Raymond Deane on his opera, 'Vagabones'

Raymond Deane’s latest opera ‘Vagabones’ is performed this month by Opera Collective Ireland. Based on the play ‘Trespasses’ by Emma Donoghue, the opera with a libretto by Renate Debrun is directed by Ben Barnes and features an Irish cast and the musicians of Crash Ensemble. CMC’s Jonathan Grimes spoke to the composer about the opera.

Jonathan Grimes: Raymond, how did you come to write this opera?

Raymond Deane: It was a commission from Opera Collective Ireland that was funded by the Arts Council. I had just read the novel Room by Emma Donoghue. It completely gripped me and it struck me as being in some strange way operatic. So I looked at a collection of her plays and this one stood out. It struck me as having great possibilities to be reworked into an opera libretto. It also dealt with this very fascinating subject of a witchcraft trial - one of the very few held in Ireland. That trial took place in Youghal in County Cork in 1661. Emma Donoghue’s play was originally a radio play and brings out a lot of issues about colonialism, imperialism, and feminism. So to that extent it really attracted me, and Renate Debrun did a very good adaptation of the play into a three-act structure.

The plot involves a young woman called Mary who is epileptic and wants to marry her master, whose own wife has died leaving her to take care of the children. Mary is afraid because she’s epileptic he won’t marry her, so she conceives the idea of having her epilepsy blamed on this alleged witch. So if the witch is condemned the epilepsy will disappear; it doesn’t turn out like that.

Emma Donoghue also invented a character of an adolescent boy who is put in the same cell as Florence. And there is a further interaction between the Mayor of Youghal who is a very benign character and John Pyne, the man who Mary wants to marry. He’s an Englishman and he just hates the Irish.

Even if you left aside the subject matter completely there were a lot of little possibilities for musical treatment that struck me, and when you put it together with the political context it really presented itself to me as something I wanted to do.

JG: Perhaps you might talk about the political context of the opera and some of the parallels with what’s happening today.

RD: The political context of a witch hunt has been pretty familiar since the Crucible by Arthur Miller. So writing an opera about a witch trial brings all of the implications of that into view, particularly at a time when far-right regimes all over the world are instituting witch hunts against people who are in any way dissident. Emma Donoghue wrote the play not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And it seems pretty clear to me that at the end just before the epilogue when Florence is taken away to be tried, it’s actually turned into a kind of triumph for her because she has managed to negotiate the liberation of the boy who has shared her cell, and as she’s leaving she cries to him, “the walls will fall!” and he cries back, “the walls will fall!” Now we have so many other walls that have to fall, like Trump’s, the so-called peace walls in the north of Ireland, and there is the illegal wall that Israel is building within the Palestinian West Bank.

JG: Do you often come across material that you make a mental note of it working well as an opera? And if so, how do you decide what you focus on in terms of what ends up getting the treatment to become a full opera?

RD: Just before starting work on this I had a completely different project in mind. I had been reading about a man called Ernst Toller who was a German-language Jewish poet who became president of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Munich for eight days in the course of the 1919 revolution. That subject completely fascinated me and it seemed to have a great deal of political relevance to what has become of Europe since that time. There was some interest in that project coming from the German side, but this fell through. Then, Opera Collective Ireland was interested in doing something and there was actually very little time to make a decision.

So the whole Emma Donoghue connection came in very handy and I was able to interest Collette McGahon [Opera Collective Ireland Artistic Director] in this particular play.

JG: How long did it take you to write it?

RD: I’d say drafting it took about a year and then it had to be put in the computer which is also an entire phase of revision. It was very intense and the kind of harmonic structure I had envisaged whereby each of the six characters gets a particular sequence of harmonies worked out very well.

I was quite driven with this piece and I didn’t find its composition terribly difficult.

JG: And compared to your previous opera, The Alma Fetish, was composing this a different experience?

The Alma Fetish is a totally different piece. It uses a full orchestra, and chorus, whereas this has just 6 singers and 13 instruments. The libretto of The Alma Fetish was being prepared while I was working on the piece so I’d finish a scene and wait for the next scene to arrive and then discuss the scene with the librettist. So the whole way of working on it was different. The Alma Fetish is also largely based on found materials, on quotations. It’s set in the early 20th century. I thought of using the kind of 17th-century background in the same way but it just doesn’t work because you don’t have much of that kind of material available here from Ireland in the late 17th century.

JG: So on that point about musically trying to evoke the 17th century, you decided against that?

RD: Yes. The only thing I evoke that way was Cromwell. Florence, the alleged witch, has this great diatribe about Cromwell and I found a 17th-century anti-Cromwellian song that I quote during that passage. Apart from a piece of plainchant - the Pater Noster - which plays a very important part in the narrative that’s the only quotation in the entire piece.

JG: And you mentioned that you had structured a harmonic environment for each character based on the chromatic scale. Have you done this before or is this a new approach for you?

