Review: Los Angeles Opera turns to the raw side of Dublin in a pair of new operas

Marc Kudisch sits on a chair and Kyle Bielfield lies in a bed in the L.A. Opera Off Grand production of "Trade."
Marc Kudisch and Kyle Bielfield in the L.A. Opera Off Grand production of “Trade,” presented in partnership with Beth Morrison Projects.
(Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

Song may penetrate its culture, yet Ireland has had a curious attachment to opera. James Joyce, for instance, was obsessed with it, whereas Samuel Beckett only agreed to write an enigmatic one-paragraph libretto for Morton Feldman’s “Neither” after being assured by the American composer that he also hated opera.

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Here, happily, comes a new generation with Emma O’Halloran, whose double-bill “Trade/Mary Motorhead” had its West Coast premiere Thursday night at REDCAT, part of this season’s collaboration between Los Angeles Opera and Beth Morrison Projects. The two one-act operas are not witty, but tough and gritty. Nor is O’Halloran, an experimental composer, steeped in opera.


In fact, she said that when she was enticed to write the first of the pair, “Mary Motorhead,” while finishing up a doctorate in composition at Princeton, she knew next to nothing of opera. Maybe she didn’t need to; it’s simply in her blood. Both operas are based on plays by her uncle Mark O’Halloran, a noted Irish actor, writer and composer. His niece happens to be a stunning singer and songwriter and, it turns out, opera composer.

Naomi Louisa O’Connell in a purple blazer in front of a purple jail cell door in the spotlight.
Soprano Naomi Louisa O’Connell plays a stellar Mary in “Mary Motorhead.”
(Craig T. Mathew / Mathew Imaging)

“Mary Motorhead,” which goes first, is a half-hour monologue for soprano. In the manner of Schoenberg’s “Erwartung” and Poulenc’s “La Voix Humaine,” in whose company it belongs (they would make a terrific triple bill), it features a woman on the brink. Mary is serving an 18-year sentence for murder. The opera is her story delivered from her cell.

She has led a hardscrabble life. Seedy small town. Difficult family life. Little money. Tedious job. Big attitude — uncaring on the surface, vulnerable underneath and in the furthest recesses of her being, a searcher. She falls for a man who seems as unknowable and appallingly charismatic as she is. She is driven to find out what is inside him — and her — the hard way.

O’Halloran has whittled down her uncle’s play to tight sentences, each word carrying meaning. The vocal style is lyrical yet speech-like — not exactly recitative, nor song, nor sung speech, but an amalgam of all three. It is a very modern update of very early opera, making her a kind of modern-day Monteverdi. Her use of a small instrumental ensemble and electronics is also Monteverdian in that it can turn on a dime into popular styles; here, beats and dance music.

A stellar Mary, soprano Naomi Louisa O’Connell stands in front of her cell door and enacts not just the seedy events of her existence, but the essence of that existence. Hers is a great operatic impersonation of the ecstatic driving force of an inner being, the ordinary becoming extraordinary. You may not want to care about Mary and her story of being driven to murder by circumstance, but O’Connell’s performance and O’Halloran’s score give you little choice when the search for selfhood and our very reason for being lead to its antithesis.


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“Trade” is an adept adaptation by the composer of another of her uncle’s plays. An Older Man and a Younger Man meet in a generic north Dublin hotel room for sex. The Older Man has a wife and two children. The Younger Man is a sex worker with a girlfriend and a newborn. The Older Man is in love with the Younger. The Younger couldn’t care less; he needs money for his baby. But in the end, neither knows what they want or who they are and why their lives are miserable. They are waiting for some kind of Godot and know full well there will not be one.

Twice the length of the half-hour “Mary Motorhead,” “Trade” isn’t so much about the sex trade as the reality trade. The Older Man, whose life has been a series of mess-ups, sees perhaps his own lost youth in the Younger, whom he finds irresistibly beautiful. But the Younger Man is already damaged goods, which adds to the hopeless fatality of the situation.

The Younger Man doesn’t say much, and only when asked. The Older Man does not want to say much either, but can’t help himself. Again, O’Halloran almost magically captures through strange instrumental sounds, seductive electronics, the occasional rhythmic patterns that sound like the heart (the pumping organ and the emotional one) in operation.

Baritone Marc Kudisch, best known for his work on Broadway (most recently “Girl From the North Country”), and tenor Kyle Bielfield (who was Boy Angel in Du Yun’s “Angel’s Bone”) are both gripping in their embodiment of character. They sing but sound like they speak. You hear the words and you hear what is behind the words. Few opera composers today make that seem so natural. Once again, Monteverdi comes to mind.

The production by Irish director Tom Creed is elegant and doesn’t allow anything that isn’t essential. The same goes for Jim Findlay’s straightforward set, which comes to life through Christopher Kuhl’s highly theatrical lighting. Irish conductor Elaine Kelly is a discovery, tracing the musical lines with exactitude. The electronic sound design by Alex Dowling distorts vocal climaxes once or twice in “Mary Motorhead,” but otherwise provides a microscopic amplification that furthers the journey into characters’ minds we wouldn’t otherwise enter.

Over much of the 21st century, Beth Morrison has helped redefine American opera through hits, misses and many messes. That is the nature of this beast. Rarely, if ever, does every element — score, text, singers, instrumentalists, conductor, director, sets, costumes, lighting, sound design — all come together. This is that rarity.


‘Trade/Mary Motorhead’

Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

Pricing: $49 and $74

Running time: 2 hours, including one intermission

Info:, (213) 972-8001