“The Hunger,” Donnacha Dennehy’s new opera for Alarm Will Sound and Iarla O’Lionáird is based on diaries and personal accounts from the period of the Great Famine in Ireland (1845-52). A departure from conventions in which the ensemble is concealed by the orchestra pit, the work will integrate the players into the action and storytelling on stage.
Alarm Will Sound has a proven track record of dramatically adventurous work, having developed techniques and partnerships that extend its musicians’ skills to include singing, movement, and acting, all of which will be employed in the creation of this new opera. The result will be a new work that innovates the experience of opera as it dramatizes a significant historical subject.
The Great Famine was a time of major upheaval—at least one million people died, and another million emigrated—the historical significance of which is well accounted for. Less well developed are accounts of those who directly witnessed and suffered through it. At the heart of Dennehy’s “The Hunger” are personal, contemporaneous stories that open a new dimension on the tragedy of the famine.
The principal text will be Asenath Nicholson’s astonishing “Annals of the Famine in Ireland” that recounts in vivid detail the unfolding famine she directly experienced. Nicholson was a formidable and unique character. Born in Vermont in 1792, she founded a boarding house in the 1830s for the poor and homeless in New York City. There she noticed that the most desperate came from Ireland.
Eager to discover why, she left New York for Ireland to see for herself. She traveled the country, often on foot, to observe first-hand the devastating effects of the famine. Nicholson’s account is extraordinary because of her transgressive sympathy; she directly quotes from the peasants, and actually stayed in their cabins, something that no other commentator did.
Dotted throughout the opera will be actual recordings of ordinary people singing traditional Irish songs contrasting with personal accounts of contemporary economists such as Paul Krugman, addressing the complexity of governance vs. laissez-faire economic policy in the context of a situation where this ideological battle results in catastrophic results.
All those involved in “The Hunger” have outstanding records of achievement: Alarm Will Sound is internationally recognized for its innovative performances of contemporary music; O’Lionáird is considered a foremost interpreter of traditional Irish music; director Tom Creed is celebrated for bring a modern Irish perspective to his work; and Dennehy’s emergence as one of today’s best composers is assured by significant commissions from both sides of the Atlantic. In the final analysis, the joining of these forces promises success at the highest professional and artistic levels.
“The Hunger” will take advantage of Alarm Will Sound’s uniquely extended performance skills and visionary collaborators to create an unconventional operatic experience. It promises to find an audience looking for adventurous and meaningful artistic experience on a topic rich with meaning.