JOHN O'BRIEN is one of the key people behind what might be Cork's golden age of opera and musical theatre... Whether as conductor, musician, director or arranger, he has brought ambition and inspiration to dozens of productions. His Pagliacci won last year's Irish Theatre Award for best opera, but his shows were previously long recognised in his native Cork... Nowadays, any time O'Brien makes new work, it's big news.
Irish Examiner 06/11/2013
Heart of a Dog
A beautifully imagined examination of society’s argument with itself, O’Donoghue hits both the comedy and tragedy target of Bulgakov’s parody.
When we first meet Matthew O’Brien in Heart of a Dog, he is the eponymous canine, meticulously modelled by Lisa Zagone, the production’s set and costume designer, as a mangy class of a lurcher. Sharik is, like Lewis Carroll’s white rabbit, all ears and whiskers, and O'Brien manipulates his sniffs, scratches and howls with elegant empathy, especially wistful in his song Esperanza, a motif that signals the passage of time and of hopefulness.
In a nod to her provenance, Éadaoin O’Donoghue describes her play as transplanted rather than translated from Mikhail Bulgakov’s parody from 1925. This of course is also a matter of transplants, with Sharik the victim of crazed geneticists who reconstitute him surgically as a man only to discover too late that their creature is beyond their control and a threat to the established order of human society. Also, of course, to themselves.
This was Bulgakov’s target, and O’Donoghue has hit both its comedy and its tragedy...with the shift from dog to an equally astray man, and to the debate about whether the prospects of such transformations suggest a miracle or a curse.
Directed with panache by John O’Brien and now touring to the Civic Theatre in Tallaght, this beautifully imagined production is the first live presentation on the Everyman stage for 18 months. Illuminated by the sharply questioning lighting from Stephen Dodd, its impressive cast is commanded by Derbhle Crotty, its metaphor sustained by O’Brien and Peter Power’s score, sweeping from commentary to prophesy with strings, percussion, bass, drums and voices. It is a convincing affirmation of theatre’s renewed obligation to reflect and to examine society’s argument with itself, even when disguised.
Irish Times 27/10/2021
The Nightingale and the Rose
The technical virtuosity enlivening this world premiere of John O’Brien’s operatic version of the Oscar Wilde story is such that it is no surprise when the entire production crew joins the cast for what would be a curtain call if there were a curtain.
The case could be made that the audience should be up there also; in a disarming introduction, O’Brien himself conducts the patrons in a rehearsal of a theme to be sung at two critical points. Of course O’Brien, the composer, director and, with Éadaoin O’Donoghue, writer of the opera, knows his choral kin: the house has his back, and the response is in tune, in time and in sympathy with the musical demands of the score.
These are considerable, written as intricate variations for nine instrumentalists doubling as a group of appropriate Muses and in some cases as the wild creatures of the nightingale’s environment. This develops as an orchestrated commentary on a romantic little bird’s decision to give her life’s blood so that a lover can find a red rose for a girl who doesn’t deserve it. Overseeing this piteous declaration of faith in the power of human love are Majella Cullagh’s Moon and Owen Gilhooly’s Sun, in aloof counterpoint to the soaring thrills of Kim Sheehan’s Nightingale.
Precise in every detail of performance, the production glows with a rich inventiveness of colour, surprise and allusion, even to a hint of Gilbert and Sullivan animating the five-man rose-tree ensemble. Yet the insight with which O’Brien and O’Donoghue rescue Wilde from whimsy and reveal instead a passionate questioning of his society’s values remains compelling. For all its unique beauty of design (Lisa Zagone), lighting (Sinéad McKenna) and choreography (Philip Connaughton) this is a story of bitter sacrifice. Nonetheless, the departing patrons are humming the aria they have sung themselves, like a gift.
***** Irish Times 15/10/2018
It’s an obvious conceit, but it’s a generous and inclusive one nonetheless. When composer and director John O’Brien takes to the stage just before “The Nightingale and the Rose,” looking to enlist the audience, the line between artist and audience becomes intentionally blurred. Yet making the audience complicit in the performance proves to be a gentle stroke of genius. Reinforced by Liza Zagone’s superb set, wherein the audience glimpse behind the wizard’s curtain to see all the bolts and cables as soprano, Kim Sheehan, begins her vocal warm-up in front of everyone. It might look meta-theatrically manufactured, a smattering of Brecht with a ton of Thornton Wilder, but O’Brien’s opera “The Nightingale and the Rose” proves irresistible for being honest and heartfelt right down to its bare bones. A sumptuous, bittersweet joy, “The Nightingale and the Rose” is opera straight from the heart.
