'From the moment I understood what a director was, that's what I was going to be’: An Interview with Opera Director Orpha Phelan

Thursday, 7 November, 2019
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This Sunday, Irish National Opera’s new production of Rossini's Cinderella/La Cenerentola will open in Dublin, featuring Tara Erraught in the title role. The Journal of Music spoke to director Orpha Phelan about her path to directing and why Cinderella is 'a very modern piece'.

When Orpha Phelan first moved from Ireland to London in the mid-90s, her ambition was to be a writer about the arts rather than someone involved in performances. Phelan was undertaking a master’s degree in arts criticism and regularly attending operas at Covent Garden. Gradually, her eyes opened to the role of the director.

I was going to see a lot of opera [and] … I was going to it with that sort of critical eye and the desire to see why decisions were made. And when you start asking those questions, you wonder, well, would I have made different decisions? Or might I be able to do this? Or might I be able to do it better? Often the answer was no. But occasionally I thought maybe I would actually.

The work of directors appealed because they were ‘responsible for having a vision’ and ‘enthusing people in order for them to execute that vision.’ She started to explore the possibility of this new kind of work and began with a small bit of assisting work at Wexford Festival Opera and Castleward Opera in Northern Ireland, before being offered work with Opera North in Leeds, eventually leading to an opportunity to direct her first opera. In the meantime, she worked with the De Wolfe music publishing company in London and was in charge of their classical music catalogue.

Reumert Award Phelan has since gone on to work with many international companies and productions, including Malmö Opera and Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Last year, her production of Leonard Bernstein’s 1983 opera A Quiet Place with Opera Zuid in Maastricht won the Place de l’Opera prize of Best Opera 2018 in the Netherlands. She has also won, for two years running, Denmark’s most prestigious arts prize, the Reumert Award, for Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face at the Royal Danish Opera and US composer Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, also for the Royal Danish Opera.

Cinderella/La Cenerentola will be Phelan’s debut with Irish National Opera. It’s seven years since she worked in Ireland and Phelan, who is from Kilkenny, is enjoying being back for a number of reasons.

I’ve been in London for over 20 years. And I’m very happy there. But it’s very different working in Ireland – it’s remarkably different … actually. I suppose on a basic level there’s the Irish mentality and the Irish hospitality. People are welcoming, open. I know it sounds like a cliché. …. but really the difference is remarkable. The open attitude and the ability to just speak frankly with people and they’ll endeavour to do what I’m asking them...

Read the full interview in the Journal of Music here.