'There's a Heart of Darkness in There': An Interview with Director Ben Barnes

Saturday, 23 March, 2019
Celine Byrne & Julian Hubbard

Irish National Opera's production of 'Madama Butterfly', starring Celine Byrne and Julian Hubbard, opens this Sunday in Dublin for four nights before moving to Cork. Director Ben Barnes spoke to The Journal of Music about seeking truthfulness in the famous opera.

Last November, at the launch of the Irish National Opera’s new season, Artistic Director Fergus Sheil described opera as ‘something that is both historic and contemporary, that’s exciting and is of our times. Even when we do something like Madama Butterfly, it’s looking at things like imperialism, empire, colonialism and how that unfolds.’

Since INO launched last year, its productions have regularly taken an original, contemporary approach, from a twist in Bluebeard’s Castle to the futurist look of Aida, and the forthcoming Puccini production, too, will explore underlying themes.

Originally set in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Japan, Madama Butterfly tells the story of Cio-Cio-San’s disastrous marriage to US Navy Lieutenant Pinkerton, who abandons her with tragic consequences. Director Ben Barnes is interested in the opera as a ‘metaphor for shameless colonial adventurism’ and the INO production will resist being tied to a particular context.

Myself and my team decided very early on that we did not want to go down the traditional Japanese route with this production. It is more generically East versus West or the Orient versus the Occident. When we are specific about time and place, the references are not to the remote time of the Russo-Japanese War, when the opera is set, but the 1950s and 60s and the last great incursion of the West into the affairs of South East Asia in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Barnes’ extensive experience in theatre – he is Artistic Director of Theatre Royal Waterford and former Artistic Director of the Gaiety and the Abbey – means his approach towards opera is with an ‘aspiration towards truthfulness in performance, albeit in the heightened emotion of the world of opera’, with a minimalist approach devoid of stage clutter – ‘everything needs to earn its keep’. He frequently collaborates with dancer and choreographer Libby Seward on the creation of both stylised and naturalistic sequences in operatic works to achieve a certain truthfulness.

This will be the first time Barnes has worked with Irish National Opera, though he was founding Artistic Director of Opera Theatre Company, one of the two organisations that merged to form INO in 2017. He also directed Eric Sweeney’s 2014 opera The Invader. The famous romantic music in Madama Butterfly – not least ‘Un bel dì vedremo’, Cio-Cio-San’s aria as she imagines the return of Pinkerton – does not mean the production will avoid the less palatable themes.

[Madama Butterfly] is a highly romantic, emotionally charged piece but there is a heart of darkness in there somewhere. While you cannot cheat the beauty of the music and the tilt of the story, you can provide some framing devices that remind us of that darker context, and the fact that no thinking person in the second decade of the twenty-first century could accept some of the assumptions and pieties underpinning Puccini’s opera.

INO’s run of Madama Butterfly begins this Sunday 24 March, with four performances in Dublin’s Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, and then two at Cork Opera House on 4–5 April. The production stars Celine Byrne and Julian Hubbard, with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra conducted by Timothy Redmond (who conducted INO’s inaugural production, Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face).

Barnes has already worked with some of the upcoming singers on the cast through his work with the Royal Irish Academy of Music, where he has directed productions such as Ormindo (2015) and La Finta Giardiniera (2018).

It’s great to see young Irish singers getting these opportunities in their own country. I think it is significant that an Irish company, built mostly around Irish singers, musicians, creative teams and support personnel is delivering works of scale and ambition to a high standard. I’m very pleased to be part of that.

For further details and booking for Madama Butterfly, and all of INO’s upcoming prodictions, visit www.irishnationalopera.com.

First appeared in The Journal of Music, 22nd March 2019, http://journalofmusic.com/news...