Adapted from Oscar Wilde's short story of the same name, the allegorical “The Nightingale and the Rose,” composed and directed by John O’Brien, with libretto by O’Brien and Éadaoin O’Donoghue, follows a self-sacrificing nightingale as she sets about procuring a red rose for a lovelorn student. If the price exacted proves too much, that’s the least of the tragedy. For its the manner in which the Christ-like Nightingale's gift is received that the true depth of the tragedy is revealed, begging some difficult questions regarding the art of love, and the love of art, now and through the ages.
Zagone’s set, beautifully lit by Sinéad McKenna, plays with the bare bones of staging, of which it employs many, including paints and canvases, pulleys and stairways. Yet, like her glorious costumes, Zagone's staging is steeped in playful, clever designs and wild, exuberant colours. Visually, it often resembles a high school production of an allegorical Our Town, or a children’s TV program. No bad thing, for one of “The Nightingale and the Rose’s” immeasurable charms is an unaffected feeling of ageless innocence. Making it an opera that not only appeals to children, but one that makes children of us all as sun and moon, fox and spider, nightingale and roses all converse in its magical, musical wonderland. Yet this is no fluffy lightweight innocence, but one stepped in a pained questioning of futility against which hope constantly strives.
Throughout, O’Brien’s direction, along with some delightful choreographic flourishes by Philip Connaughton, crafts a slow swirling vortex of constantly shifting energies in a masterclass of compositional arrangement. Nothing is let settle for too long, the sitting student aside, and the interwoven tapestry of voice, music, and movement, right down to a pirouetting percussionist, are a sheer delight to watch and listen to. Vocally, both the Sun, tenor Owen Gilhooly, and the Moon, soprano Majella Cullagh, deliver solid performances. A sublime chorus of baritones Joe Corbett and Jamie Rock, bass-baritone David Howes, and tenors Jacek Wislocki and Jean Pascal Heynemand, harmonise to perfection as the Rose Tree. Singing by a wonderful Kim Sheehan as the jittery, self-sacrificing Nightingale is out of this world, her birdlike gestures and movements adding detail and finesse to an already resonant performance.
All of whom are superbly supported by musicians Christine Kenny (violin), Catriona Scott (clarinet and soprano sax), Ilse De Ziah (cello), Íde Ní Chonaill (bassoon), Clare Larkman (double bass), and Emma King (percussion) who perform live, enhancing the richness of O’Brien’s lush score, making it both intimate and epic in scale in a beautifully crafted performance. Dancers Lucia Kickham, Andrea Hackl, and Sarah Ryan, along with James de Burca as Student and Úna O’Brien as Girl round out an impressive ensemble.
“The Nightingale and the Rose” might appear childlike at times, but like all good fairytales there are hidden, adult depths beneath the obvious surface. Throughout, “The Nightingale and the Rose” is infused with an infectious innocence, a supreme belief in the imaginative ingenuity of opera and the arts to transform and bring people together. It might prove to be a futile act in some cases, but resisting “The Nightingale and the Rose” is itself futile, for it is the rule of hope that establishes the exceptions. It might not leave you living happily ever after, but “The Nightingale and the Rose” might well be a light in the dark to help you find your way home. Humming along as you do so.
The Arts Review 24/10/2018
The Nightingale and the Rose
Before this show, I wondered how John O’Brien could turn Oscar Wilde’s simple little love story, with its two characters and a tiny bird, into a sung drama? O’Brien’s magically inventive work answered my question, and the production deserves to be heard in the National Opera House, Wexford. Seated onstage were six of the ‘Nine Muses’ (all playing instruments), the ‘Rose Tree’ (five male singers), the ‘Student’, who wants a red rose for the almost hidden ‘Girl’ so that she’ll dance with him, and the narrator/co-librettist. The three principal singers, Nightingale (Majella Cullagh), Moon (Cara O’Sullivan), and Sun (Owen Gilhooly) each came into the spotlight to add detail to the story, or to comment on it. In his introduction, the composer told us that he has the choreographed stage version ready for production. It is something to be eagerly anticipated. The story-telling Nightingale eventually sacrifices its heart-blood to turn a white rose red for the Student… only to have the Girl reject it, because she has been offered riches by a rival lover. The opera asks whether beauty or art, as opposed to money/wealth, have any value. Rarely can Cullagh have sung with such sweetness of tone — she was a true nightingale, even, at one point, actually trilling like the bird. Sun and Moon had much less music to sing, but brought similar drama to their respective narratives. The Rose Tree singers were quite magnificent. Their music was spiky and dissonant, as befits the thorny nature of the bush. Their excellent diction helped us admire how splendidly they coped with the difficulties. Intriguing is the best word I can find to describe O’Brien’s instrumental music (so wonderfully played by the Muses), but other descriptions could be inventive, quirky, exciting.
