Hearts and minds
INSIDE STORY: Monaghan composer MICHAEL GALLEN'S opera 'Elsewhere', staged around the historic Monaghan Asylum Soviet of 1919, has been nominated for a prestigious international prize. The multi-instrumentalist speaks to SEAMUS ENRIGHT about finding the "heart" in music and how, through his latest work, he hopes to change perceptions around mental health in Ireland...
“I’m like the Daniel Day Lewis of contemporary Irish music,” laughs Michael, recalling how he, as method actors would, went to what some might consider extraordinary lengths to better understand the lead character ‘Celine’ in his new opera ‘Elsewhere’.
Based on the story of the short-lived asylum coup at what is today better known as St Davnet’s Hospital, and its revolutionary leader Peadar O’Donnell, Michael reached out to the author of a book he picked through when researching the complexities of institutional mental health care.
It saw the 35-year-old travel to Switzerland to meet Dr Gabriel Bender at a hospital that uniquely uses creative arts as a means of reintegrating persons with mental illness back into social settings.
Michael stayed in an apartment just off one of the hospital’s main wards, gave workshops each day, but otherwise lived as the other residents there would.
He describes those two months circa 2017 as a “very rich experience”, albeit a “difficult” one at the times.
“I definitely still carry it with me,” reflects Michael, who feels the time spent there proved a seminal catalyst in how he began moving his opera concept forward.
“I had been trying to paint this character in how the audience was just looking at things from the outside. But what I found interesting with the people I became close to is, even before a conversation began, there was an unworded agreement you were prepared to expand the boundaries of your world to fit the logic of theirs.”
Imbued with new confidence, Michael shifted from an initial narrative of perception to one that now immerses the audience. “I needed it to be clear [Celine] was in her own world, but at the same time not diminish her intelligence in any way. That was very important to me,” he considers.
“The way we still think of psychiatric hospitals as places that are hidden away from modern society is something I’m very aware of. I love the idea of a society that is actually centred in that marginal space.”
Life has been a “whirlwind” since ‘Elsewhere’ was nominated for a Fedora earlier this year, the winners of which will be announced in June. Supported by Arts Council Ireland, Creative Monaghan, the Abbey Theatre, the Centre Culturel Irlandais Paris and the Opéra de Rouen Normandie, ‘Elsewhere’ is a co-production between French ensemble Miroirs Étendus and Gallen’s own company ‘Straymaker’, of which he is artistic director.
If chosen, Michael stands to win €75,000 - a potentially life-changing sum of money for an artist. Even more so now in these Covid constrained times.
Michael is perhaps best otherwise known for his musical machinations with solo-project Sudden Wells and his band Ana Gog, the latter of which played the former Café Sessions in Cavan Town. While he has composed work for other projects of a similar vein, ‘Elsewhere’ is his first full-length opera.
The Monaghan Asylum Soviet is also a story he believes has “momentum” all of its own.
“Anyone I’ve told I’m doing an opera based on the Monaghan Asylum Soviet, their eyes widen,” he exclaims.
Incredibly, the tale is one the Monaghan native himself only learned of in recent years.
He happened upon it when working on a 1916 centenary piece for Monaghan County Council which focused on migrating communities and how local demographics have changed over those 100-years. “I just came across a line on it...” remembers Michael.
It was enough. He was hooked.
The story of the Soviet, in hindsight, Michael describes as “glorious”.
Under threat from the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), staff at the Monaghan Lunatic Asylum barricaded the gates, raised the Red Flag and declared themselves an independent commune.
The event inspired the later and better-known Limerick Soviet.
“They got everything they demanded. It has a happy ending,” says Michael of the Monaghan incident.
He adds: “It’s an extraordinary thing coming from a region where you grow up thinking you’re at the margins of where big ideas are happening, and then to look into your own history and find this incredibly forward-thinking, totally non-sectarian group of people who come together, really rally behind Peadar O’Donnell, and embrace radical ideas in order to effect a positive change.”
