Feb 21st 2018

‘Heresy’: an Irish opera that celebrates a martyr to the truth - An interview with director and composer

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”


A new “electronic opera” from Ireland, “Heresy”, broke new ground in contemporary opera a couple of years ago, bringing together Irish vocal talent and the synthesized music of much-decorated composer Roger Doyle. Now a new two-CD version of the music is available, directed and co-written by New York veteran producer-director Eric Fraad (Heresy Records 021). 

It is an ethereal experience, loaded with beautiful soprano vocals and synthesized instrumentals that draw on medieval and modern sounds, processed through Doyle’s original musician’s mind. I have been listening to it for a week. This opera is not to be missed. 

A video excerpt conveys the chilling music and the inventive staging.


Fraad revels in this contemporary style because, as he put it to me, “Everybody knows that classical music’s glory days are in the past.” The two men soon found common cause. Fraad recalls: “Roger loathes classical opera and detests bel canto singing.” 

Road productions outside of Ireland are now under discussion although other companies have a problem getting their heads around it, Fraad concedes.  “It doesn’t use an orchestra, it has a fully electronic score and doesn’t use many traditional operatic voices.” I will be surprised, however, if the sheer beauty of the score doesn’t eventually carry the day.

The libretto is high-brow history from the 16th and 17th centuries with definite contemporary resonances. The central figure is Giordano Bruno, a free-thinking Italian iconoclast (scientist, philosopher, theologian, provocateur) who challenged the Catholic church and ended up burned at the stake, a fate that suited him and ultimately shamed the church. 

As Fraad told me in an interview (see below) Bruno “was truly a martyr for free speech, a passionate opponent of ‘fake news’ and dogma that he believed was strangling civilization at the end of the renaissance.”  

Browsing history for a good heretic to star in the opera, Fraad recalls that Bruno’s saga “jumped off the page”. Doyle also favored Bruno, a character who surfaces in James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” some 400 times. Doyle told me he has “constantly dipped into and been rebuffed by Finnegans Wake” throughout his adulthood. 

Doyle’s involvement came from a casual meeting with Fraad in Dublin at which the two men – sipping rosé wine – moved from Doyle’s original idea of a “space opera” to Fraad’s suggestion that they build the story around a heretic. Today Doyle says, somewhat bemused, “I never thought I’d compose an opera.” But he did, sitting in his studio in virtual isolation for four years, off and on, working his electronic systems to produce this rich score. 

Casting the opera was a “long and arduous process”, Fraad says. “Dublin is not New York or London”. But Fraad’s wife, the prominent mezzo soprano Caitriona O’Leary, was quickly selected, and other singers were found through auditions and previous experience with Fraad and Doyle’s earlier productions. “Roger found the boy soprano, Alex Smith, whom we worked with in the first production and also the amazing Aimee Banks who played young Bruno in the 2016 production. Roger discovered her singing at a birthday party!” 

Fraad’s pedigree extends to New York in the 1980s when he founded Opera at the Academy, a company that made its name in “provocative deconstructionist” operatic productions. This success led him to join forces with the late Joseph Papp, whom Fraad recalls as “the greatest American theater producer of his generation”. 

Fraad, who settled in Ireland 18 years ago, has produced hundreds of operas, plays, theater pieces, films, exhibitions, events and recordings, including New York productions of The Messiah, Esther, Pulcinella and in Ireland, Shipwrecked, Motion of the Heart, Rape of the Lock and most recently Singing About the Dark Times which used the works of Brecht to comment on current politics in America and elsewhere. 


A conversation with Eric Fraad 


Question. Is the Irish cultural scene big enough for a New Yorker like you? 

Answer. No, the Irish cultural scene is tiny and underfunded. None of the great international theatre, dance and opera companies come here. None of the leading orchestras and almost no cutting-edge ensembles in any art form. If you want to experience this level of work you have to travel. I don’t live in Ireland for the art scene. 


Q. How would you describe the talent pool? 

A. There are talented people everywhere, there are geniuses everywhere, a small percentage of every population is extraordinary. Dublin is not like New York or London, though. People don’t come here to make it big, quite the opposite. Until a short time ago, they left here in droves if they were ambitious. Ireland has some great untold stories and finding and presenting these in imaginative contexts -- whether in musical notation or words -- is what I’m attracted to, enhancing Irish culture, albeit in a small way. And then you have to remember, I’ve only been here for 18 years, I’m still considered a blow in. 


Q. "Heresy" is Roger Doyle's first opera. You call it an “electronic opera”. But is it really an “opera” in the traditional sense? 

