The Hunger

Someone once told me that you can tell how fantastic a music festival is if the number of bands you wished you could have seen is equally as long as the groups you did get to see. This rule certainly applies to the BAM Next Wave Festival. The list of what I wish I could see this season is long — Remains by John Jasperse and Neither by Shen Wei Dance Arts to name but a very few — and yet what I have seen has been worth it. This evening, I attended the NY premiere of an opera called The Hunger. I am a fan of both new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound (I caught them at BAM in 2014 playing the music of John Adams) and composer Donnacha Dennehy, so I knew I was in for an evening of terrific music. What I didn’t anticipate was how little I really knew about the Great Famine in Ireland (from 1845-52) which is the basis for the opera. The libretto contains passages from the first-person account of Asenath Nicholson (beautifully sung by soprano, Katherine Manley) — an American who traveled all over Ireland, living and working with the poor during the famine. It is frankly heart-breaking. Irish folk singer Iarla Ó Lionàird sang the laments of the impoverished — his plaintive voice deeply touching. Enlightening me about how such a tragedy could ever have happened in the first place were snippets of video interviews with such scholars as Noam Chomsky and Paul Krugman. The staging was clever: the effect of the Irish countryside was achieved, while ingeniously sharing the stage with the musicians, video monitors and subtitles. The opera was extremely well-done, and I was sad to see so many empty seats in the opera house — but this sort of performance is not for everyone. (The man who was nodding off to my left probably agrees!)

The Hunger at Brooklyn Academy of Music on Friday, September 30, 2016
The Hunger at Brooklyn Academy of Music on Friday, September 30, 2016

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