RD: I hadn’t done anything exactly like this before. In previous operas I had often given a scale to a particular character, for example, Oskar Kokoschka [in The Alma Fetish] gets the whole note scale. In this case, I decided to do something more complicated. For each of the characters, I took a chromatic scale and I superimposed it on three different scales or sequences - of minor thirds, for example - all starting from a different note so you start from a particular chord and it generates 12 chords. It proved to be a very useful way to work because you’re not constantly repeating the same little melodic fragments but you do have a very strong harmonic aura associated with the character and it gives you a great deal of freedom with other aspects while at the same time helping to characterize the character musically. The interesting thing is when you have more than one character on stage at the same time and you’re superimposing these two harmonic auras, so having a bit of fun with technique … this is a challenge and I really enjoyed working with it.

JG: And coming back to the original play and adapting that play for libretto, what sort of considerations did you need to make when yourself and Renate Debrun were adapting the story?

RD: Well the original play is in two acts. We turned it into three acts. We changed the order of certain things but basically followed the course of the play which has a prologue and an epilogue where the character of Mary sings of her woes in a graveyard overlooking the town of Youghal.

JG: And does it work out that when you actually have the libretto finished that the music then becomes easier to write?

RD: It does for me. If a libretto is good I sit there and I read it and the musical ideas start coming immediately because I’m not somebody who goes around from morning to night with musical ideas running through my head. So when it comes to having to sit down and compose it’s like turning on a switch. I’ve found with the libretti I’ve worked on during the years that they did tend to suggest musical ideas more or less straight away and taking that in conjunction with the pre-composed harmonic structure, there are many aspects of this opera that almost wrote themselves.

JG: And is that unusual for you when you’re composing - that that piece almost writes itself?

RD: Well I am exaggerating of course because it was still very hard labour. But I think that is why I have really enjoyed writing these long term projects like operas because over a period of time, you know what you’re doing and it relieves you of a lot of mental stress. You don’t always have to be reinventing the wheel. The wheel is sitting there and you’re just hoping that it will roll of its own accord. And it does if things go well.

JG: How important is place when it comes to your composing?

RD: I spend between four and five months of the year in a small city in Bavaria where my wife and I have a soundproof attic, and where I can work into the night. So I do a lot of my work when I’m there because I have no distractions. And then a lot of the more technical stuff - putting it into the computer and so on - I do back in Ireland. I find getting away from my main home which is Dublin for a few months is absolutely essential; I really value that.

JG: What is it that attracts you to opera so much?

RD: Well I think it’s a little bit like what attracted a composer like Arnold Schoenberg to opera and generally speaking to works using text early on his career. It’s because the text gives you a kind of preordained structure.

For me an opera is attractive because it’s a kind of collaboration. Even when you write your own libretto, as I did for the first two operas, you’re still collaborating. You’re collaborating with an aspect of yourself, and you’re collaborating perhaps with whoever wrote pre-existing texts. I’ve been working on operas over the last 30 years but I’ve been on the road for a long time. It was not an urge I felt early on in my career and it’s one that grew on me later, as the idea of collaboration became more attractive to me.

JG: Does collaboration bring certain challenges or make the job of being a composer more stressful?

RD: Well when you’re dealing with a real-life person who is maybe sitting in the next room in the case of the new opera it could be problematic. It was more problematic with The Alma Fetish which is no reflection on Gavin Kostick (the librettist) because we were in different countries most of the time, so there was a lot of toing and froing on the Internet. In the case of the new opera, myself and the librettist saw eye to eye on just about everything I would have to say.

JG: But in terms of the production that is built up around the opera how do you deal with that?

RD: Well I’m not Stockhausen. I’m not a control freak. There comes a point when having produced the goods you just have to let go and let other people do the things that they’re qualified to do. You may then disagree with some of what is proposed but the great moment is when the person actually persuades you, or when you actually see the result and you are persuaded that that person was right and that your original idea has in fact been improved. It’s a bit like taking your child to school and saying, ‘All right, go in there now.’ And the child looks back with tears in his or her eyes, and then you go off and do your thing.

JG: There’s been an increase in the number of operas being written and staged in this country over the last seven or eight years. Because of this, do you think there is now the beginnings of a 21st-century Irish opera tradition?

RD: I do actually. It’s an interesting phenomenon because opera is still a devilishly difficult thing to produce and getting public interest in it is difficult. And it’s a very interesting phenomenon that so many composers nonetheless have taken up this challenge, and sometimes without even having been commissioned. I know quite a few operas that have been composed by composers just because they wanted to do it, and it’s an extraordinary thing to undertake and a very uncertain thing and I’m not quite sure why it’s happening. We don’t have an ideal situation in this country generally speaking for support of the arts and particularly not for the support of so-called classical music. If that were to collapse completely, which is conceivable, this tradition would not come into being. But so far I think the omens are quite good. I think it’s an extremely interesting and strange development.

Vagabones is performed from 6–13 September in Dublin, Dundalk, Youghal and Waterford. Further details here