A. No. Roger loathes classical opera and detests bel canto singing. From the outset he did not want to use “opera singers”.  He would have preferred pop singers or singers from traditions other than Western classical vocal music. What he does like, though, is a straight, white sound. 


Q. Why did you call you label "Heresy"? Does it reflect any anti-authoritarian attitudes? 

A. When we began Heresy the idea was to be subversive within the realm of art music. Classical music is almost by definition conservative. One studies in a conservatory, the project is to conserve a tradition, it’s a museum. Everybody knows that classical music’s glory days are in the past.  


Q. Your opera is rich in innovative music, with many celestial voices, including a boy soprano and a lovely counter tenor and of course your wife Caitriona O'Leary. Who pulled the talent together? 

We engaged a cast comprised of high voices and early music singers. I encouraged this choice as many contemporary composers seek out the vocal qualities one finds in early music, particularly renaissance and medieval music. This choice suited Roger’s aesthetic preferences and positioned us to be creating an opera that structurally and musically sits within the tradition of contemporary classical opera in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. 


Q. Did you find the singers you needed in Ireland? 

A. Casting was a long and arduous process. Roger likes Caitriona’s voice, so she was in from the start. Morgan Crowley had worked with us on the prototype production in 2013 and Roger likes his voice.  I had worked with the male soprano, Robert Crowe, on projects in New York and Utrecht years ago, and I’d also worked with Daire Halpin years before. Roger found the boy soprano, Alex Smith, whom we worked with in the first production and also the amazing Aimee Banks who played young Bruno in the 2016 production. Roger discovered her singing at a birthday party! 


Q. Is it true that you talked him into this production over a pint of Guinness in a Dublin pub? How difficult was it? 

A. Roger suggested that we discuss a project, and we met at the Westbury Hotel off Grafton Street, Dublin’s main shopping drag. He had been toying with the idea of composing what he was calling, a “space opera” and was experimenting with singers. He wanted to bring together unconventional voices, electronic music and science fiction or a recording and perhaps performances. Frankly, I didn’t think the idea was right for my label (Heresy records) and I told Roger that. 


Q. So did you almost drop it then and there? 

A. No, but I walked away to take a phone call. Then an idea came to me. If he would write an opera based on a heretic or a heresy, then I would be amenable to directing the production and releasing the album. Roger was intrigued and I agreed to send him a list of heretics and heresies, which I did that very evening. The next day he phoned me and he was excited. One name jumped off the page, Giordano Bruno. 


Q. In the end, how much Guinness was consumed at the Westbury? 

A. I don’t believe there were any pints downed at that first meeting but that’s how the opera got its start. By the way, Roger is a fan of rosé wine and I like it too. Regardless of
the time of year, Dubliners can catch a glimpse of these two older married men sitting in bars and pubs drinking pink wine together.


Q. Bruno is largely forgotten, isn’t he? Why choose him?

A. Primarily because Roger is an ardent admirer of James Joyce and also a Finnegans Wake enthusiast. Bruno was a lifelong hero of Joyce and is mentioned or referred to over 400 times in Finnegans Wake. 


Q. How did your collaboration on the libretto with playwright Jocelyn Clark actually work? Who did the writing? Who took the lead? 

A. To be honest, we considered several “star” novelists to write the libretto but always came back to Jocelyn. I knew about his work before I came to Ireland 18 years ago, particularly through his productions at New York Theater Workshop. Beyond being a celebrated dramatic writer, Jocelyn is an excellent dramaturge, and working with such a finely tuned and perceptive theatrical sensibility is a powerful resource for a director. 


Q. In any collaborative enterprise like this, isn’t there always a separation of duties among writers and the composer? 

A. Yes, although the early libretto was entirely written by Jocelyn. Then he revised these to conform to Roger’s compositional and conceptual ideas. We continued to grapple with what the opera was and in 2016 Jocelyn’s commitments to theatres in the States meant he could not devote time to the opera. I had several more scenes in mind that I thought were important to clarify the narrative and build up some of the characters. We realized that we would either have to engage another writer to create these scenes or I would have to do it myself. In the end I went to Salzburg and wrote these scenes. 


Q. How deeply did you dive into Bruno's story beyond Google searches? Essays, biographies? Which ones? 

A. I read everything by and about Bruno that I could get my hands on. The Florence Yates books, Ingrid Rowland’s biography, the Giordano Bruno series– where he’s a romanticized renaissance Sherlock Holmes – by S.J. Parris, and other Bruno texts that have been translated into English, The Ash Wednesday Supper, The Cabala of
Pegasus, The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, The Shadow of Ideas, il Candelaio (his play), On the Infinite Universe and Worlds and sections of several other texts.


