A chat with Fergus Sheil about his career and Irish National Opera

I conducted this interview in January 2020, before the current crisis. I extend my deepest sympathy to those who are sick, bereaved, unemployed or negatively affected in anyway by the current crisis.

Fergus Sheil is originally from Clontarf in the north of Dublin. He is the Artistic Director of Irish National Opera, a company which he founded in 2017. I’ve known Fergus for a good few years now. We’ve performed plenty of concerts and operas together where I’ve been playing the trumpet and he has been conducting.

Whilst working with Fergus on one of his productions a few months back, I asked him if he might be interested in featuring in one of my blogs and I was delighted when he accepted.

He agreed to meet me at the Irish National Opera offices on 16 January 2020, and after a nice cup of tea we got chatting:

How old were you when you took up music, Fergus?

I don’t really remember starting, but I had lessons with my dad at first. He was a piano player. I’m from a big family – there were seven of us and we all played instruments. Everyone played piano at the beginning. I went to the College of Music on Chatham Row, which is now known as the TU Dublin Conservatoire. I studied piano there first, then violin, before switching to viola. I kept the piano and viola going through most of my teens and my 20s. I was in the National Youth Orchestra and played a lot in string quartets. I think I was 17 when I went to Trinity College in Dublin, where I sang in choirs as well as playing. It was the first time, I’d never sung in choirs before. I think it’s funny that I work in an opera company now but I never really had an opera background, although I did take singing lessons when I was in college, just to try and understand it a bit more.

Was your father the main figure in your musical youth?

In a sense, although it was my mother who brought us to most of the lessons and orchestra practices so she made it all happen. But my father was and still is very devoted to the piano and is at his happiest when he is playing. If I think about the house at home when we were all children, the memories all have Beethoven piano sonatas going on in the background.

What made you want to take up your chosen instruments?

I think the piano was something that just happened. It was my mum who thought we should all play an orchestral instrument. I can’t remember how it was decided that I would play the violin, but I just enrolled for lessons in the College of Music. Pretty soon after I started, I joined the Dublin Youth Orchestra. It was the early 1980s. I was there at the first rehearsal of the orchestra, and I now conduct it, which is nice! That’s nearly 40 years ago, I suppose. As soon as I started playing in orchestras, I really loved it. I found it much more exciting than playing the piano. Just that idea of playing with so many people.

Did your musical ability come to you naturally or did you have to work hard at it?

I was never a prodigy. I was never going to be an amazing instrumentalist, although I did work hard at it. I think early on, when I was about 15 or 16, I got this idea that I wanted to conduct, so that was really my focus. I got an opportunity to do a bit of a rehearsal with the Dublin Youth Orchestra once, I remember we were doing Wanger’s ‘Die Meistersinger’ Overture. It was probably an easy arrangement of it but it just sounded amazing. That sense of standing in front of a big group of people, from then, that’s what occupied me. I worked at that as my primary goal afterwards.

Picture courtesy of Fergus Sheil

Who were your teachers?

On the viola, I studied with Seamus O’Grady, who at the time was the principal viola in the National Symphony Orchestra (now the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland). He was great, he was really technical and analytical and I learned so much from him about music.

I studied conducting later, after I’d finished college in my early 20s, with a teacher called Léon Barzin, who lived in Paris. He was Belgian by birth and grew up mostly in America, where he was a really major conducting teacher for most of his life, and then he retired to Paris. I went over to him in Paris three or four times a year for three or four days at a time. He was about 92 or 93 when I started with him and I went to him for four years, so he was very old in all that period. He was a friend of Arturo Toscanini and he’d worked with Furtwängler.

Barzin was incredibly analytical about technique in terms of equating the physical gesture to the music effects that you want to achieve. He focused on the way you stand while you conduct, whether you stand forward or backward, and all the differences in posture, and linking things together, so if you want to demonstrate staccato this is what you need to do, or if there’s legato, or if there’s a slur. He was so analytical.

Did the two of you have a specific repertoire?

I didn’t do any opera with him, it was all symphonic. I’d bring a huge bundle of scores with me, a big case full, and the next time I saw him I’d bring more.

I remember spending about two hours working on eight bars of Mendelssohn’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ overture, and he wasn’t happy with how I was doing it. He kept driving me and driving me and driving me. You know, it was really tough. He was never abusive, but he was very demanding, very tough, very old school, there wasn’t very much patting you on the back telling you ‘You are doing great job’. He would never say ‘Well done’ or ‘That was good’, nothing like that ever, but I realised after a while, the fact that he was spending this much time and effort with me was his way of saying ‘I think you are doing okay,’ because he didn’t have to do it, he was doing it more as a hobby at this stage. He was a very inspiring person.

