My Opera Job - Fergus Sheil
Curious about what goes on behind the scenes at the opera? We spoke to INO Artistic Director Fergus Sheil to find out more about his job and how he ended up in opera.
Can you describe your job in a nutshell?
My job is to set the artistic policy for Irish National Opera, to choose the operas we perform, to bring together the casts and creative teams and to liaise with the relevant orchestras, venues and festivals. In order to do this I have to see a lot of work and hear a lot of singers, so I spend time attending events, travelling, networking, auditioning and chatting to people. I sometimes have good ideas of my own, but a lot of the time my work involves absorbing brilliant ideas from others – singers, directors, conductors, composers etc and helping create the conditions that allow them to shine. I have to have my head far in the future, thinking about what we will do in two or three year’s time. The flip side is that I then have to hope that the work we are doing today and tomorrow is based on good planning from two years ago. I think I have the best job in Ireland and I genuinely feel that it is an enormous privilege to work every day with inspirational people in all areas of the company.
How did you get to be working in opera?
By accident. My background was as an instrumentalist (viola and piano) and I played in a lot of youth and student orchestras, then got some opportunities to conduct and fell in love with this. After I left college, I did what would now be called an internship (we didn’t have that word in 1993) at Wexford Festival Opera as an assistant conductor and within days I was converted to this astonishing artform. I couldn’t believe the richness of the experience, the chorus, orchestra, staging, choreography, lighting and everything else. Opera literally got inside me and once it’s there, it’s hard to get rid of. I went on from this experience to work as chorus master, assistant conductor and conductor at many other companies and much later, I had an opportunity to begin producing opera myself.
What’s an average day in your job look like?
There’s no average. Every day is different. Some weeks of the year I’m in rehearsals conducting our productions, other times I’m in our office in Dame Street planning and meeting people.
What’s the most challenging thing about your job?
Every decision about what opera to do, what creative team to engage, what singers to cast, all these are subjective choices. There is no science. No single right answer to any question. When arriving at decisions I talk to a lot of people, and investigate other people’s ideas and thoughts, but the choice in the end rests with me. Sometimes I go over and back on options too much and that can be unhelpful not just for me, but for others that are waiting on a decision to be made so that they can do their jobs…
What’s the most fun thing about your job?
I enjoy travelling to hear performances abroad and to meet new people. I get to hear a lot of opera internationally. But mostly of course I enjoy our own performances. Whether it is a production where I am in the pit conducting or in the audience listening. There is an enormous sense of joy in seeing something you have planned turn from ideas into reality. Over each rehearsal period everybody involved gets to know each other very well, so it becomes like a family.
What’s one thing about your job people mightn’t expect?
I guess people may not be aware of the volume of planning and nitty-gritty detail that goes into each production. I spend so much of my time writing and responding to emails. In the first 6 months of 2019 I received over 9,000 emails to my work email address. I try to respond to them all…
What’s your favourite thing about working in opera?
The people. I love that opera is a collaborative process, so we can only work with people that want to share their talents with others. No one person is in charge. It’s a big organism made up of people with incredible skills and talents. So whether this is a singer, a stage manager or a lighting designer, everybody must be an expert, but nobody is an expert on everything. I love how everybody’s talents and skills spark off others to create something that nobody could do on their own.
What’s your least favourite thing about working in opera?
No matter how much opera we can stage, there are always more good ideas, more good singers, directors, designers and composers than we can accommodate in our programme. I don’t like having to reject ideas that are good and to say no to artists I admire, but this is part of my job.
What’s your favourite opera?
It changes every day, but today it is Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. Such opulent music. Such deep human emotions. I remember when I first came across Richard Strauss when I was a student in Trinity I thought this is too good to be actually real. Think of the difference between a tasteless tomato and the best tomato you’ve ever tasted. Now imagine you could double the difference and make a third tomato that was beyond the best you have every experienced. That’s how I felt about Strauss. Beyond what should be the most ravishing music possible.