Hopefully, some artistic body will recognise this concert version’s worth and fund a full stage version.
Irish Examiner 13/9/2016
This glittering production is luminous with theatricality, and the devil as ever gets the best lines. How to poise most of an orchestra on a pile of books is a problem few stage designers might welcome but Lisa Zagone, assisted by Michael Hurley’s lighting scheme, has accepted the challenge with enthusiasm for this presentation of Charles Gounod’s Faust. ...it offers among other pleasures the delight of detecting the woodwind emanating from a bookcase or the brass from one of the theatre’s domed boxes ... a musically and dramatically memorable production, luminous with melody and glittering with theatricality... Achieving innovation without contradiction, John O’Brien’s fluid direction evolves from an engagement with the supernatural idiom that kept the devil both imminent and potent. As conductor, brass-buttoned to the chin like all the musicians, O’Brien styles the playing as a supple and expressive continuo, and even the arrival of the Barrack Street Band for the Soldiers’ Chorus sits so well into the scenario that there is no surprise at O’Brien’s ability to conduct orchestra and chorus in front of him and band and chorus behind him at the same time. Confidence to this degree provokes surprise and excitement and invigorates the orchestra (led by Ioana Petcu Colan), chorus and principals. Cara O’Sullivan’s big moment must be Marguerite’s Jewel Song, but this brightly coloured aria is countered by the delicacy of her closing scene, where the pathos is tightened with the anguish of Jung Soo Yun’s warmly voiced Faust. A wealth of duets, trios and quartets endorses the magic of the classic tradition, a genre well suited to Owen Gilhooly’s fine Valentin and which allows a superbly subtle Mephistopheles from Julian Tovey, whose curse on the lovers is sung like a benediction. As ever when Satan is involved, the devil has the best lines, but in this production he also has the best clothes, from his caped and feathered entrance to the plumage of his last-act wings, a triumphant metaphor for four hours of operatic élan.
***** Irish Times 20/2/2015
...groundbreaking and impressive... a quite extraordinary presentation by any standards. [The orchestral] players constantly moved around, touring the auditorium, gathering in posed groups and interacting with the singers - all the time playing their music splendidly. They performed the entire work from memory with total confidence. O'Brien, who undertook the excellent reduction of the score, had trained them superbly. His singers were equally well prepared, performing with remarkable assurance without a conductor.
Opera Magazine, October 2014
This was a superb production, with not a wasted moment, right to the fnal shock, which drew an audible shriek from some of the attendees at the Everyman.What was most effective about Der Vampyr, in the capable hands of John O’Brien and Michael Barker-Caven, was the seamless blending of acting, singing, music and costuming. Every member of the chorus was an individual creature from a Fellini-like nightmare, each musician was a sign of the zodiac, playing to, and with, the soloists, sliding craftily around them as they sang. Suddenly, the traditional set-up of singers onstage, musicians in the pit, and chorus separate from principals seemed so very old hat. If this is new opera, then it’s devastatingly effective.
*****Irish Examiner 25/6/2014
Kiss of the Spider Woman
This small but highly ambitious production of Kiss of the Spider Woman delivers everything it promises... John O'Brien's direction is flawless.
Sunday Business Post 19/11/2013
Director John O’Brien has decided on a cabaret style approach in his musically compact presentation of Kiss of the Spider Woman. It’s an efficient nod to originators John Kander and Fred Ebb... and brings a new vitality to their 1993 success. The reduction has its own validity: it allows Lisa Zagone’s dimly squalid setting to imply all the restrictions of confinement while emphasising the redemptive power of fantasy. Intricate but meticulously sung vocal composition enhances that fantasy and sustains the potent mirage of the spider woman, whose vaporous existence is illuminated by gorgeous frocks evoking cabaret glamour, both strident and contained. Equally contained but somehow not restricted is the orchestration, which is solely of percussion and bass, screened off to one side of a meagre stage, while a strong male chorus is heard from the balcony. The fusion of speech, song and music has a lyrical sympathy that speaks not only of the imaginative integrity of the musical itself (based on Manuel Puig’s novel) but on the clarity of O’Brien’s conception of its possibilities and the excitement of the playing by Alex Petcu, Caitríona Frost and Deirdre Frost...