We’d have a very demanding two or three hour lesson and then we’d sit down for lunch. He was married to a very wealthy woman who was part of a big American family. They lived in this beautiful house in the centre of Paris, with its own garden with butlers and servants. Lunch would be served up in a very formal setting in the dining room with the table set. I’d have lunch with him and he’d talk about Bartok or Stravinsky or Picasso or other people he knew. He’d played chamber music with Einstein. It was like a history book.

He was born in 1900 and he lived to be 98. I would probably have seen him last when he was 97. I remember I was doing my first concert with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, it was a lunchtime concert in 1999. I invited him and he said he would come. But then he died, sadly, before it. That would have been nice for him to come all the way.

Which of your concerts stands out as being particularly special?

The first concert I conducted in the National Concert Hall was when I was 21. It was an orchestra called Rükert Orchestra, which was an offshoot of the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland, and it was made up of a group of us who were in the National Youth Orchestra who got together. It was quite a good student orchestra, but self-governed, as it were. We did Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. It was pretty electric, and it got a great review. There was a sense of buzz, and it was a kind of breakthrough moment.

When I was at Trinity, I started the orchestra there. That was where I got my first good conducting experience. I did that for two years, conducting a lot of concerts. That orchestra is still going now, which is really exciting. It has always been conducted by students, so it’s a great place for young conductors to cut their teeth and learn a little bit of the trade.

What does your average day look like?

There’s no such thing as an average day! A lot of my time now is spent organising and producing operas. As artistic director I’m planning, casting, budgeting. I spend a lot of time going to hear selecting operas, booking venues. I’m working on programming for 2021, 2022 and 2023 at the moment.

In the second half of this year I’m doing a lot more conducting. I’m conducting two different productions for the company, one small scale touring production and one large scale, in the Gaiety theatre in Dublin. A lot of my time then will be in the rehearsal room, so I have to make sure I use the first half of the year to get all the organisation done, so I can have a bit of head space in the second half of the year to do the conducting.

Picture courtesy of Fergus Sheil

Do you find that your conducting performances tend to be on one side of the year?

Not by design, but yes, it often happens that way. I like the fact that we use a number of conductors so there’s always guest conductors coming in. I’ll be one of the conductors, so there’ll be particular periods when I’m really busy. They tend to be really intense. If we do a show like Rossini’s ‘La Cenerentola’, which you were in, that’ll take six weeks of all day every day in a rehearsal room. That’s six weeks where it’s very hard to keep on top of emails and all of the admin stuff that needs to happen. I get home and have something to eat, then I find at 8 o’clock in the evening I’m opening the computer trying to catch up. That becomes very intense if it’s that way every day for six weeks. But that’s just the way it has to be! So if the performances are in the other half of the year then it’s a little bit easier to manage.

What other ensembles or orchestras have you conducted?

I’ve worked with all the Irish orchestras: both RTÉ orchestras (Concert and Symphony), the Ulster Orchestra, the Irish Chamber Orchestra, and all the opera companies – Irish National Opera, Northern Ireland Opera (which used to be the OTC, the Opera Theatre Company) and Opera Ireland. I’ve also conducted the Scottish Opera, Welsh National Opera and a few of the UK orchestras. I’ve done gigs with Northern Sinfonia, and a lot of freelance orchestras.

I love working with different orchestras. When you conduct established groups like the RTÉ orchestras, you get a terrific level of expertise and ensemble skill that has been developed over years and years. Freelance orchestras on the other hand can also achieve terrific results. I find here that players are happy to take musical risks and rise immediately to any challenges. It can be unpredictable and invigorating! In the freelance world, a lot of the people who have played in those orchestras are people with whom I have collaborated with for years. You build relationships, even if the orchestra isn’t exactly the same from one project to the next, so I really enjoy that.

So when was the idea to first start Irish National Opera first conceived?

I guess it was an idea that was at the back of my mind for a long time. I spent four years working with Scottish Opera when I lived in Glasgow, that was from 1998­–2002. I moved back to Ireland in 2002, which coincided with the birth of my first daughter, because we wanted to base ourselves back here. Having had the experience of working with a full time, all-year round, very professional opera company in the UK, I guess I could see that there was a huge amount of potential here in Ireland that I didn’t think was being fulfilled at the time.

There were opera companies at the time working here, but I felt that the state government hadn’t invested enough in the opera sector. There was a huge amount of potential. I thought, if I had the opportunity to start afresh, as it were, with a clean slate for opera in Ireland, what would that look like? What would that feel like? For many years I’d had that thought, so when circumstances changed around me that gave me the opportunity to put it into practice.

Opera Ireland closed down in 2010, so there was a gap in the market. Nobody was providing full scale, fully produced opera. We started Wide Open Opera and I was one of the people who managed to get some grants from the Arts Council to put on some big projects.

