Friday, 29 November 2019, 8.00pm

Scenes from Michael Gallen's first opera, due for full premiere performance in 2021.

'Elsewhere' is a large-scale opera/music-theatre work based on the story of the 1919 Monaghan Asylum Soviet. This soviet was the first of its kind to occur outside of the newly-established Soviet Union. It took place in a small Irish town only a few miles from what was soon to become the problematic border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Having held unsuccessful strikes for more humane conditions, and under threat from the Royal Irish Constabulary, the staff of the asylum barricaded the gates, raised the Red Flag and declared themselves an independent soviet commune. The 'lock-in' was considered a great success at the time: the gates were opened only after all the strikers' demands had been met.

Dealing with themes of utopia, fantasy and madness, 'Elsewhere' explores the other worlds that exist at the frontiers of imagination. The story of 'Elsewhere', told from the perspective of one of its patients, wends between the rational and irrational, the real and the imaginary, and interrogates the lines that separate them. It asks: What does it mean to border, to be bordered, to transgress?

'Elsewhere' is co-commissioned by Cie Miroirs Étendus, the Opéra de Rouen-Normandie, and Creative Ireland. It will also be co-produced in Ireland by Gallen's new music-theatre company, Straymaker, with the support of the Arts Council and the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris.



James Camien Mc...
Brilliant performance of a moving tale

Why I gave the above rating: 

Michael Gallen is surely one of Ireland's most promising young composers: he was the frontman of Ana Gog, and has also written music for dance and theatre in Ireland and abroad, and is also now working under the moniker Sudden Wells. I've thought everything he's done has been great - and occasionally it's been stunningly good - so when I heard of this new opera I didn't need any more encouragement to see what he's up to now. (He's also - full disclosure - an old friend, so the decision was overdetermined.)

The performance tonight was not the full opera: it was rather a stage performance of about a dozen episodes from it, and all in all it lasted just over an hour. But it was no workshop performance: the music was final, and the performance, by Miroirs Étendus under Tom Creed, was absolutely brilliant. The full opera is due to be premiered in 2021, but tonight's performance (call in a concert suite) felt complete, both in terms of the narrative arc and in terms of each scene being legible without staging (though I did rely on the programme's one-sentence descriptions of each scene). So I would hope it would be performed again in this guise - not just so that it can receive a wider audience, but because the music would easily bear a second hearing.

It is not that every moment in the concert was superb. The opening movement, a rhythmically and polyphonically thick but just about tonal piece, was more competent than moving: it sounded a bit as if Gallen was trying to convince the critics that he knows what twenty-first century operas should sound like, and can do that. It sounded less like the music came from him, though there were a few moments here and there where his characteristic sensuous harmonies shone through. This was perhaps the weakest movement, though. Later, there was a wonderful circus-pastiche satire in which an unsympathetic warden spoke through a megaphone. (Gallen's music has often lacked humour, and so it is nice to see this side of him.)

But the strongest moments were also the simplest: there is a complex mother–daughter relationship threaded through the opera, and the love, regret, and longing in this was sensitively and beautifully brought out, especially in the daughter's aria. Also here was a climax in which three female voices slowly pass a high forte note back and forth, drawing it out for what felt like an eternity. The tone-matching must have been deviliishly difficult, but it was executed perfectly, and the result was an intensity that stays with me now, almost two months later.

Jan 17, 2020

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