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The greatest Irish short story ever written is getting a makeover

It’s gone opera.

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Ruth McGill, Rory Musgrave and Clare Barrett in The Dead Source: Tom Swift

THE DEAD IS a timeless story of love and loss, and it’s one of Ireland’s greatest short stories.

James Joyce’s tale is the closing story in his 1914 collection Dubliners. It follows Gabriel Conroy one December evening, as he and his wife Gretta visit the Misses Kate and Julia Morkan – his elderly aunts – for their annual party.

It’s the Feast of the Epiphany, and Conroy will soon have a devastating epiphany of his own. Dubliners’ stories all contain an epiphany – some delightful, some not so. In closing the book with this story, Joyce chose perhaps the most poignant of them all (and if you’re anything like this writer, you’ll shed a few tears every time you read it).

Now the story is being given a new twist on stage, with an operatic performance of The Dead taking place from tonight (9 December) to 12 December at the Project Arts Theatre in Dublin.

The-Dead-Opera-at-Project-Arts-Centre-Image-4

“A lot of people have a big place in their heart for it”

The show is presented by the Performance Corporation and Breda Cashe, with music by composer Ellen Cranitch, libretto by Tom Swift, direction by Jo Mangan, design by Niamh Lunny, with Clare Barrett, Lisa Lambe, Ruth McGill and Rory Musgrave making up the cast.

Creating a musical version of The Dead was on Cranitch’s radar for years, and when it came out of copyright she knew it was the right time. “The librettist Tom Swift and myself met a few years ago and became good friends,” she told TheJournal.ie. “We thought, wouldn’t it be nice to do a project together?”

They decided to make a small chamber opera out of the story, but because “it is so well-loved and so well-known we were a little bit nervous about it”.

“A lot of people have a big place in their heart for it,” said Cranitch. “It’s the best short story ever written.”

Though they were nervous taking it on, after many reads of the story over cups of coffee, the project took off. What Cranitch and Swift discovered was that the text “had a great musicality contained in it”, as well as many musical references.

Here’s a taste of what you can expect:


Source: The Dead Opera/SoundCloud

(Can’t see the Soundcloud link? Click here)

That gave them great scope for developing the musical end of things. Though there is a fairly wide cast of characters, they whittled them down.

Of the peripheral characters, Cranitch said “a lot of them had a little poignancy to them, or a back story that was utterly charming”, so they amalgamated some of those together.

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One snowy evening

Lisa-Lambe-&-Rory-Musgrave-in-The-Dead---A-new-opera-based-on-James-Joyce's-story Source: Tom Swift

To evoke both the home and the snowy streets that surround the Morkens’ home, the set features minimal lighting and has a monochromatic pallette.

Every word sung in this adaptation was written by Joyce, and the characters’ stories helped to dictate what style their lines are sung in. Mrs Ivors’ prickly attitude pointed them towards more rhythmic music, for example.

The performance isn’t just for opera fans, said Cranitch. ”I’d be delighted if people who are a little bit nervous of the word ‘opera’ came along,” she said.

It’s not a challenging listen. It’s very accessible, it’s a very warm story. The music is tonal; it’s not too scary.

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“Joyce and the whole short story form is such a form that is beloved of Irish people,” said Cranitch. “He is timeless, he is universal – the messages contained in the story are timeless and universal.”

Working on this project brought a new appreciation of the story for her.

For me [The Dead] really has come alive and the characters have come alive… the poignancy and depth of it, the moments of great humour. The sorrow, all the things that might have been.

The Dead runs at the Project Arts Theatre from 9 – 12 December, tickets €22/€18. For more details, visit the Project Arts Theatre website.

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