We were putting on roughly one project a year with Wide Open Opera. That was great and it allowed me to dip my toe into the water. A few years later, I was appointed as artistic director of Opera Theatre Company, and always in my mind I had the idea that this was going to lead to something bigger for opera in Ireland. Years later, around 2017, the Arts Council of Ireland advertised for a new opera company. By that point, I’d ticked an awful lot of the boxes on the list. I’d done big scale opera, I’d done demanding repertoire like Tristan and Isolde, I’d done popular repertoire like The Barber of Seville, I’d done new opera, we’d brought new opera internationally to the Edinburgh Festival, to London, New York, I’d done touring operas with OTC, so I had a lot of the ducks in a row. We were able to put together a convincing proposition to the Arts Council. It was a long process that took years and years of work, and business plans. We had to tender for it and go through an international panel, and eventually we won the contract to put the company together in 2017, and began operations from 2018. The rest is history. It’s amazing to have an idea and then for it to come true.

Where would you like to go next?

We are doing about five or six productions a year, which is great, but that’s a tiny amount by comparison with other national opera companies. We’re big in Ireland but actually we are still quite small by international standards. And we tour right around the country, but there’s so many venues that we don’t tour to and they’re always asking us, ‘When are you coming?’ So I think there’s a huge amount more we can do to increase the international visibility of Ireland’s opera. It would be great if once a year we could have a significant Irish opera going somewhere internationally. Also, I think there’s a huge amount of people in Ireland who don’t go to opera, so we’ve a big ambition around education and outreach. We’re trying to convince people to give it a try by putting on programmes with broad appeal, such as Hansel and Gretel.

Have you ever produced an opera in any other unusual venues?

We did a really interesting project in the crypt in Christchurch Cathedral. It was a new opera, This Hostel Life by Evangelia Rigaki (music) and Melatu Uche Okorie (text). There were three or four different performances happening at the same time in different locations, and the audience could arrive and leave whenever they liked and wander around from place to place.

We’ve won an EU grant to develop virtual reality operas. They’ll be short operas, 10 minutes or so, and you’ll be able to watch on a headset. We’re going to tour a group of headsets around the country so people in any location can put it on and have a 10-minute experience of opera.

Are there any recordings or live performances of opera that have steered you artistically towards your current position?

I think live operas that I’ve been to inspire me more than recordings. Live performances stand out in my mind most. For example about a year ago I was in Paris and I got to see Meyerbeer’s opera Les Huguenots and it was just mind-blowingly brilliant! Now I want to do this opera but it’s totally impractical. It’s about five hours long and it needs an enormous cast and chorus and orchestra. I went to see Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal in Bayreuth in the opera house there, and that was pretty inspiring.

Picture courtesy of Fergus Sheil

Which operatic moments do you like that feature brass?

The one that comes to mind is Parsifal by Wagner. It’s amazing brass-writing. The Ring Cycle as well, I would definitely love to do a Ring Cycle.

In Bayreuth, operas have long intervals where you can go for a meal, but they don’t have a bell to get you back after the interval. Instead they get the brass players to come out and play a fanfare from whatever opera you are watching from the balcony of the theatre. When I was there to see Parsifal, they played a big brass moment from that was a signal to the audience to go back to their seats. I’d love to try that.

Are there any challenges which you feel are unique to brass when it is used in an opera?

I was going to say, ‘Not falling asleep when they’re doing nothing for 35 minutes!’ But in all seriousness, in some operas where the brass has very little to do, you have to come in when you are completely cold or not warmed up after 35 or 40 minutes and you have to play perfectly without having blown a note in that time.

Another challenge I think is one of balance. You have to hear the singer, sometimes you can find that the brass players have to play so quietly that they lose their vitality. If you’ve got something that’s marked fortissimo, but the players have to play mezzo forte, the challenge is how to make it sound as exciting as the fortissimo would be but quieter? It’s having that excitement and drive but not drowning the singers. I think that’s the big challenge particularly for the brass.

What do you love doing in your spare time?

I enjoy playing the piano at home, and I still play the viola at home with my children. They play the violin and cello so there is a lot of string playing going on in the house.

I walk every day. I enjoy walking and listening to music or podcasts on my headphones, I really hate walking without my headphones. This morning my headphone battery ran out and I had to walk for half an hour with nothing.

I enjoy cooking, and I enjoy a little bit of gardening, I’ve a long term project of cutting up some trees that I have cut down, so if I’ve a spare day, I’ll go out with my chainsaw.

What would you like to do more of in the future?

It’s a funny thing that I’m now 49, but I think we’re at the starting line. I think there’s so much to do ahead. Since we started INO, I feel my career has really begun. I have so many different operas and projects in my head and different things I’d love to do. I will get a chance to do some of them, but will I get a chance to do all of them? I don’t know.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Fergus Sheil for agreeing to let me interview him.