John O'Brien

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

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: 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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