John O'Brien

is a conductor, director and composer who lives in Cork.

CMK01052019_John_Cork Midsummer Launch_0

He has worked on over fifty different productions of opera and musical theatre in Ireland, UK and Canada, and has toured across Europe, Japan and China.

John is acclaimed for directing & conducting Faust, Der Vampyr, (both nominated for Best Opera - Irish Times Theatre Awards) Orpheus, and Pagliacci (winner Best Opera - ITTA) at the Everyman Theatre.

Compositions include the celebrated opera, The Nightingale and the Rose, which he also directed, and which premiered with an Irish tour in 2018; Easter 1916 - premiered by Fiona Shaw and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra; scores for the feature films Tree Keeper and Shem the Penman Sings Again (premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh); music for the plays Levin & Levin, Sisters of the Rising and Lovers at the Everyman; as well as other short films, choral works, piano pieces and numerous operatic, choral and orchestral arrangements.

Other projects include conducting the Cork Opera House Concert Orchestra; directing the dance film Inner Landscapes; conducting a recording with the National Chamber Choir of Ireland; playing piano with Karen Underwood; and guest conductor with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland.

Covid Thoughts: 3

"Rachel and Gavan's voices soared in “O soave fanciulla”, and the tears started streaming down my face. Puccini's 'La bohème' was the first of three abridged operas (with four singers, an actor, and a piano) that I am making with the Opera House, and performing outdoors across the city in July. Hearing singers sing live again, and witnessing the emotional reactions of the audience, feels like a reason for living.

The last 16 months have been very difficult. Apart from a few beautiful exceptions, there have been very few live performances, and none for a live audience. Until June.

The lockdowns involved long periods of doing nothing, then getting so bored that I started to go a bit mad, then trying to compose something, hating what I wrote, and back to the beginning of the cycle.

Two commissions from Cork Midsummer Festival saved my mental health:

I wrote a big piece for string quartet and actor that explores the black humour of the pointlessness of life, and existential angst. It's based on the book of Ecclesiastes, and it was quite helpful to ponder the thoughts and feelings of a three-thousand-year-old Middle Eastern scribe who had similar thoughts and feelings to me now. Hopefully we can hear it performed live later this year, or maybe next Midsummer.

A chat with Lorraine inspired 'Lullaby for the City (in a Time of Pandemic)', a piece for chamber orchestra that we recorded and performed live outdoors for inner-city communities in Cork. It was written to maybe give some comfort to people of all ages - not least myself - in this time when the long days mean that sleep may not come so easily. There's a gorgeous video with our recording and a collage of Jed's photos at www.corkmidsummer.com/whats-on/midsummer-lullaby .

It was strange standing in front of an orchestra again for the first time in so long. It's already a nervewracking job! The larger distances between the players meant that they had to work so much harder to be together, but they achieved that and much more, with the unusual circumstances lending a particular emotional charge. Ciara and Kieran's solo lines, singing the lullaby melody on the oboe and flute, were especially spell-binding.

Next up is a live gig with Karen as part of the Everyman's outdoor season at Elizabeth Fort. Gigs with Karen are always extraordinary. This one will be especially so after such a long time. We're having so much fun picking our favourite songs to share joy with everyone. It sold out within hours, so there's an audience ready to hear and celebrate with us too! We've just added a second date on 22nd August, so come join us...

I'm writing this on the train to Dublin - the first time leaving the county since last summer. We're doing auditions for Éadaoin's fun, crazy, profound, beautiful play 'Heart of a Dog' which is going to be on (hopefully live - fingers crossed!) at the Everyman and the Civic, Tallaght (as part of Dublin Theatre Festival) in September and October. As restrictions and guidelines shift and move, it's been tough on the nerves, but infinitely better than the dark days of lockdown when nothing seemed possible. It's been strange trying to make creative things mostly on zoom. But I'm also very grateful for the technology.

My existential angst is a bit more balanced by hope these days: feeling useful again; the privilege of receiving a vaccine (one shot down - the second due any day now); the beautiful efficiency and care shown in the vaccination centre at City Hall; the solidarity of fellow artists; good local food; love...

