A Wagnerian Interview: Fergus Sheil, the first Irish Tristan in 50 years and a new Ring Cycle!

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday, 2 October 2012 | 2:01:00 am


Fergus Sheil
Sunday the 30th of September 2012, saw more than one piece of Wagnerian history being made: the first Tristan un Isolde to be performed in Ireland in nearly 50 years; the first Isolde to be sung by an Irish soprano; possibly the first Irish Tristan with full orchestra and not heavily cut; the first Isolde from Ireland to be broadcast live on the internet and it goes on. All of this was thanks to two things: a recent decision by the Arts Council of Ireland to change they way it funds opera – a move from funding individual companies to individual projects – and the shear willpower and, what might be considered shear audacity, of Wide Open Opera and its founder, Artistic Director and Tristan conductor: Fergus Sheil.

Bearing in mind, that he is presently in the middle of a run of this production (although seemingly typical of his energy - and that of the Company in general), we were very pleased to have had the opportunity to spend some time with Fergus yesterday. During this time we talked about the production, its performers, the company and much else. Most surprisingly, Fergus discussed future projects including an Irish Ring Cylce and perhaps eventually, producing Irish productions of all of Wagner's works! It seems after many years of neglect Wagner has found a new champion in Ireland

But before talking to him ,who exactly is Fergus Sheil?

One of Ireland’s leading conductors, Fergus Sheil studied music at Trinity College in his native Dublin and conducting with Leon Barzin in Paris. He has worked for Scottish Opera, Welsh National Opera, Opera Ireland, Wexford Festival Opera, Opera Theatre Company, NI Opera and Lyric Opera Productions. His operatic repertoire includes a wide range of works by Mozart, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, Bizet and several contemporary works by composers such as Michael Gordon, Peter Maxwell Davies, Brian Irvine, Raymond Deane etc.
Miriam Murphy (Isolde) & Imelda Drumm (Brangäne)

Also active as an orchestral and choral conductor Fergus has appeared with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, RTÉ Concert Orchestra, the Ulster Orchestra, the Irish Chamber Orchestra, the Northern Sinfonia, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and many other groups. He is music director of the Kilkenny Festival Choir and has performed throughout Ireland with many different choirs and choral societies.

Also committed to youth music making, Fergus is conductor of the Dublin Youth Orchestra and the Julianstown Youth Orchestra. He has directed youth opera projects for the Belfast Festival, DIT and Welsh National Opera and in November 2012 he is producing a large project – Rain Falling Up – for performance by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and 1,000 school children.

Internationally Fergus has undertaken engagements in the UK, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, the USA, Canada, South Africa and Australia.

Also working as a creative producer, Fergus has delivered many innovative projects in recent years. His commission of a new opera for Carlow Local Authorities from Brian Irvine and John McIlduff won the 2011 Allianz Business to Arts Best Use of Creativity in the Community award. He has also produced tours of the State Choir Latvija and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, and in 2013 will bring the BBC Singers to Ireland for a series of Easter Concerts

TW: Fergus, first of all, thank you for taking the time for us – especially straight after opening night and in the middle of a run. And congratulations on such a resounding success.

It has been nearly 50 years since Tristan was last staged in Ireland - indeed it has been a number of years since any Wagner was last staged anywhere in Ireland. Why do you think this is?

Lars Cleveman (Tristan) & Miriam Murphy (Isolde)
FS: Largely because until about 2 years ago we did not have a theatre that could accommodate a major production, and also accommodate the size of orchestra required. Previous Tristan performances must have had a heavily reduced orchestra. We know that some were heavily cut. This is only the 4th ever production of Tristan in Ireland.

TW: Tristan is a major project for any Company (one needs only to look at how long it took a house with significant history and funding like Glyndebourne or Grange Park to stage their first Tristan) Yet WOO is not even a year old. So tell me, why Tristan?

FS: Tristan has been a long term ambition of mine. We have a wonderful Irish Isolde. We now have a great theatre, we had support from our National orchestra, and obviously funding from The Arts Council. Isolde is an Irish character. We think Miriam Murphy may be the first Irish singer to perform the role. Sometimes if you propose something audacious, ambitious and fantastic, you can get support in a way that you don't get if you propose something more modest. I knew the Yannis Kokkos production, having worked on
it in Scottish Opera in 1998. I knew it was a wonderfully clear production - just what I wanted. Welsh National Opera were happy to collaborate. So why not?

