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Donnacha Dennehy: ‘I thought opera was a ridiculous art form’

Happily, the composer has got over his anxieties, and his second collaboration with Enda Walsh, ‘The Last Hotel’, is shaping up to be a non-stop 80-minute roller coaster ride

Opera plots tend to revolve around love and sex, power and death. The story of Donnacha Dennehy’s new opera, The Last Hotel, ticks at least one of those boxes.

He clearly doesn’t want to give the whole story away. But he explains that it deals with a couple from England who travel to Ireland by ferry, though “you don’t really know why”. They meet up “in this strange hotel” with what Dennehy calls “this posh, glamorous Irish woman”, who you know they’ve met before. Things unravel, the relationship between the two women “solidifies”, there’s a karaoke session, and there’s a death. The only other character is the caretaker of the hotel, played by a silent actor.

Enda Walsh’s libretto, says Dennehy, “is fantastic”: dark and chilling, but also hilarious in places. “It even shocks me, because I can’t even watch horror. I love Enda Walsh’s work, which is why I petitioned him to do this piece with me. He can tread such a dangerous line between lots of areas, stuff that’s both absolutely absurd and hilarious, and stuff that can also affect you deeply. And also structurally he’s really interesting.”

The show features Claudia Boyle, Robin Adams, Katherine Manley and Mikel Murfi, with Walsh directing. Dennehy bursts out laughing when I ask about the musical style. “What can I say there? It’s very energetic, as you might imagine, but it’s offset with these really still things. And when the still things come in, that’s when this overtone-influenced harmony starts to take over, more and more. It’s like a separate stratum in the piece, like a virus, almost, that influences other things.

Weaving a spell “You’re going on a ride once you go into that hotel. It’s like a roller coaster. That’s one of the reasons why we didn’t want an interval – the piece plays for 80 minutes straight – we didn’t want to break the spell. Once you’re in it, you’re in it.”

Dennehy and Walsh have worked together before, on Misterman, which starred Cillian Murphy. “That was a great thing to do. So I could tell, reading the opera libretto, how he was situating this theatrically, as well. The music has these structures that both go with it and cut against it in places.”

How does Dennehy see the differences between opera, incidental music in the theatre, and film music?

“It’s got to do with the power structure. If you’re writing music for a film, the composer is the lowest person, the music is done last. You’re sent a cut of the film and then you must write the music, or these days they have temp tracks that you’re supposed to follow the mood of. It’s like a service industry. You’re supporting, you may be augmenting, and you may even change the perception of the way the film works in certain places.”

Opera is at the other extreme. “In writing an opera, the music drives so much – it has the momentum. And in a weird way, in The Last Hotel, when we’re looking for a rationale as to why they’re doing this, Enda often says, ‘It’s the music that’s compelling them to do this. It’s the music’. The world that the music has made is forcing these things to happen. You never think that in a film, though of course there are films with great soundtracks.”

In writing music for the theatre, Dennehy saw his role as supportive. “The way Enda uses music is really interesting. He cuts it in as a kind of element in the drama. In Misterman my music didn’t appear until half an hour into it, and it changed everything then. I could tell Enda was thinking of it as a kind of character. For Misterman, I wrote lots of things and let him place where they went.”

‘Ridiculous art form’ At the end of the day, the labels don’t bother Dennehy. “Who cares? In fact, the more you can push against the form, the more exciting it is. But I never listen to film music on its own. Or do I ever?” He thinks for a while. “A Man and a Woman. There’s a track from that that I like.” He hums it. “That’s nice. But tracks. You wouldn’t listen to the whole thing.”

He was not always interested in opera. “To some extent I thought opera was a ridiculous art form. You know, ‘Have you got a cup of tea?’,” he sings the line in a mock operatic style. “It took me ages to come to terms with the fact that everything is at a heightened level. And then at a certain stage I just thought, Ah, f**k it. I just love this about it. I love that it’s a kind of ridiculous art form. ”

There’s a direct link with his existing work, because he’s been writing a lot of vocal music recently. “I was setting prose about the Famine. I love setting prose – why does it always have to be poetry that we set? Then there was some part of me at a certain age, it just clicked, and I thought I can set that. I don’t have a problem. I get a great enjoyment out of setting quite banal bits, too. Banal, suburban conversation, set in a heightened way. Now, setting ‘have you got a cup of tea?’ in an Alban Berg, expressionistic way appeals to me.”

Face the music He was also affected by live performance experiences of two works that are very close to his heart. “I love Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass, and then when I saw it at BAM two years ago, I loved it slightly less. Partly it was because he was trying to avoid anything theatrical. They all were for a while, particularly anyone who worked in anything that was kind of minimalist. Somehow that decided me, okay, the time of avoiding anything theatrical is over.

“That’s a negative influence rather than a positive one, even though I love that work. I also think that Nixon in China was a really important statement. But you can only do it in a very static production. If you try to theatricise it, the work resists. I saw Peter Sellars’s production. It was incredibly static, but right for the work.”

He came to see the static nature of the piece as a lack, too, even though he still thinks it’s a great work. “It always had to be highfalutin. There could be almost zero interaction, or zero banality. Banality is part of life. In Ireland something terrible happens, and we talk about anything but it, half the time.”

Asked about his favourite opera, Dennehy lists Berg’s Wozzeck, Glass’s Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, and says “I have a real soft spot for Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives, which, funnily enough, opens in a hotel room.”

When pressed for older repertoire, he mentions Puccini, Monteverdi, Verdi and Wagner. He listens to Das Rheingold, though he’s never seen a production. “As I became more interested in sound and overtones, which has become a big aspect of my work in the last while, I heard Das Rheingold in an entirely different light. I heard it as basically spectral music, I heard this richness in the sound which was astonishing.”

And unfavourites? “I am not crazy about loads of recitative. That sounds kind of philistine of me, but I find that tough going. I don’t know whether I like or hate The Magic Flute. Sometimes I think it’s the most annoying piece ever, and sometimes I really get into it.”

‘Addictive’ He tries not to answer a question about whether he’s optimistic about the future of opera, but says he always looks forward to seeing new work.

“The other day in the rehearsal room with the singers, I thought, Why the f**k didn’t I write opera sooner? I loved doing it. I found writing this opera completely addictive. The process absolutely took me over. I loved writing it. I was really sad when it was over. I even said to Enda, ‘When are we doing the next one, so?’ ”

The Landmark/Wide Open Opera production of The Last Hotel opens at the Edinburgh International Festival on Aug 8th and is at the Dublin Theatre Festival, September 27th to October 3rd, before touring to London and New York.

Written by Michael Dervan in The Irish Times 04.08.15