Irish Times 14/11/2013
The wonder is that such a marvel as Gluck’s opera survives with no diminution of its mystical bereavement. Here, its power is enhanced by an astonished gratitude that a provincial theatre with limited resources can mount a production so visually gorgeous and musically compelling. Poverty may impose simplicity but once director, musical director and orchestrator John O’Brien chose this daring route – the performance is mounted on Lisa Zagone’s design of unevenly layered pipes reflecting Michael Hurley’s lighting – all he had to worry about was the quality of his musicians and his singers. Not one of them lets him down. This is not to say that O’Brien doesn’t take liberties with the formalities of the score, but he does so with authority: this is his rendering of a myth that has a headspinning number of versions, even for Gluck. The musicians double and sometimes triple up as those interfering gods (Artemis is bassoon and recorder, Dionysus wields a violin, Hera has two harps and an organ, Athene plays the viola and Apollo is French horn and organ) and move accordingly from pit to stage. This is not a stunt but a gathering of chorus, soloists and even the audience into the ambience of the stricken Orpheus in a deepening of the emotional connections between all three. Soprano Majella Cullagh announces the plot in a voice infused with compassion as Love, and Tara Brandel’s Eurydice expresses herself in dance (her fatal tantrums suggest that Orpheus is well rid of her). Tenor Ronald Samm invests Orpheus with a lyric pathos so that at the end he makes one of opera’s most famous arias totally his own. His lament Che farò senza Euridice is threaded through the soprano saxophone with which Carolyn Goodwin voices the eternally lost Eurydice. As the crimson curtain descends behind, he stands silent and alone. It’s terrific.
* * * * * Irish Times 24/9/2013
John O’Brien has, as he did with Pagliacci last year, looked at an operatic masterpiece and totally reimagined it... he has created another world that is Nowhere and Everywhere... They have taken the mythical tale of Orpheus’ descent to the Underworld in search of his lost love, Eurydice, and stripped it of many of the accretions of Gluck’s 1762 libretto and score, and have changed the ending. In doing so they have revealed the essential finality of death and left this 21st century audience spellbound, overcome by the beauty of the music and the professionalism of its performance... This could not have been done without the extraordinary skills of the six musicians... who memorised everything in the score (apart from the Overture), acted as characters in the story, and performed O’Brien’s totally reorchestrated version without a conductor - an astonishing feat... There was too much magic created onstage for me even to attempt to describe this production, all of which depends on the central character, Orpheus... In the physically imposing Ronald Samm we heard a most expressive Orpheus, whose final ‘Che faro senza Eurydice’ was totally, heart breakingly beautiful... Tara Brandel’s performance throughout was wonderfully expressive. In particular, her despair at Orpheus’s refusal to look at her was an astonishingly moving dance. The choral singing, movement and, in particular, their dancing was astonishingly good, their ‘Dance of the Furies’ being especially terrifying. If readers only go once to the theatre this year, this is the show to go to. It is unmissable.
Irish Examiner 25/9/2013
Maria de Buenos Aires
This new production of the 'tango opera' Maria de Buenos Aires is possibly the most complex work to be presented on the Irish stage this year. It is also certainly the most accomplished. What began in 1968 as a collaboration between Astor Piazzolla, a composer in thrall to the tango, and Horaccio Ferrar, a poet in love with myth, is here expanded to utilse the talents of director Conor Hanratty, music director John O'Brien and choreographer John Heginbotham, along with a cast who must sing and dance as well as act, and a bevy of musicians who literally weave in and out of the action... [It] is one of those rare theatrical events that merits a second visit.
* * * * * Irish Examiner 24/6/2013
This sensational opera really had it all. The circus came to town- and all over the Everyman Theatre Palace as conjoined twins, fortune tellers, aerial acrobats and a dancing bear joined a full orchestra, an adult and children's choir and nine actor/ musicians to tell a tragic tale of murder and adultery. The venue may have been transformed into a spectacular five ring circus but, unlike much recent musical theatre, there was no mistaking the overwhelming passion that ignited each song, which made it less of a spectacle, more a transformative theatrical experience.
Entertainment.ie, Top 10 Theatre Productions of 2012, 03/01/2013
The well-publicised reinterpretation of Leoncavallo’s opera by John O’Brien and Michael Barker-Craven is a resounding success. From the moment one crosses the threshold of the theatre, one is in a totally different, magical world that combines circus, drama, puppetry, funfair, and music...
...this magnificently imagined and superbly realised production is one that I would love to see again and again. In this case John O’Brien has, once again, gathered around him a group of singers and players who share his vision and create a most wonderfully effective sound world that totally absorbs the listener. The sudden entrance from the vestibule of the chorus, the cast, the strolling orchestra and the circus performers to occupy the ground floor aisles sets the mood. Then, from Brendan Collins’ (Tonio) splendid singing of the Prologue right through to Ronald Samm’s (Canio) broken-hearted Ridi Pagliaccio, which brings down the curtain, the excitement/tension never lets up...