Michael was equally stunned to uncover in his research the fullness of the legend of St Davnet, and where the saint from Sliabh Beagh is popularly identified with Saint Dympna, whose relics lie in the Belgian town of Gheel.
The town, around an hour’s drive from of Antwerp, stands as both an outlier and forbearer in the sphere of mental health care.
At Gheel’s charming town centre is church with medieval stone arches, a mecca for people hoping to cure their respective mental illnesses.
More extraordinary though is that people from Gheel regularly bring pilgrims into their homes and tend to holistically care for their needs.
“Throughout the whole history of mental health practice, it was seen as this anomaly, whereas now it’s seen as incredibly forward thinking,” remarks Michael of the ongoing benevolent practice.
“The people there also have this obsession with Monaghan, bizarrely, and really consider the county to be this sacred birthplace of mental health care.”
A hugely important factor for Michael in formulating his opera was ultimately finding a mode of language and type of singing that compassionately coalesced with what he was trying to portray.
Relying on the core ethos of Straymaker, which is rooted in the ambition of creating work of international appeal with almost recognisable parochial edge, Michael hosted two weeks of workshops near his home in Castleblayney in November 2019. There’s an immediate warmth in how Michael still speaks of that time.
Bringing them to the erstwhile stony grey soil of the Paris-trained composer’s youth inadvertently also became a clever way of levelling the playing field in a musical genre known for its divas and divos.
“It’s not widely known as the opera capital of the world... but we’re working to change that. One production at a time,” chuckles Michael. “I wanted those within the group to relate both to the place the story was coming from and the place that I come from.”
Michael had envisioned initially staging his opera in the old church within the Davnet’s site, but for bureaucratic red-tape to scupper that plan. It forced him to explore closer to home, eventually decamping the ‘Elsewhere’ team that includes performers from Miroirs Étendus to the Gothic surrounds of the acoustically spectacular St Maeldoid’s Church.
The group’s time in Monaghan culminated in a short performance of ‘Elsewhere’, enough for the Fedora judging panel to assess.
“Even though it’s not the finished product, and I’m still tweaking it day by day, the core of it was there, and enough to thankfully be considered for a nomination, which I’m very grateful for,” says Michael who has since left the bright lights of Dublin behind, for the star speckled ceiling of rural Mayo.
He moved just as the pandemic panic set in last year and, before that, had travelled extensively abroad. He admits never having settled in the country’s capital. “You always yearn for the freedom you get living more rurally, and how there that people become more integrated into your life. That heavily influences how I want to make my work. With [Anagog] it was me who wrote the songs, but it was how we all fed into the process as a collective.
“So with my first professional opportunities, writing stuff for orchestras, I was always frustrated by the idea that I come in with an idea written on paper and a performer mechanistically makes it happen, rather than hitting it with a bit of heart.”
Plans for première
As of right now, Michael and Straymaker are still on course to première ‘Elsewhere’ at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin come November.
The opera team also intend to travel back to Monaghan for three weeks of rehearsals in October.
“The plan is to open in the Abbey on November 15. Obviously all of that comes with the massive caveat that the vaccine roll-out works. But right now it’s really about getting the head down and ploughing on as best we can. The worst case scenario would be if it all can go ahead and we weren’t prepared.”
Widening the lens, Michael hopes to see a return for all artists to work in the autumn and winter. “There is still a huge evolution in how people see themselves, and think of their relationships with other artists and their locality. I find there is a much more cohesive arts community in Ireland now than there was before the pandemic.”
He muses how artists always seem to be “incredibly busy”, even when they’re not being paid for work. Lockdown therefore has had the effect of slowing things down, and allow some to even catch up on their own creative processes. “This is probably the first time in adult life for a lot of artists where they’ve had a period of time where they don’t have to be busy, and it has given the time for them to explore what they’re doing more. So in a way I think it has galvanised the community, and I for one look forward to seeing what will now emerge from this in the years to come.”