Coda: Listener of Note — Colm Tóibín
COLM TÓIBÍN: My Auntie Kathleen, who lived to be ninety-eight, was at the original meeting called by Tom Walsh to decide, would they or would they not set up an opera festival in Wexford. Much later on, my mother began to go to dress rehearsals. Some time in the '60s, she was in Wexford one night, just enjoying the celebrations, and in came a local politician who had been at the opera. My mother said, "Which one was tonight?" And he looked at her blankly and said he didn't know. Imagine getting the chance to go to the opera and not knowing what it was called! That, in our house, was held up as an example of pure ignorance. But then, in the late '60s, tickets for dress rehearsals came our way.
OPERA NEWS: What was the first performance in Wexford that took hold of you?
CT: I wrote a story about this in my book The Empty Family. I was at St. Peter's, and the agreement was that you had to go into a room every afternoon for a week and listen to recordings of the opera being done, and then you could go to the dress. It was The Pearl Fishers, which, if you're fifteen, is so easy and beautiful and filled with passion. That was the first professional opera I went to — Christiane Eda-Pierre, in 1971. Then there was a competition to write an essay on the opera. So I won that. I got a ticket for the following year, when they did Oberon.
ON: The Irish don't have as strong a reputation for supporting music as they do literature — yet it's a big part of life there.
CT: I think the best way to describe it is to imagine Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh breaking into song. Which is really hard — whereas James Joyce sang all the time. At every party [he wrote about], there is a description, and the songs range from ballads to light operas to serious operas. And Beckett is the one you don't think about. He lived in Schubert. And this would go right through the playwrights — look at the way song is used in Brian Friel, in Tom Murphy, in Sebastian Barry. Often, the heightened tone you can get in Irish writing can come from song. Song is all over Ulysses and the stories in Dubliners.
ON: Yes, song is crucial to "The Dead" — not only the song at the end but Aunt Julia singing Bellini's "Arrayed for the Bridal."
CT: That's how people in "The Dead" know each other — they're all involved in choral music and piano lessons.
ON: Which singers registered most strongly with you?
CT: The person who really made a big difference to me was Bernadette Greevy. Bernadette was the staple performer here in oratorio. I saw her doing the St. John Passion, in 1974, maybe, with Frank Patterson as the narrator. But then in something like 1979, I saw her doing Das Lied von der Erde at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. She was a great Mahler singer, and it's a pity we don't have that many.
ON: Why does Dublin have such difficulty maintaining a good opera company?
CT: I think part of the problem is that people's expectations have become much higher, so that you simply can't put on anything in Dublin now that isn't the best in the world. One of the real problems is that people now get to see the Met on the movie screen, and people's standards are very high. So unless you can say, 'This is going to be a musical experience which is as good as you get anywhere,' then you won't get people to spend the money.
ON: Last fall, when I was in Ireland for the Wexford Festival, I bought a copy of The Testament of Mary at the Wexford Book Centre. It seemed fitting, because of your growing up around Wexford.
CT: Oh, I'm glad you bought the book there. The Irish have a lovely way of ignoring all forms of dissidence. They assume that you're one of them, in one way or another.
ON: Are you able to listen to music as you write?
CT: No. But for this Mary book, I listened to the St. John Passion. It became my Sunday-morning music. I would listen to it in full, almost in secret.
I was trying to write what I think is the best thing I've done, which is the story "A Long Winter," in the book called Mothers and Sons. I realized I had something special, a special story. I took it very seriously and slowly, but what happened is that this song would come on. Slowly it began to seep into what I was writing. I checked it by looking at the track number, and it's a Schubert song called "Litany for All Souls' Day," and it is the most haunting song.
My most recent hobby — I know this sounds crazy — is that I banned the Brahms German Requiem. I made a rule that I cannot play it or listen to it until I finish the novel I'm working on. It's set in Wexford, and the woman wants to become part of this particular choir. And she fails the first audition, and then she gets into the choir the second time, and her voice has moved from soprano to mezzo, and now she's in her forties. The book ends on the whole idea that they're going to sing the German Requiem in Wexford. I began to hoard recordings of it, but I wouldn't open the packaging, because I didn't want to listen while I'm writing. The book is nearly finished. And I went to London last summer, and I took part in a free-for-all. Anyone could come in the morning and pay twenty-five pounds and get the sheet music, and I spent the day with the German Requiem, in a choir myself. I can't read music, and I did a lot of mouthing and miming. It was the most exciting thing. We put on a performance at four in the afternoon, with pianists and professional soloists. A friend of mine came and said he couldn't tell if I was singing or not — but I looked great!
ON: I was thrilled to get to the closing performance of The Testament of Mary on Broadway. And like everyone else, I'm mystified that Fiona Shaw was passed over for a Tony nomination.
CT: [Laughing] They can go to hell. I'm not going to their bloody awards. I'm going to sit home and sulk. I'm going to light a fire and begin my memoirs!
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