Welcome to Selim’s world. He’s in his kitchen. Restless and hungry. He is confined to home because of Covid-19. It’s Ramadan. And he hasn’t eaten all day. Welcome to Irish National Opera’s Seraglio, a new mini-series created in partnership with Irish Chamber Orchestra, under lockdown. Director Caitríona McLaughlin and a cast headed by soprano Claudia Boyle and tenor Dean Power, with Peter Whelan conducting the Irish Chamber Orchestra, present scenes from Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio every Tuesday and Thursday over four weeks from Tuesday 7 July.
Caitríona McLaughlin says, “Working on Seraglio through lockdown felt to me like we were all part of some great ‘method acting’ style experiment. All abducted from our real lives and held captive inside our computer screens or rediscovering the therapeutic pleasure in domestic chores.”
“Finding a way to adapt the opera and use it as an opportunity to respond to what we were all experiencing while confined inside our homes felt quite natural. It became a fun thought experiment. What would these characters look like, locked down in Dublin today? What might they all be doing if you caught them at a single moment? Could the singers and musicians capture those moments themselves? Is there a way to put it all together and tell part of the story of the original libretto? Can we record singing on a phone in a way that does justice to the singers’ talent?”
All of these questions have been answered by one conductor, five principal singers, a chorus of sixteen and thirty-three musicians, using 55 phones in 55 different locations through the medium of Seraglio, the eight-part mini-series. McLaughlin adds “Everyone not only delivered, but did so with finesse, generosity and extraordinary skill. And it is glorious. Getting back the footage and getting to watch and listen to these artists work from their bedrooms, kitchens and gardens proved, as if it needed proving, that there is no way to confine, diminish or lock-up the artistic spirit.”
INO Artistic Director Fergus Sheil explains, “Our new Seraglio web series is a project that is testament to an unquenchable spirit among artists. The idea that a global pandemic might force Irish National Opera to cancel two major productions — Bizet’s Carmen in March and Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio in May — would have felt like an unbelievable tale of science fiction six months ago.
“We could not present Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio as planned in theatres. But we could not let go of it, either. The obstacles were huge but our determination to bring Mozart to our audiences was even stronger.
“The richness of opera is the interaction of all the elements of music and theatre — voices on stage, orchestra in the pit, the presentation of compelling characters as they live out and emote over the conflicts of the action. These are the ingredients of the cake. But what if you have to make the cake without mixing any of the ingredients together? Impossible? You would think so. But this is the task we faced.
“We learned new skills and techniques. We put our own patience to the test as we rehearsed, staged, performed, and videoed scenes from an opera while everyone — solo singers, chorus, orchestra, creative and technical teams — operated from their own homes, using the only equipment readily available to them, their phones.
“Producing an opera is a complex and challenging process at any time. But producing one while re-inventing working methods at the same time felt like trying to perform surgery on a patient who is out for a jog. Giving up was never an option. And the vitality, spirit and humour of Mozart’s great work always carried us through.”
Conductor and INO Artistic Partner Peter Whelan says, “The Seraglio mini-series is a pioneering experiment borne out of necessity resulting from the Covid-19 crisis. The project grapples with some big questions: What is opera if we can’t be in the same space as each other? Can our normal methods of producing music and drama work using new media and where do we have to make changes? Could this challenging situation give us any new insights on how we can still connect to each other meaningfully when separated?
“On the surface, Seraglio tells the tale of Western Europeans who are hatching a plan to escape from captivity from those who they believe are barbarians — the Turks. Mozart always paints his characters with humanity and dignity, be they female or male, of high or low birth, barbarian or civilised, and by the end, we are made aware of both the short-comings of our heroes and of the humane generosity of the enemy ‘barbarians’. Mozart ‘s music gives us the courage to challenge our preconceptions and to revel in the challenge of coaxing beauty and humanity out of even the most challenging of situations.”
Irish National Opera is funded by the Arts Council/ An Chomhairle Ealaíon