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Recueillement means ‘meditation’ or ‘self-communion’ in French. The title comes from the poem of the same name by 19th-century French poet, Charles Baudelaire. And the work as a whole is a very personal meditation on some of Baudelaire’s poetry.

I first encountered Baudelaire as a teenager, and I was really drawn in by the intimacy and visceral weight of his major poetic work, The Flowers of Evil. T.S Eliot called Baudelaire ‘the greatest exemplar of modern poetry in any language’.  When I first encountered them, the verses of The Flowers of Evil certainly felt as contemporary and candid as the 20th century poetry I really loved at that time such, as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski etc.

When I returned to The Flowers of Evil a few years ago, I discovered new things: There is a consistent formal perfection in the writing – these perfect classical French quatrains – even when Baudelaire writes about decaying carcasses, demonic possession or Satanism. But also this real sense of trying to apprehend something – to transcend, perhaps. Baudelaire lived most of his life in semi-poverty in mid-19th century Paris. And amidst all the darkness that is certainly a central element in his work – there is this yearning for light. The word ‘Beauty’ – with a capital B – recurs again and again in his poetry.

I started working on Recueillement whilst on a residency in the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris in Spring of 2011. I really immersed myself in Baudelaire’s poetry, tried to get a sense for how the French is constructed, and composed on the piano in the beautiful 19th-century chapel in the centre. I also spent a lot of time walking, particularly around the Île Saint-Louis, the oldest part of Paris where Baudelaire lived. There’s a very specific atmosphere that you get on the Île Saint-Louis around dusk, and this amazing light on the Seine. For me, it connects to that certain kind of repose that I used to experience singing evensong in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, when I was a boy.

The big struggle I had with the work was resisting the urge to make something like an essay – something where everything is rationally reasoned out. It’s very tempting to do that – especially if you’ve spent a lot of time in a university! So many of the early ideas I had for the work involved elaborate networks of relationships. I was making these intricate musical structures based on the syllabic structure of the poetry, and weaving in references to other settings of the same words – for example Debussy… But this Morton Feldman quote kept ringing in my head: “The operation was a success but the patient died.”

So I ended up trying to work totally intuitively. I tried to make the work step by step. And I actually started with the very simple, plaintive setting of the first stanza of Recueillement that Michelle O’Rourke sings at the start of the opera. I just tried to trust and go from there. All of the texts were, ultimately, chosen by feel – because they resonated deeply with me. And I was really lucky to have collaborators – Michelle, Silja Thomsen, Krishan Hukam – who were willing to feel their way too.

It’s an abstract work. There’s lots of ritual. This metaphor that I keep returning to really applies – the idea of turning an object ’round and ’round, viewing it from many angles, in changing light. My main touchstone was Morton Feldman and Samuel Beckett’s opera Neither, where it’s the careful juxtaposition of materials that creates feeling, rather than the linearity of traditional narrative. The structures of Javanese gamelan, and a sense of Baroque rhetoric are at the root of this work also.

It’s not a traditional opera. It’s not about telling a story with characters. For me, what makes ‘opera’ goes deeper than these surface elements. It’s about being immersed, about having a cinematic experience where music is the driving force – as opposed to dialogue.

Subtitle: An opera in three tableaux based on poetry by Charles Baudelaire for female singer, female dancer, projected film, cello and piano
Instrumentation: female voice, cello, piano
Duration: circa 41′
Date of composition: 2011-12
Commissioned by Ergodos for its production Two Operas.
First Performance: Garrett Sholdice, direction; Michelle O’Rourke, voice; Silja Thomsen, dance and choreography; Krishan Hukam, film; Ergodos Musicians (Kate Ellis, cello; Isabelle O’Connell, piano), Two Operas, Project Arts Centre, Dublin, 24 August 2012.

Score: Please email to obtain the latest score.