolates, 20 Shots of Opera ensures the taste hits keep on coming. Naturally, some flavours will be more to some people's liking, and others won't seem as appealing. But that's the point of a box of chocolates: they cater for a range of tastes. Whether sweet, sour, or savoury, each hit in this operatic chocolate box has been prepared to perfection with considerable love and care. You never know, tasting something outside of your comfort zone might reveal a new delight.

20 Shots of Opera by Irish National Opera, will be online for the remainder of the 2021

For more information visit Irish National Opera


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