TW: Do you feel an especial affinity for Wagner in general or is it just Tristan? I believe this is the first time you have conducted him - despite your long and successful career?

Brett Polegato (Kurwenal) & Lars Cleveman (Tristan)
I have a really strong interest in Wagner. I've worked on the music staff and as an assistant conductor for a number of his operas (Tristan, Parsifal, The Ring - also Das Liebesverbot). I'm now in my early 40s, I've conducted about 30 other operas, and the time is right to begin work as a Wagner
conductor. It has always seemed like the holy grail to me to get the opportunity to conduct a Wagner score. The challenge is unlike anything else. I hope this will be the beginning of many other Wagner performances.

TW: Companies complain that they find it difficult to find performers who can sing Wagner (this is one of the reasons given by ENO for having no Wagner production in 2013) - yet somehow you have managed to put together an excellent cast with some stand-out performers. How did you do it?

FS: I find this strange that companies find it difficult. Yet existing companies have particular ways of working, particular artists that they work for, perhaps particular pay scales and budgets for singers. When you start
something new, you can approach people fresh, ask them if they are free andwant to be involved and then agree a fee that everybody is happy with. I don't find it complex. The thing is to know your singers. Of the cast, only one (Tristan) was a singer that I had not heard live before casting. In this case I took some recommendations from a number of people who I really trust. Ideally I would hear everybody first.

TW: Considering the short time in which the company has been in existence - how long did you have to plan and did this provide any particular problems?

FS: We made a funding application in January 2012, heard the result in March 2012 and performed in September 2012. It was all done within this time frame.

TW: I have always enjoyed Kokkos' production and am more than happy that you utilized it, yet having seen it relatively "up close" it has never struck me as the easiest to manage. What made you chose it and did you consider producing your own sets? It would have been easy - given recent trends - to stage something much simpler.

Miriam Murphy (Isolde)
FS: Building our own sets would have been completely impossible within the time and the budgets available. This is what takes a lot of time and money. I knew the Kokkos production and there are several things I like very much about it. It is cassical and timeless. It is largely black and white - it allows the production be told very clearly, with no "fat", without any interference in the story. I find it hauntingly effective. The forest for example is just some trees placed on a gauze, yet when it is lit, it is beautifully evocative. I know Peter Watson (revival director), and knew he would be an excellent colleague, he would do a great job and he would work well with us. There were many other advantages of having a partnership with
Welsh National Opera. We received excellent support and advice, and we were able to bolster our team in critical areas with some WNO staff who were highly experienced, and very supportive.

TW: WOO's effective use of “new” media is refreshing (twitter, facebook, etc) and broadcasting your premiere, free on the internet is still very unusual - and much appreciated. As someone who uses such media extensively – especially to reach those new to Wagner or those being introduced to his work - I am curious as to how important this approach is to you?

FS: We think very important. The "Wide Open" part of our name is there to try to welcome new people into opera, and to do opera in different ways. So we see our social media and web streaming as absolutely core parts of what the company does - not as a nice add-on. Opera must reach out in every way
possible, especially in Ireland, where we don't have strong tradition.

TW: Are there any plans to broadcast further productions?

FS: We would like to web stream all of our productions if resources allow. But we do not know yet, what our next full production will be.

TW: What’s next for WOO and can we hope to see more Wagner? I could easily see the company tackle Lohengrin, Tannhauser or the Dutchman - at the very least?

FS: Certainly more Wagner will be on the horizon. WOO's next major production will be in 2014, and it's likely that we won't do Wagner on this occasion, but beyond this we will certainly come back to Wagner. A ring cycle over 4 years would be a good next move.

The issue with some of the other operas is that Wagner is so little known in Ireland that it would be difficult to attract audiences. However people would sit up and take notice if we could do The Ring. Then, having built a following for Wagner, we would afterwards tackle some of the other operas. But we are now talking about 10 years time..

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