OSCAR WILDE’S bittersweet story of love, loyalty, charity, and selflessness, The Happy Prince, has served as an inspiration to many musicians over the decades.
It was turned into a radio opera in 1950 by Renzo Bossi; a one act libretto by Malcolm Williamson in 1965; a rock opera in 1969 by New Zealand group the La De Das; a 1992 musical by Sue Casson; and a story for narrator, chorus, and orchestra in 2012 by Vincent Kennedy and Little John Nee.
All have based the work on Wilde’s 1888 original but the Athenry born vocalist and composer Julie Feeney - whose most recent album Clocks went to No 1 on the Independent Album Charts in Ireland - has gone further with it than anyone before, completely re-imagining it as Bird, her first opera.
“I’ve wanted to write an opera for a long time,” Julie tells me during our Tuesday afternoon interview. “It was always something that was on the cards.”
So how did the opera come about and what led it from being based originally on Wilde’s short story to becoming the launchpad for things in Julie’s own imagination?
Julie had applied to the Arts Council with the idea of writing an opera, but was turned down. However a producer called Mags O’Sullivan expressed an interest in working with the Galway woman.
“I told her about the opera and she said ‘Tell me more’ and ‘Can I work with you on that?’,” says Julie. “Then Loughlin Deegan, who was then in the Dublin Theatre Festival, who loved pages [Julie’s second album] said he’d love to hear an opera from me.”
Deegan brought the idea of an opera by Julie to Festival Firsts, an initiative of the Irish Festivals’ Co-production Network, the Dublin Theatre Festival, Cork Midsummer Festival, the Galway Arts Festival, and Kilkenny Arts Festival.
“It grew from there,” says Julie. “At the time it was a wordless opera, but the festivals, who were commissioning it said, ‘We’d love to hear what you might do with a libretto as we like the way you write lyrics.’ They encouraged me to write my own story, but at the time I thought it would be too much to do, so instead I thought I’d take inspiration from an existing story.”
Julie wanted a story that involved flying and an inanimate object which seemed to have a personality, but was also in danger. “I wanted to have the risk of something beautiful being destroyed. I like beautiful things to be preserved.” She also wanted to give the story an Irish setting.
“I was at the end of my tether trying to find a story, and then I came across The Happy Prince,” says Julie. It was the perfect vehicle and Julie presented a 20 minute exerpt from her opera, then a work in progress, at last October’s Dublin Theatre Festival. However the idea of creating an original story refused to leave the artist’s mind.
“There were things like the Prince asking the swallow to ‘kiss me on the lips’ and the swallow saying ‘I don’t like boys’, and I wondered, why was the Prince a statue? Why was he sad? Why did he never notice poverty before? Why, if he lived a hedonistic lifestyle, did people want a statue of him?
“I began to imagine what had happened before and I also wanted more flying in the show so I invented a world of birds, not set in any era or place, so there could be all kinds of birds living there. I also invented a new character, a swan. Bird explores the relationship between fantasy and reality and how reality can sometimes be fantastical, only we don’t often see it.”
Another influence in shaping Bird was the theatre director Mikel Murfi.
“He was encouraging me to move away from the Oscar Wilde story and to get to the core of how I interpreted the story,” Julie says. “He’s a catalyst. It’s lovely to work with someone like that.”
Bird now centres on a swan, a peacock, a nightingale, and Birds of Paradise (“I was watching a David Attenborough documentary on them! I love David Attenborough’s programmes” ). whose happy world is interrupted by an evil spell which turns the peacock into a statue. “He can’t move and he no longer has any sensations like he once did,” says Julie.
What happens next will be revealed when Birds is performed in St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church on Sunday July 28 at 8pm as part of the Galway Arts Festival. The show will be a concert performance for eight players and nine singers. There will be no costumes or sets, but there are plans to stage Bird as a full opera in 2014.
“That is the next step,” says Julie, “and possibly it will be an album as well. It depends how it works, but I wouldn’t rule it out.”