...the wonderfully exciting, unconducted, Bell Chorus, the drama of Vesti la giubba, the tenderness of Silvio, a questa ora, (and) the marvellous, Marja Gaynor-led, orchestral playing of both the chamber group and the full orchestra.
***** Irish Examiner 25/6/2012
A new Pagliacci in Cork, co-directed by John O’Brien (who’s also the music director) and Michael Barker-Caven, goes a stage further, and effectively aims to turn the whole work inside out. The audience turning up at the Everyman Palace Theatre on Friday was greeted, outside the venue and within, by a throng of circus-style attractions, a bearded lady, a pair of Siamese twins (“Rosa Maria, the two-headed nightingale,” says a poster), a neatly-suited escapologist, a fortune teller and marauding stilt-walkers. Designer Lisa Zagone’s set for Pagliacci is mostly in the auditorium rather than on the stage, and the large, lusty-voiced chorus literally streams around the audience, creating the sort of immersive sonic effect of a cinema surround-sound setup with a zillion loudspeakers. It doesn’t stop there. O’Brien arranged the orchestral part of the prologue and Act I for an ensemble of ten players who’ve learnt their parts by heart so that they can move freely, following the action wherever it goes, and allowing particular instruments and singers to be placed together at key moments. O’Brien shifts from ensemble to orchestra for the play within a play of Act II, with the larger number of musicians (still reduced from Leoncavallo’s original) seated in rows on a faux-balcony on the actual stage. Does it all sound a bit far-fetched? Yes, it does. But it also worked a treat as a festive night out that was full of surprises...
It was the first show funded by the Arts Council’s new opera production award to reach performance, and it certainly brought a real sense of novelty and adventure to the heart of the operatic repertoire.
Irish Times 26/6/2012
Dido and Aeneas
...an exuberant take on the story.
...Purcell stepped up several gears while still layering valiant recitatives above a Baroque accompaniment and finally gliding efficiently into Dido's aria... Director John O'Brien provides a vaporous set in which a throne sharp as a scalpel sits under shards floating to earth as if from some shattered planet; under this galactic dance the disheveled opulence of the costumes, the lighting by Michael Hurley and the musical and vocal bravura ensure that like Dido, this production will not be forgotten.
Irish Times 10/2/2011
Cork Opera House’s production of Dido and Aeneas can teach the viewer a lot about Baroque opera and how it can be productively recreated in the twenty-first century. ...this version shows that sometimes engaging with the spirit of the piece can be more rewarding than clinging to the letters of the score. Much of the success of this production lies, of course, with the creative team led by director and set designer John O’Brien.
... the vigour, enthusiasm and creativity of everyone on stage as well as behind it make this production a truly memorable experience.
Irish Theatre Magazine, September 2012
Director and designer John O'Brien's set is magical.
Irish Examiner 10/2/2011
Director Jillian Keiley has definitely put together a special production with Honk! The team includes arranger/musical director John O'Brien, choreographer Deborah Dunn, and set/costume design by Old Trout Puppet Workshop. Each of these elements - music, choreography, set, costumes - is impressive on its own and together they make a great show... The audience on opening night laughed and applauded often during the production and ended the night in a standing ovation.
Leader-Post (Saskatchewan) 27/11/2010
West Side Story
The courage and commitment shown by the creative team for this presentation of West Side Story are more than rewarded by a triumphant production. Musical director John O’Brien conducts an orchestra obviously delighting in the exuberant rhythms of Leonard Bernstein’s famous score while also disciplined and skillful enough to convey its melodic pathos.
Irish Times 26/3/2010
Side by Side by Sondheim
...musical director John O’Brien and pianist Ciara Moroney use two pianos with such brio that there are moments when it’s possible to hope for a lull in the singing so that the playing can be appreciated for its own sake. Any such moments are rare, as the underlying pleasure of this production is in the exactitude of the accompaniment, the supportive relationship between the musicians and these voices has a distinct brilliance in itself, not merely in terms of colour or scoring but in accuracy, emphasis and sympathetic phrasing.
Irish Times 26/4/2010
...a spectacular success...brilliant musical direction by John O'Brien, a raft of effervescent tunes, production values of the highest and most inventive standards...
Evening Echo 17/7/2009
Musically, this production is a triumph, particularly for conductor and director John O'Brien...The orchestra is miraculously good, the chorus is as good as I've heard in the theatre...
Irish Examiner 18/7/2009