Q. Was Bruno a hero of yours before you decided to produce the opera? 

A. No, not really. I’d heard about Bruno but only with regard to the hermetic philosophical tradition in relation to renaissance dramatic literature, particularly Shakespeare. 


Q. Bruno lived in the 16th and 17th centuries and yet today is perceived as having been ahead of his time in -- cosmology, philosophy, religion, intellectual freedom. You have called him a "martyr for free speech and truth". 

A. He was a magician who had no time for ecclesiastic magical thinking – he was contradictory. So yes, he was truly a martyr for free speech, a passionate opponent of “fake news” and dogma that he believed was strangling civilization at the end of the renaissance. He became a kind of rock star, an intellectual celebrity throughout Europe and long before the cult of famous musicians, actors and athletes. There were no concert halls, opera houses, museums – no cultural institutions. The places to hear music were in the courts, churches and streets. 


Q. What was his real objective in life? 

A. He became a luminary for his prodigious and occult system of magic memory – a hermetic rejigging of classical memory techniques which in its most sublime manifestation could used to channel all the knowledge in the world, the stars and the heavens, and then manipulated to be a political power matrix. He wanted to use this knowledge to enlighten civilization and return European thought, religion and politics to an idealized era which he imagined existed in ancient Egypt. This led to his undoing in Venice which directly resulted in his martyrdom. 


Q. There is clearly a link in the Bruno story with today's political scene. He even says in the libretto, "May this dark and gloomy night of our errors pass away." Any contemporary resonance there? 

A. Yes – although in the opera this is dealt with obliquely. Bruno’s trial lasted eight years – the Vatican did not want to execute him as he was a celebrity and they would have preferred him to recant but he refused. He stood up to the authorities, forced them to martyr him, sacrificed himself and made them tremble. History attests to the foolishness of martyring liberal and iconoclastic figures. The martyrs usually win in the end. 


Q. You have called the Catholic church "the most authoritarian institution the West has ever devised". Can you say things like that today in Ireland? 

A. Yes and more. The child abuse scandals of the1990’s were decisive in eroding the power of the clergy in Ireland. The Irish do things to extremes. They were the most “Catholic” country in Western Europe for many years and yet they were the first to pass an amendment to the constitution to permit same sex marriage. It seems probable that abortion will be legalized soon so the power of the church is being forcibly relaxed. It continues to become more secular but it’s a slow process.                                                             

Q. "Heresy" was a hit in Ireland. Do you see potential performances outside of Ireland? 

A. It’s hard for opera companies to get their heads around “Heresy”. It doesn’t use an orchestra, it has a fully electronic score and doesn’t use many traditional operatic voices.
But we are speaking with festivals and theatres about programming it.


Q. You are planning a launch March 15 in Dublin with performances. Who will be singing what? 

A. Roger will perform instrumental pieces and (my wife) Caitríona will sing “A Material Universe” which is becoming a bit of a hit on Spotify. We are hoping that some of the other singers will be available to participate as well.



A conversation with Roger Doyle


Q. This opera is more than two hours long. Did you work in isolation to produce it? 

A. Yes, in my studio, relentlessly. 


Q. How many months did you invest in the project? 

A. Hard to say exactly as I composed two other albums during the time I worked on this opera. I began it in March 2013 and finished it in February 2017 (even though it premiered in November 2016). 


Q. You have said you have "constantly dipped into and been rebuffed by" James Joyce‘s Finnegan's Wake. What do you mean by that? 

A. I first joined a Finnegans Wake reading group in 1978 and have veered between thinking of Joyce as a madman shot through with genius, or simply a madman. There are sections which light up the world, only to go black again soon after into unintelligibility. 


Q. Who first called you the "godfather of Irish electronic music" and what is that based on? 

A. Both Daniel Figgis and Donnacha Dennehy claim that honor. It is based on my being the first composer in this country (Ireland) to use technology in my work continuously. Donnacha states that I inhabit a dark side, as all godfathers do. 


Q. I have listened to the two CDs of “Heresy” several times and am drawn into the music. It seems medieval, modern and original at the same time. What music antecedents did you rely upon, if any? 

A. None, just my instinct, which is highly tuned now after all these years. Ideas flow and I work 10 hours a day, which helps. 


Q. What kind of electronic equipment did you have at your disposal? Is there one system that served as the basic player? 

A. Lots of different software. Mainly Logic, Reaktor, Melodyne, Komplete 8, Protools, Battery, Sibelius, Expand, Kontakt 


Q. What is your training in conventional music? Piano? Composition? 

A. Piano lessons from age 9. More here:   http://rogerdoyle.com/biography/




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