After the last year, I'm a bit of an emotional wreck with the outpouring of feeling that comes from the return of live music to my life, and realising how important it is to other people too, and how privileged I am to have that connection with an audience."

Published in the Irish Examiner, 22 July 2021

 

Covid Thoughts: 2

"Even in dark November, some days are more hopeful now. I did my first gig in nearly 8 months last week – a beautiful, intimate gig with Karen Underwood in the empty Everyman Theatre, but broadcast to an audience at home. To finally make music again with another person made me cry with joy. I also get to do a similar intimate gig with Majella Cullagh at the Everyman next week on the 12th. (That one has been been postponed twice already, so fingers crossed!)

The big news comes with the launch of a new album that I wrote with Éadaoin O'Donoghue, 'Lilith', with Karen, Dave Whitla, Fionn Ó Ceallacháin and myself performing. We were able to finish it thanks to many supporters on Fund:it. And it's very exciting that we now get to launch on the 14 November with a streamed performance from Cork Opera House. It'll be available on Band Camp. I'm also planning with the Opera House how we might make an online version of our annual Christmas Concert.

There was good news for the Arts Council in the budget, so I've been filling lots of application forms and planning all sorts of programmes with both theatres and the Midsummer Festival for next year. We haven't yet had responses back, but I have to be hopeful that if we cast enough rods, we might catch at least one fish!

Most days are still empty, and it can be very hard to find the motivation to be active or creative.

I still don't have much of an attention span for reading or listening to recordings, and I really miss the thrill of live performance and the connection with the audience. And it feels like it could be a very long time before we get to make a real opera again, or have a choir sing. There are chinks of light now though, and possible futures that seem not quite as bleak as a few months back.

Mostly though for now, it's staying in, watching too much tv, cooking food, and trying to keep the black dog in his kennel."

Published in the Irish Examiner, 7 November 2020

Covid Thoughts: 1

"The sun helps. Cooking helps. The kindness of friends really helps. It's a strange kind of grief. When I was asked to write this paragraph, thinking about the last months, I was quite overwhelmed by sadness. It took a few days before I could sit and put pen to paper.

Who I am as a person is intrinsically linked to who I am as an artist. Everything that I make involves those most dangerous of activities: singing, dancing, large groups of people (performers and audience) huddled together in confined spaces, breathing together. I am a conductor and director. As an artist, my medium is the group of fellow artists who have joined together to make something bigger than any one of us. I miss those people: the beautiful nerdy conversations about floorplans, colours, textures, schedules and logistics with stage management, designers and producers; shaping a phrase with Majella, and having to hold on tight to my technique in case the emotion, from the beauty of her singing, overwhelms me; Dave perfectly placing the bass note as my finger moves us to the next bar; a haunting wind solo from Kieran, or Sinéad, or Ciara; the energy of the full string section giving their all; the whole orchestra, and then the soloists, and then the chorus, becoming one in the space between my hands; the held breath of the audience at a particularly exquisite moment...

Listening to music on recordings is hard to do now. It often makes me sad. Or I can't concentrate on it. And I've never been a fan of online streamed theatre or opera. It all just highlights to me what is absent. As the great director Peter Hall says in the book 'Exposed by the Mask', 'Videos and films of either of them (opera and theatre) are good adverts – good bits of PR for the real thing. But they are like reproductions of famous paintings... they are far from being the thing itself.'

2020 was going to be a good year: 8 concerts with our beautiful Cork Opera House Concert Orchestra; curating and conducting a trilogy of operas with the Everyman for a national tour; The Proms and 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' all summer at the Opera House; and a tour with Karen Underwood of the new album we made. All of these projects involved between 6 and 18 months of planning and personal investment. Some of them could possibly happen in the future. Some can't as a good portion of the funding was already spent.

I am trying to imagine future projects. I am fighting for ideas to be developed next year, and hope that things will be possible then. I hope the government does its best to protect our very fragile Arts sector, and fights to save the existing infrastructure for when it might be possible to return. I'm hoping the governments €350 Covid payments continue, as I'll be totally screwed without it. For now, there is the sun (when it comes out), food, tv on the laptop in bed, friends, and love."

Published in the Irish Examiner, 3 August 2020

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