Retrospect Opera

Great British Operas On Record

Shamus O’Brien - The Recording
CDWe are delighted to announce that we are recording Charles Villiers Stanford’s most popular opera, Shamus O’Brien. This will be a joint project with BBC Radio 3, scheduled for recording in 2021 (dependent upon funding). The orchestra will be the BBC Concert Orchestra, and we are thrilled that the acclaimed conductor David Parry has agreed to direct it.

There is a great deal of interest in Stanford at the moment, especially with the centenary of his death approaching in 2024. Shamus O’Brien was by an Irish country mile Stanford’s most popular opera. This will be our first excursion into a distinctly Irish opera. Joseph O’Mara (1864–1927), the famous Irish opera singer who created the part of the opera’s villain, Mike Murphy, which he found “a strong acting part”, stated in an interview: “Dr Stanford is Irish, Mr Jessop, the author of the book, is Irish, the story is Irish, and what is still more to the point, the music of the piece is Irish in style and sentiment. I don’t think the lyric stage can show you so essentially Irish a piece of work” (The Era, 12 December 1896). For this reason, we are keen to put together an Irish cast who can do proper justice to the material. The cast have yet to be engaged, and we are enjoying ourselves a great deal searching for the very best in Irish talent.

Shamus O’Brien

Few composers take the step of withdrawing one of their own operas for political reasons, but this is exactly what Charles Villiers Stanford did in the case of Shamus O’Brien shortly before the First World War. The decision was all the more notable as Shamus was easily Stanford’s most successful opera: although a regular contributor to the genre (nine complete works, one left unfinished and at least one more mooted as a possible project), Stanford’s fortunes in this area were so highly chequered that in recent decades the most common response upon discovering the extent of his commitment to opera has been typically, ‘Really? I had no idea he wrote any at all’.

Based on a poem by fellow Anglo-Irishman Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and composed in 1895, Shamus O’Brien was Stanford's fifth completed opera and a new departure for him: having previously focused on the 'grand' style, Shamus is much closer to the opéra comique genre as rejuvenated by Bizet in Carmen, in which comedy, tragedy and a degree of melodrama are combined (although Shamus most certainly does not contain a femme fatale!). First performed in 1896, the opera proved popular, running for several weeks in the West End before going on an extensive tour in Britain and Ireland; it was also produced in the United States and Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland). Set against the backdrop of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, Shamus O’Brien presents the Irish as proud patriots who outwit the rather dim English soldiers charged with keeping order, although this simple plot is complicated by the betrayal of Shamus by Mike Murphy and the inter-communal romance between Irish ‘colleen’ Kitty O’Toole and Captain Trevor.

As the politics of Home Rule intensified in the 1910s, Stanford, an ardent Unionist, withdrew Shamus as he worried that it might foment Irish nationalism and anti-English sentiment; the ban
remained in place until 1924. The plot’s reliance on national stereotypes has made stage productions impractical in recent years, but the music, which contains abundant energy and variety, has a freshness and vivacity anyone familiar primarily with Stanford's church music will find striking. Although very much an opera ‘of its time’, Shamus O’Brien is one of Stanford's most striking and enjoyable works, showing a lightness of touch and sense of humour that make it thoroughly worthy of revival after many years of neglect.

© 2020 Paul Rodmell

Charles Villiers Stanford
Charles Stanford

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) was one of the leading musicians of his generation, and had a profound effect on the development and history of English music as a performer, conductor, composer, teacher and writer.

Born in Dublin into a musical family, Stanford attended Queen’s College Cambridge as an organ scholar. He subsequently studied composition in Germany, became organist at Trinity College Cambridge in 1873, and Conductor of the Cambridge University Musical Society in 1875. He was appointed Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music in London in 1883 (a position that he held for more than forty years) and Professor of Music at Cambridge in 1888. He subsequently held appointments as Conductor of the Bach Choir in London, the Leeds Philharmonic Society and the Leeds Festival.

Stanford was a prolific composer, completing seven symphonies, eight string quartets, nine operas, more than 300 songs, 30 large scale choral works and a large body of chamber music. He also composed a substantial number of works for the organ, as well as anthems and settings of the canticles for the Anglican Church.

Today Stanford is largely remembered for his songs and religious music as well as his influence on several generations of composition students at the Royal College of Music. These included Sir Arthur Bliss, Frank Bridge, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Rebecca Clarke, Malcolm Davidson, Ivor Gurney, Gustav Holst, Herbert Howells, Muriel Herbert, John Ireland, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Charles Wood. There has been a revival of interest in Stanford’s music over the past two decades and an increasing number of his works are now available in recordings.

With thanks to the Stanford Society

Sponsor A Recording of this Opera!
Help us revive this lovely opera. The cost of a recording is considerable, and you can help us - and contribute to promoting Britain’s musical heritage (not to mention providing employment for many first-class performers) - by sponsoring this project with any amount, large or small. Visit our Donations page, or click here to e-mail us with a specific sponsorship proposal.